How Returnal and Deathloop are evolving the roguelike genre

Let's go round again.

Live, die, repeat.

This isn’t just the tagline of a decent Tom Cruise flick. It’s a mantra donned by all those who ever pick up a video game controller. Repetition has forever been an indispensable element of video games. The perpetual process of finding the right moves to beat a boss, or the memorised routes needed to make it through an expansive level. Yet, after decades of looping our way to success, video games in 2021 are allowing that strand of DNA to become their entire identity.

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The repetitive nature of games has been present since the early days of Pac-Man and Space Invaders, where a leaderboard was all that was needed to entice players back for more pixelated action. Yet as video games evolved beyond the realms of 2D, our competitive thirsts were quenched with more elaborate forms of repetition. Titles like Dark Souls and Destiny have both been party of this journey, with their insanely difficult bosses and unconquerable Raids. A good challenge was all that was needed to begin the loop of facing the same foes time and time again, testing our memory, wit, and resilience.

However, this year with the release of two Sony exclusives, Returnal and the recently delayed Deathloop, along with a steady income of looping games, the repetitive premise is making its way into the narrative fabric of video games. Rather than being hit with a “Game Over” screen in Deathloop, players will be sent back to the beginning of an ever-looping day. And instead of facing the same foes after each death, Returnal spices things up by altering levels with every run as you scout its morphing planet, Atropos. Our death and resurrection are no longer unnatural parts of gaming that should just be accepted; they have become a part of its story and world.

How did we get here though? It is easy to describe Returnal and Deathloop as a new form of video game, but in reality, their looping nature has been creeping its way into the zeitgeist of the industry for a long time – and even formed a sub-genre of its own. The roguelike sub-genre builds itself up around the idea of repetition. Learning the basics and steadily advancing further and further each time, with new weapons, skills and tactics. Much like Deathloop or Returnal, it expects you to die. Death is only a natural part of its experience.

Games like Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, Risk of Rain 2, and the recently released Loop Hero are all about the balance of cautiousness and risk-taking, as you inch your way deeper into their enemy-filled levels. It delivers an intensity missing from games where death or losing has no consequence, and while it can be utterly disheartening to meet your end after coming so far, it can also provide some superb gaming highs when you finally reach another milestone.

Yet the development of the roguelike aims to ensure we aren’t just hooked mechanically, or competitively, it also wants us invested in story and character. You need not look any further back than the BAFTA award-winning Hades to see the impact of merging both the premise of the roguelike with some narrative swag. Stuck in the pits of hell, Zagreus is sick of living under his father Hades and decides to fight his way out to join the heavenly ranks of his Godly relatives. Upon death, you are sent right back to your home, where you will be mocked by your father, compose your thoughts, and venture out once more. And while the premise isn’t any different from Spelunky or Loop Hero, it ingeniously weaves the development of character relations into that premise, to deliver something that advances narratively as well as mechanically.

Hades doesn’t just weave these two elements together, however, as it also manages to explain the inexplicable. Video games have tried to implement unnatural features such as HUD, or fast travel with narrative flare for years – be it with in-helmet UI or accessible subway systems. Yet death has always been the one insoluble point that has been widely accepted with shrugged shoulders as “one of those things”. In games like Hades, however, death suddenly makes sense, and this remains to be the case with Returnal and Deathloop while the premise is taken that one step further.

Returnal not only weaves a mysterious story in its premise with scout pilot Selene, but it also uses it to keep you on your toes. Upon each death, maps will morph, enemies will change positions, and their numbers will fluctuate – all while discovering new skills on each run, much like in Hades. It all serves towards the fast-paced, twitchy nature of its gameplay that puts a massive emphasis on player skill, as it isn’t dependent on your memory of enemy positions, but your memory of how to deal with each of its enemy types. With this format it doesn’t just offer something new every time – something desperately needed in many AAA releases – it delivers something that expands beyond the narrow “just a game” perspective.

Deathloop on the other hand takes the idea of a looping premise and turns it into a puzzle. Tasked with taking out eight elusive targets within a single day, you will figure out how to take out all eight in the most time-efficient manner. By exploring the same four areas – a relatively small sandbox by today’s comparison – players will learn more about the stories of its characters and world. But while its physical size may not be the grandest, Arkane are applying diverse level variants to keep Deathloop feeling fresh. Depending on the time of day areas will vary. Accidentally kill a couple of guys that were digging a hole in the morning; come back in the evening on a different loop and you’ve got yourself a new entranceway. Arkane wants you to know the Black Reef like the back of your hand upon its completion, like you are a digital Bill Murray in your very own Groundhog Day.

The eventual releases of Returnal and Deathloop signal the increasing popularity of a genre rooted in the indie scene. But it doesn’t just tap into the very nature of video games, it highlights their potential as storytelling vehicles. The repetitive rhythm of facing defeat, strategizing, and eventually overcoming has always been present, but linking it to the setting, mechanics, and story creates a cohesive experience that truly feels like video games embracing their true identity.

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