We really need a word or a phrase for when you’re a fan of something but not necessarily a fan of the fans of that thing. It’s a concept that’s impacted Rick and Morty, it’s an idea that has long negatively affected the Star Wars franchise, and it’s something that’s been on my mind lately as I’ve been playing more and more Returnal.
Actually, the problem isn’t really Returnal itself so much as it’s the argument over difficult games. I generally love difficult games and have even recently highlighted some of the most challenging retro games across various generations. At the same time, the release of any new FromSoftware title or any other notably challenging game triggers that same defensive cry that insults just as it shuts down any meaningful conversation: “Git gud.”
In the case of Returnal, though, the conversation about the game’s difficulty feels a little more complicated than usual. Interestingly, many of those complications have something to do with the game’s $70 price tag.
While some felt the jump from $60 to $70 for a Triple-A new release wouldn’t be that big of a deal in the long run, the fact of the matter is that we’re not in the long run. We’re in the earliest days of the new $70 standard, and the price jump feels significant enough to make people ask more questions about the “true” value of a game. At the moment, it certainly doesn’t help that some are already having to pay inflated prices for a PS5 (if they can find one at all).
In the case of Returnal, many reviewers and early adopters have pointed out that the game is, in many ways, very much worth the price. It’s an incredible blend of bullet-hell shooter action, psychological horror, and storytelling that, much like Hades, brilliantly utilizes the time loop implications of roguelike games to weave a compelling narrative about repetition, consequences, and growth. When viewed from the right angle, it’s hard not to see Returnal as a work of art.
Yet, pretty much every review and impression of the game released so far has highlighted the game’s difficulty. In a way, Returnal is difficult in the way that most roguelikes are difficult. That is to say that the core of its gameplay is built around the idea of dying and dying over and over again in order to earn the upgrades, skills, and items needed to make true progress. Some roguelikes are more forgiving than others, but “failure” is in their DNA.
The element of Returnal‘s roguelike gameplay that’s drawing so much attention is its lack of a traditional save feature. Again, that’s not uncommon in roguelike games (and some progress in Returnal is permanent), but because the average run in Returnal lasts much longer than in the average roguelike game, you really feel those times that you try so hard, get so far, and, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.
Some Returnal reviewers have noted that the lack of a more standard save system (outside of some ways you can “cheat” the system using the PlayStation 5’s sleep mode), made it difficult for them to progress in a way that allowed them to properly experience the game. In some instances, the lack of a save system has been seen as a flaw or even an oversight.
Here’s the thing, though. One of the first screens you see in Returnal informs you that the game doesn’t offer a traditional save system. The lack of a save feature is very much intended to amplify Returnal‘s themes, characters, and gameplay. If you’re tired of the phrase “tough but fair,” then consider that in the case of Returnal, the phrase may be “tough, but aware.”
As difficult as it can be to support an argument that even indirectly supports the “git gud” crowd, I feel the urge to defend Returnal‘s difficulty as an artistic choice that feels vital to the overall experience. Would Returnal be an impressive game if it wasn’t so difficult? In many ways, yes. Could many of its best attributes be appreciated even with an optional save system? I’d argue they could be. Yet, it’s so clear that Returnal is the product of a clear, bold, and fascinating vision that it’s hard not to make the argument that it deserves to at least be tried in its intended format.
The problem is that it’s not exactly easy to try Returnal. As a $70 game released for a roughly $500 console (depending on which version you buy and how you buy it), Returnal isn’t just a strange new IP from a relatively unknown developer that is designed to intimidate from the outset: it’s a considerable investment in the minds of many, even if they already own a PS5. Returnal is also not currently available on any streaming or subscription service, meaning some of the modern ways you might otherwise be able to relatively easily take a chance on something different are currently unavailable.
“Taking a chance” is really what we’re talking about here. When it comes to difficult games released in recent years such as Sekiro, I’ll usually tell people to give it a shot whenever they’re able. After all, sometimes it’s tougher to get past the toxicity of the “git gud” gamers than it is to get through the games themselves and maybe expand your comfort zone and find out something new about the kind of games you like in the process.
The beautiful thing about gaming is that it’s not only a relatively young art form but many gamers are relatively young in terms of their experience with the art form. There’s always something out there to discover that could surprise you with both its quality and the ways that you enjoy it despite your preconceived notions. I think Returnal has the power to be that game for many.
Yet, the game’s $70 price tag is already highlighting a divide over video game difficulty that is making it more difficult for anyone to reach out to the other side even if they are otherwise willing to do so. The conversation about difficult games should be about the craft of difficult games done well and how to foster an environment where more people are able to try those games in order to help them grow and reach wider audiences that could potentially love them as much as so many others clearly do. At the very least, those who don’t like difficult games shouldn’t feel so discouraged to give them a shot if for no other reason than to ensure the conversation about them doesn’t always feel so familiar.
Instead, the increased price of next-gen games feels like another form of gatekeeping in an area of the growth industry that is already suffering as a result of that concept.