Developing video games is complicated, but selling them is practically just as complex. Housemarque, a studio specialized in 2D arcade titles, had to rethink its future, and it did so because its games did not finish curdling in the market. Contrary to what it might seem, it had nothing to do with the quality of their work, for which they always achieved the recognition of critics and players. Faced with this situation, the developer reacted and publicly announced that it was giving up this kind of game, that from that moment they would seek a new direction. Those efforts have crystallized into Returnal, a production under the PlayStation Studios label designed exclusively for PS5. They embrace the science fiction genre and launch themselves into three dimensions, now clad in higher production values compared to their projects of the past.
The arcades are dead. That was the title chosen by Housemarque to announce that it was leaving behind the genre with which they had experimented so much. “Despite critical success and numerous awards, our games have not sold significantly.” They admitted that they did reach massive audiences, but they did so because some of their products were offered for free. “This, unfortunately, does not help pay for development, which is expensive for high-quality products.” So, they said, “it’s time to explore new genres.”
Give up the arcade without giving up some of its elements
The change of direction does not mean giving up your philosophy. “Our purpose as a company remains the same”, as they will continue to bet on “creating memorable gaming experiences.” In an interview with EL PAÍS, Harry Krueger, creative director of Returnal, assures that “in many ways” they are “preserving the creative philosophy” that they embodied in previous productions. This idea is articulated around the core of the game, which despite the change in genre relies on replayability, an intrinsic aspect of arcade games. “Now we have an extra dimension of ambition, which offers us a lot of new opportunities, but also a series of challenges to work on ”.
In previous works such as Nex Machina or Resogun, both shoot ’em up (shooting games in the style of Space invaders or Asteroids), the arcade action is combined with a visual show of lights and colors, which at the controls feels like a kind of choreography in which the player is the clear protagonist. Returnal It is a different proposal, but at the same time heir to all of the above. It is not a radical cut with respect to the past, but a natural continuation that tries to get closer to an audience that has turned its back on traditional arcades. “We hope that Returnal reach the widest possible audience ”, they trust.
One of the common characteristics that arcade shoot ’em up usually have is the space setting. In the most remote era of the video game, some companies preferred that players kill machines or marcionos rather than humans or airplanes, in case the scandal loomed somehow. That does not mean that they all shared a single theme. In the case of Housemarque, which has been developing games since the 1990s, this has not always been the case. For example, Dead nation takes place during a zombie apocalypse, although the most recent titles have delved into science fiction as a theme.
Housemarque absorbs all the knowledge provided by the experience of many years to design Returnal, a production that is no longer an arcade as such, but that does not shed its past, but rather reintroduces concepts and rearms them in order to articulate them in a different product. This is a third-person action game that implements a fast and electric shooter combat system, all seasoned by roguelike mechanics and its oppressive sci-fi atmosphere. Krueger clarifies then that it is not a scary title, there are no scares that will make you jump out of the chair, but an aesthetic that drinks from the cosmic terror of Lovecraft in the visual and the thematic.
Atropos, the hostile planet
Selene makes an emergency landing on the planet Atropos, without knowing the ordeal that she will have to live. Out of communication and unable to call for help or reinforcements, the experienced explorer soon discovers the true meaning of the word survival. It is condemned to live and die, to live and die, to live and die … all in an infinite loop that fits perfectly with the philosophy of the game. When falling in combat, Selene wakes up again, something that defies the laws of the sanity, because it thinks that it is going crazy. Her strength breaks, she begins to doubt herself, her abilities and her long experience. Alone in the face of danger, on a planet that is a character in itself, that changes every time it wakes up, new paths open, unexplored paths and more and more challenges. Everything is hostile on Atropos, as if the planet itself wishes her dead.
“We love science fiction,” asserts the creative director. “The dark sci-fi and the setting of this kind of ambiguous and alternative future environment is always very close to our hearts.” Krueger points out that thanks to this setting they can go beyond realism “and introduce many characteristics, such as the loop itself” of life and death. Since the nuclear concept demands that the character continually fall and rise again, it is not possible to finish it from start to finish without biting the dust. It has been designed with exploration in mind, as the attraction is discovering the planet, its changes in biomes, the new locations and shortcuts that open as you go and experiment.
Housemarque respects the rules of the roguelike genre, in the sense that it is a game with procedural elements that are generated randomly and that is based on repetition and replayability. Not surprisingly, the complete content is not displayed in the first game: “Speaking theoretically, if you completed the entire game from the beginning to the credits you would not have access to all the content”, since the secrets, the history, the objects and locations continue to be uncovered in each interaction with the world.
The value of replayability is that with the same ingredients you continue to have fun, but death is only the beginning, because Selene also learns, thanks to a progression system that allows her to learn new permanent abilities. The enemies, of course, have their own routines, and the developer maintains that they will present different patterns. Combat, on the other hand, goes beyond the hail of bullets, since the player will have to worry about dodging, jumping, using the hook, etc., which gives it a more tactical dimension. Definitely, Returnal is a video game that promises hours of entertainment and suffering, because we must not forget that Selene is immersed in a kind of very real nightmare, one from which she will not be able to wake up.
Live, die. Survive
Live, die. Survive
Live, die. Survive …
All roads lead to Returnal.