Flipping coins with RETURNAL

RETURNAL was touted as one of PlayStation 5’s premier AAA exclusive games, and it plays the part well. An incessantly beautiful game, RETURNAL’s vibe is a nightmare alien forest strewn with stone relics of an ancient society, INDIANA JONES raids AVATAR’s Pandora. A novel location in part because lush is a hard adjective for rendering engineers. There are no load times. The sound track, sometimes atonal and sometimes foreboding but always moody, is a single continuous stream of sound that ebbs and flows as you play. The hallmark of AAA is presentation, visual complexity, and polish, and RETURNAL has all three in spades.

RETURNAL opens with a shuttle crash, a stranded astronaut, and a mysterious signal. Space adventurers following mysterious signals to their doom is perhaps a trite device these days, but RETURNAL tries to mix it up by pairing it with a time loop (another weary device, albeit one I enjoy) and the suggestion that perhaps this is all a metaphor for the protagonist’s past trauma (thanks for everything, SILENT HILL 2). Game developers are absolutely head over heels for GROUNDHOG DAY time loops because they map to the attempt – die – restart – attempt loop that makes up so much of the foundation of modern video game architecture. Now, for my money, VIRTUE’S LAST REWARD and SHRAPNEL are amongst the most interesting explorations of the time loop device, but I had mixed feelings about DEATHLOOP, and I couldn’t make it through 12 MINUTES.

Still, RETURNAL’s time-loop-personal-trauma-aliens combo works pretty well, and anyway, narrative isn’t the focus here. The story frame is a necessity because RETURNAL is designed around that siren song of game programming, procedural level generation. “The maps change every time you play,” one review writes, “ensuring you never have the same experience twice.” Death results in the return to your ship, the loss of items and upgrades, and another chance to tackle the alien planet. But wait–the forest has changed! Its layout has been altered, you have to stay on your toes. You can practically see the reviewer trembling at his keyboard at the prospect of an infinite game, a title for which your $60 would offer not 10, not 20, not even 100 hours of game play, but unlimited value. For an industry that insists on tying game length to point-of-sale cost, this must seem like a 10/10 moment, a dream come true, highly recommended.

In 2012, after we built WIND-UP KNIGHT and it suddenly became the most popular game of all of our careers, I wrote an experimental system to make “infinite” platformer levels. The idea was to build a collection of small level segments, little hallways with a single trap or a single enemy, and let the code click them together like Legos in a mostly-random way. In a time when infinite runners were gaining popularity, WIND-UP KNIGHT had 52 hand-authored levels and a couple of “knightmare” boss levels, and then it ended. Maybe, we thought, we should take a look at what games like TEMPLE RUN and SUBWAY SURFERS were doing and make a variant that just went on forever. The result of my experimental pass at this idea was surprisingly robust, and we saw that with enough parts to draw from, we could make the moment-to-moment gameplay suitably dynamic. But ultimately we abandoned the idea because after you’ve seen all the segments, the game became highly repetitive. Random ordering of little slices of challenge was not enough to provoke thought or surprise, and the visual monotony got old fast. It became just a skill challenge, and a fairly boring one at that. So we threw it out.

RETURNAL is based on this same basic idea, albeit one with a lot more complexity than our simple experiments. The map changes every run, but only as a reordering of pre-made rooms, which were clearly designed by hand. It’s a pragmatic antidote to the typically dreary levels that attempts at “fully procedural level design” often produce. Human authorship, at least of moment-to-moment game play elements, seems critical to ensuring this kind of game is actually fun. Computers are notoriously bad at fun.

The design approach here is first and foremost pragmatic, because RETURNAL is a AAA game that was made by a relatively tiny team on what is probably an incredibly conservative budget compared to other titles in that class. The credits list just over 100 people in the core team, including all developers, QA, voice acting, and production. Activision’s CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 2 remake from 2022 has almost as many voice actors credited as RETURNAL’s developer Housemarque has staff. AAA quality is unbelievably expensive to hit, a death spiral arms race of production cost and fidelity promises, and only a handful of publishers in the world can afford to build at that scale. RETURNAL’s approach constrains the production cost to the unique rooms that must be hand-authored, but offers a longer total experience (another reminder of our collective decision to link play duration to value) by randomly stitching them together. It is a way to make AAA fidelity possible for a small team to produce without settling for less than ten hours of hash-tag-content.

But the trick doesn’t work unless that attempt – die – restart – attempt loop is repeatedly iterated. The value of this approach cannot be adequately extracted unless you actually leverage each individual room as many times as possible. And so the game must be hard, and unforgiving, and punishing so that the player will die and the loop will happen and the map will be rejiggered and the experience will change and the play time extended and the value for a $60 AAA video game will be realized.

I am not the type of person that blames “capitalism” for every human failing, but I do think that RETURNAL misses its mark because it must prioritize this idea of Minimum Viable AAA Video Game over being balanced for fun. The first 20 or 30 runs were fun and felt fresh. RETURNAL wants to be not just a roguelike, but a metroidvania as well, and just as I was starting to get bored the game gave me a permanent power-up that changed the way I can address the map. That extended my enjoyment for another five or ten runs, but after that I began to grow tired of the repetition. The same handful of rooms repeated over and over, the same two or three enemy types dispatched ad infinium (a stat that the game helpfully tracks: over 1300 tentacle dogs killed to date!), and the brutal reality that chances for success on any given run mostly come down to coin flips. Will the random number generator give me rooms with health packs or not? Will I virtually coin flip my way to a reasonable weapon or be stuck for an hour with the default pistol? Will I collect enough glowies to power up my shit or struggle through the run with base stats? After fifty or sixty runs of this, with no narrative progression for hours and no new situation to deal with, I start to wish this was a five hour linear title that could have been tuned for fun instead of leaving it up to a virtual game of three-card monty.

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