Returnal is a gorgeous game, although I can’t really see most of it. It’s not the lighting that’s the problem – I actually think the shadows are a crucial part of Returnal’s foreboding atmosphere, and a key reason why those spooky glowing tentacles feel so unsettling. Your only source of light wants to pluck you up and devour you – it’s terrifying. Anyway, it’s not the shadows that stop me from seeing Returnal, it’s the difficulty. I’m still not through to the last biome, and even in the ones I can explore, I’m too busy desperately dodging projectiles to stop and smell the tentacles. I know there’s been a lot of debate around the game’s difficulty and the need for an easy mode, but Mirror Mode is not the place for discourse. Mirror Mode will do you one better. I don’t want an easy mode, or a hard mode. I want no mode at all – that’s why the next big roguelike should be about just going for a walk.
This is the latest instalment of our weekly column where we talk about how a popular game series would be great… if only it was the exact opposite of what it was. This all came about because I wanted to write about Tony Hawk’s Walking Simulator as a normal article, and everyone shouted at me. Luckily, the more you think about it, the better it gets. So now we’re going to do this every week. You’re welcome.
Roguelikes are built on a simple idea – you do the same thing over and over again, theoretically getting a bit better and a bit further each time. Last year, it was suggested that the success of Hades was in part down to its relatability during the pandemic – we all had to get used to doing the same thing over and over again, in the hope that we’d somehow eventually be okay with it. While we might not have had a major quest like Zagreus, we’d at least be able to cope with whatever it was we were supposed to be coping with, right? As Ronan Keating once said, life is a roguelike baby, just got to survive it.
In a much more simplistic way though, my weekly walks are kind of roguelikes. Look, if you get to argue that sitting at your kitchen table with a laptop looking at remote spreadsheets is the same as escaping hell, I’m having this. I live near the beach, so I get to walk along the coast and take in the sights. I suppose this technically qualifies as exercise, and so if I was pushing myself to my limit, I might be able to walk a little further each time. I could even jog, if the need came over me, although it never has yet and I doubt it ever will in the future. It’s not really progress in the way of levelling up that feels like a roguelike though, it’s in the changing environment.
When I first moved here last year, I walked the same route down the coast to a landmark you won’t have heard of so I won’t bother naming, then turned around and came back. Sometimes I’d head in the opposite direction and walk to a second landmark, then come back. It doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world but… it’s a walk. What were you expecting? Aliens? A car chase?
Now, having been here a little longer, I trust myself to make my way back. I can dip into the town centre. I can take a backstreet, and find a new restaurant to visit whenever that returns to being a normal thing human beings can do. That’s how I envision this walking roguelike working. There’s no enemies, no hazards, just don’t get lost. The first few times, you’re going to stick to the basic routes, only going so far that you know you can always make it home. As you get more used to the terrain, you start to explore further afield, and take in new sights. Something like Firewatch, where the only real reward is extra dialogue and new things to see.
Games are still very locked into this idea of violence being at the core of success, but the fact is, there are lots of other ways to raise the tension. Returnal is just begging to be explored, yet every time you try, a gazzilion death orbs swoop down to murder you. What if I just want to have a look around? What if I just want to go for a walk?
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