Defining the actual meaning of the term “roguelike” has been a subject mired in debate for well over a decade. Roguelike games are typically associated with the style of gameplay that sees our digital protagonist fight their way through endless enemies, with the threat of permadeath lurking over their heads.
Elements such as resource management and randomized level generation are also taken into consideration, but defining a modern game as a pure roguelike has essentially become impossible. The creation of advanced gaming technology has allowed creators to implement unrelated genres and gameplay with the spirit of the classic roguelike. Returnal, 2021’s psychological sci-fi horror drama game infused with the roguelike, represents the latest evolution into what has become one of the most consistently ambitious and creative genres in the world of video games.
Housemarque’s horror thrill ride seemingly betrays the very essence of what we all think of roguelike or even roguelites upon first glance. Boasting next-generation graphics with a familiar set-up of a traditional third-shooter, Returnal is almost giddy in how it presents itself as the next big AAA franchise to grace our systems. The hostile and forever shifting alien world that traps our protagonist Selene in its slimy clutches is brimming with history due to the surprisingly immense and in-depth worldbuilding. There’s never a moment where the environment isn’t telling a fraction of a story from the world’s supposed history.
Roguelike games often dabble with worldbuilding, but complex narratives tend to take a backseat to the gameplay itself, with each run focused on having the player unlock new weapons to use and new paths to unfamiliar level setups. Roguelike games function as endurance tests for players, encouraging replays with permadeath and heavy trial-and-error. If the narrative isn’t strong or compelling, the gameplay is there to make up for it.
Returnal utilizes many of the same functions that your typical roguelike game has to offer. Selene, the scout forced to fight for her life after crash landing on the mysterious alien world of Atropos, loops back to the moment she wakes up from the crash whenever she perishes in battle. Her surroundings constantly shift, forever leaving her path of escape muddled and complicated with loads of grotesque creatures to greet and stop her. Different paths unlock different weapons, along with augments that provide a wide variety of passive abilities from increased weapon damage to morphing the currency of the world into health. Elements of the classic roguelike are still at the forefront of Returnal.
Where the game begins to veer off the beaten path of the roguelike is its cinematic story, which slowly unravels into a grim psychological horror character study. As Selene progresses further into the loop, she receives reoccurring visions of a mysterious astronaut linked to her past, even coming across an exact replica of her childhood home on the planet. The house itself can only be entered through obtaining the keys to it and subsequent runs will indicate its access through the porch lights being on.
As new areas are explored and bosses are defeated, the house will once again open to reveal more fragments of Selene’s past, in turn becoming an incentive to keep looping and progress further into the story. As with most roguelikes, a larger inventory of items, artifacts, and weapons are unlocked to freshen up future runs. But Returnal’s strategy to encourage replays extends beyond the roguelike genre with the type of story one would expect from a AAA game, linking together a stronger connection to Silent Hill 2 than with an Enter the Gungeon.
Returnal’s insistence of presenting this story as a genuinely complex character study helps it stand apart from the sea of indie roguelikes that came years before it. The mixture of scout logs from previous runs detailing Selene’s mental descent with her headstrong stubbornness in escaping creates a roguelike that manages to stay grounded enough in the real world. The realism doesn’t just stop at the stunning visuals inching us closer to the real world, though it certainly does its part in further pulling the game out of the constraints of what we expect from a roguelike.
The 2010s saw an emergence in popularity for roguelike games, becoming a staple for the indie scene throughout the decade. The roguelike lived as one of the gaming industry’s least well-kept secrets, as the consistent output of acclaimed games like the Risk of Rain series, Dead Cells, The Binding of Isaac, and Hades to name a few. The latter game in particular earned widespread acclaim for mixing roguelike elements with a firm narrative structure to keep players coming back for more runs. Hades and Returnal releasing so close to each other feels like a pleasant consequence of fate, given their similarities in incorporating a heavy narrative foundation as an incentive to keep coming back.
This attention to narrative and storytelling is ultimately Returnal’s secret weapon. As enjoyable as the story threads are for the many traditional roguelike games that paved the way, their trump cards lay closer to the technical gameplay itself. Enter the Gungeon may also be a time loop story that encourages you to unlock characters and learn about their pasts, but the real appeal lies in the hundreds of weapons one can unlock through multiple runs. Returnal (and Hades for that matter) trust the audience to engage themselves with the plight of the characters. The frustration of redoing an entire run is shared by Selene, pulling us into our own roguelike hell with her.
All of this torment and yet Returnal still succeeds in making each run exciting and unique, never losing sight of the fun that can be had in a roguelike. It is a genre that has inspired rage, confusion, and tears from even the most experienced gamers out there, but the feeling of completing a long run is second to none. The catharsis of finally being able to rest after nearly destroying your fingers. Though Returnal is still a bleak tragedy of a story, completing a run in this hellworld feels like a genuine victory. We are Selene, as she is us.
Selene is trapped in a hell that she cannot escape, living in the most immersive roguelike game any of us will experience. Returnal takes the genre that is often associated with frustration, repetition, and rage and incorporates them into Selene’s journey. Roguelike games have gone in dark narrative directions before (i.e. The Binding of Isaac), but Housemarque’s fast-paced third-person shooter reinvigorates the genre, expanding on what we thought was possible to experience in the world of roguelikes.
With the announcement of co-op for the game, it appears that Returnal plans to stick around for the foreseeable future. As of this writing, the game has sold over half a million copies along with its fair share of accolades. It is too soon to tell what kind of impact Returnal will have on the future of roguelike games, but it stands nonetheless as an example of what can be done in a roguelike game. Even if the roguelike games of the future are far removed from what Returnal is all about, I’d be hard-pressed to consider that a negative for either the game or the genre.