I don’t like to use the phrase “kids these days.” For one, I’m not actually old enough to use it, and two, generational feuds are nonsense. They’re perpetuated by short memories and a lack of empathy. The sooner we can do away with such silly tribalism and see past our own experiences, the sooner we can move towards an equitable world.
But kids these days don’t know what it was like to play video games in the 80s and 90s.
Today, we are awash in pixelated throwbacks that purport to be part of the “Masocore” genre, games that prey on gamers’ masochistic desires for difficulty spikes, split-second timing, and memorization. Games like Super Meat Boy, Braid, and FTL build trial-and-error into their systems while wrapping themselves in nostalgia-inducing 16-bit graphics. Built by game designers who grew up on the early wave of console and PC games starting in the mid-80s, they’re excellent, challenging, and (most importantly) well-designed. Were you to play these games, you might think that the original material they harken back to would have the same sadomasochistic thrill of outwitting a brilliantly-designed trap created only to inflict pain.
You would be wrong.
For every expertly designed Contra, there is a Battletoads, Chakan, Batman Forever. Even Aladdin, very well designed with crisp platforming controls, is much harder than a game of that genre should ever be. Super Ghouls and Ghosts is an incredible game that might also be harder than any Masocore game Bennet Foddy has ever dreamt about. These were the games I tackled as a child. I almost never beat them.
Sure, I finished Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, Vectorman, Earthworm Jim and a few others on my own. But those games expected you to beat them. They weren’t arcade games ported to the Sega with difficulty spikes designed to get kids to dump more quarters into machines. Most games, I felt, were impossible for a seven-year-old to beat.
This is where my father came in.
I remember vividly one night getting close to the end of Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi, but never being able to beat the “Union Lizard” level. It was time to go to bed, so my dad took over the controls. The next morning, he woke me up and brought me into the living room.
He had paused the game on the final boss of the game, at the moment of his defeat, so we could watch the ending together. It was a tracking image of New York with the silhouette of the Shinobi and his white wolf at his side.
It was a shit ending.
But it didn’t matter. We watched it together, and that’s what mattered. But it also set a precedent.
For years I would need “daddy’s” help, literally and metaphorically. I would use cheat codes and drop games down to their easiest settings when things got too tricky. I vividly remember beating a major boss in Metal Gear Solid V, then watching a pivotal cut scene while wearing a chicken hat, the price you pay for having dropped down the difficulty during a fight. When the fervor over Dark Souls was building and I desperately wanted to play it, I asked my dad, who had already bought it, what his thoughts were:
“Too hard and confusing.”
I put off playing the game. I trusted the man’s judgment when it came to hard games. After all, he’d beaten Shadow Dancer: Secret of the Shinobi on Sega Genesis.
So like I had for most of my gaming life, I avoided the really hard games. Even with games of moderate difficultly, I’d sometimes select the “easy” mode. I can’t tell you how many seasons of Pro Evo I’ve played against “Beginner” teams. After a while, I just assumed that was the role games played in my life. Breezy, ineffectual experiences to have after a long day’s work.
All of that changed when I played Returnal.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. My dad was lucky enough to snag a PS5 (PS member privileges) and he loves third-person shooters. It seemed like an easy buy.
He didn’t like it. “Too hard and confusing.”
So I figured that someone should get value out of a $60 purchase. I played a “run,” which, in the game is as far as you get before dying. And then I played another one. By the end of the night I played so many runs that my contact lenses popped out my eyes because they got so dry.
You play Returnal as Selene, an astronaut with the ASTRA corporation on an unknown mission who crash lands on a planet called Atropos seeking a signal called the “White Shadow”, which she somehow recognizes. Atropos is a world filled with the ruins of what appears to be an ancient alien society. She fights her way through different environments with enemies that materialize out of thin air while traversing different, increasingly more dangerous biomes, to get closer to the signal.
Like other rougelikes, you lose all your progress and have to start back at the beginning next to your crashed ship every time you die. Unlike other rougelikes, you also lose all character progression and experience. There are a few permanent items, like ether, and tools that allow you to access other biomes. Other than that, you start off with nothing, over and over. There are no Cthonic Keys or Nectars like in Hades to make your next run a little easier.
Returnal is a third-person version of a “bullet-hell” game where you have to dodge projectiles. I spammed the shoot button so hard that more than a dozen times I had to pause the game to flex my hand. I beat the game with my arm so cramped I had to stretch it for a few minutes before I watched the ending.
You are told nothing about the game mechanics. I had to figure out on my own that you can press a shoulder button while your weapon is reloading to make it reload faster and with an additional damage charge. I had to figure out via one of the game’s puzzles that your dash makes you temporarily invincible, so you can dash through projectiles of a certain color.
There are chests in this game affected with “malignancy.” You can use precious ether you find in the world to cleanse them, or risk opening the chest and having your suit infected with a negative trait (losing health every time you fall, for example) that you have to complete a challenge in order to remove. You quickly learn to avoid these chests. In fact, you learn that much of what would normally aid you in another game (chests, bonus stages) can often mean your death in the form of an enemy ambush.
You are given no quarter and no place to hide.
The planet of Atropos is itself so unforgiving, so deeply lonely, you feel Selene’s isolation. Whatever alien intelligence that created this world is long gone. The broken down temples and cityscapes they once inhabited are dead, and only the monstrosities they birthed remain.
I could talk more about the game mechanics. How the shooting feels fluid and the haptic feedback and sounds from the PS5 controller immerses you further. How seamless the transitions are from biome to biome. How beautiful even the most horrifying creature is allowed to look.
But that’s not the sum total of the game.
Robert Bresson described his filmmaking process as emptying a pond to get the fish. Returnal is the same.
In Resident Evil you are given safe rooms where you can save your progress. In Hades, you have multiple areas where you can shop or talk to key NPCs. Even Dark Souls has the bonfires. The only safe place in Returnal is the last place you want to be. The very beginning.
Guides didn’t help me. YouTube tip videos didn’t help me. There are no cheat codes, there are no difficulty settings. I was emptied of every excuse I had ever allowed myself. So I had to do the dreaded thing that has become a gaming Redditors stock response.
I “got gud.”
At a certain point I was able to beat every boss in one attempt. I took on the riskier sections in biomes. I got so stocked up on ether that I had to spend it superfluously. During one boss fight, I was not struck a single time. I got very “gud” indeed.
You are given no other choice. You approach Returnal on its terms, not on your own. It stripped away every handhold and guardrail that I had leaned in games prior. But I didn’t put the game down, because I loved it.
I loved the incredible shooting mechanics, the constant feeling of being near death in any encounter, the last second dash, the desolation of Atropos, the chaos onscreen as hundreds of projectiles rush towards you. And I loved Selene.
There is a house that should not be on Atropos that keeps appearing. After certain periods of progression you can enter this house. Throughout the entire game you are on the edge of your seat trying to survive your next alien encounter on an empty world.
Yet the house scenes are by far the scariest.
I will not spoil what happens in them. But they haunt you as they haunt Selene. They make you want to untangle the mysteries of her life that she may have hidden, even from herself.
There is a moment in this game that I will not describe, but which took my breath away. It was so logical I could not believe I had never seen it before. It will push you to go farther in your runs, to get closer to the end of this nightmare. For Selene’s sake.
You will pass your own corpse from previous runs and from thousands of other runs to a point where the whole planet becomes Selene’s graveyard. You find recordings from other Selenes. You hear the slightly crazed tone they start to take on and you don’t want that to happen to your Selene. You want this run to be the last. Returnal makes you love her, so that it hurts more when she dies.
While its overall reception has been very positive, there is a split in the gaming community over Returnal. Jason Schreier on the Triple Click podcast said that it needed more time to cook, that similar rougelikes go through almost a year of beta and community testing before a final product comes out. The Sacred Symbols podcast was similarly split, having had a few of their runs prematurely end because of a software update. They might be right.
They likely came to this game having played Dark Souls, or other souls-like games that have reached reverential status. It didn’t help that a game like Hades came at around the same time and was so play tested and accessible.
There are certain weapons that are imbalanced and work better than others for bosses (do yourself a favor and just use the rotgland lobber for the biome 3 boss). Because the original version of the game allowed no mid-point saves whatsoever, if your PS5 were to shut down for whatever reason, hours of progress could be lost. I have not had my game crash or close due to a system update. I can only imagine the frustration.
But in my nearly 30-hour playthrough, I was never once frustrated. Not even after a three-hour run took me further than I had ever gotten, with an ideal weapon load out, only to be killed by a boss with one hit of life remaining. I didn’t chuck my controller even then. I took a deep breath, paced around the room, and got right back into Atropos.
Returnal does not present itself as anything other than itself. It tells you its challenge right from the beginning. Its developer, Housemarque, gives its updates to user complaints like a firm but fair parent telling a child to work out their own problems. (As you can probably tell at this point, this article’s theme is “parenthood.”)
Many new players may have come to it after a recent update that allows mid-point saves. If that gives Returnal a larger audience and allows Housemarque to make more games of this scope, excellent.
But I did not need or want such as update. Once I become hooked on the drug of surmounting what seemed insurmountable, there was no going back.
I finished this game on my father’s PS5 over two different three-day weekends, four months apart. After that first weekend, when I flew back to California, I vowed to return and get Selene out of Atropos. When I returned to the game, my skills had waned. It felt like starting from scratch.
But I did it anyways. Just like Selene, I dusted myself off and tried again.
At the end of the game, right as the final boss was dying, I hit pause, and called my dad downstairs. We watched the ending together.
He hadn’t been playing, but he’d been following my progress, looking over my shoulder at times, not unlike when I first started playing games as a kid. He found it somewhat mesmerizing, if not upsetting, as to how intensely I needed to focus just to survive.
When I was finished and put down the controller, he let out a breath and nodded.
“That was a really hard game,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes it was.”
He smiled, patted me on the back, and went upstairs. In that moment, I felt a torch being passed. Through trial and error, the child had finally outstripped the parent.
If that isn’t a metaphor for Returnal, I don’t know what is.