It is no secret that I have struggled with Returnal while playing it for my recent review. Frankly, I continue to struggle with Returnal. I am still playing it after posting my review, because Returnal is amazingly addictive. But I don't mind saying that I stone cold suck at this game.
While playing for review, I put a good 30 hours into Returnal, most of which I spent sitting alone in my living room by myself. I sat in the dark with my headset on, repeatedly flinging my body against Returnal's brick wall until my psyche (and fingers) were bruised and broken. Go to sleep, wake up, do some work, back to Returnal. By the time I wrote my review, my relationship with Returnal was bordering on unhealthy obsession, with creeping tendrils of Returnal addiction beginning to take hold on the edges of my soul. I decided I should take a break for a couple of days, only reading about Returnal instead of playing it.
Which leads me to yesterday, when I decided to pick my son up from school so we could watch the new Mortal Kombat film together (it was...okay). My son has been away at college, studying coding and playing NCAA Volleyball. But more importantly to this story, he is a gamer. He spent much of his teenage years hunched in front of a TV, playing Call of Duty Zombies for months on end, and that love of gaming has continued completely unabated into adulthood. He is great at shooters (which are definitely not my cup of tea), and can think analytically in the midst of action. Currently, he is a SMITE addict, and he has gotten so good that he and his buddies have seriously considered going pro.
So of course, as soon as my son was home and had dropped off his backpack and said hello to his siblings, I sat him down in front of Returnal. I went on a couple of runs to show him the basics (he is a very quick learner), and then set him free on a fresh save (I have like ten PlayStation accounts for review purposes).
There is no question that he immediately performed better than I have. I was mortified when my son reached the first boss on his first run, but felt somewhat vindicated to see him quickly eat it in the exact same spot that I had so many times. When you get that boss down to his last health bar, he goes berserk, launching deathballs in new configurations and melee-ing frantically. I cannot say how many times I died there.
My son reupped for another run. And then a third. Then I took the controller and played for a couple of runs. We chatted, we analyzed, we discussed strategy. Interestingly, we were both laughing. No one was mad, no one was gripping the controller hard enough to break it. Instead of shrieks of anger, deaths were greeted with moans and cheers. As opposed to Ahab-like obsession, my narrow field of vision had expanded and I was actually having fun.
I tend to shy away from online games, not because I don't like them, but because that's simply not how games were played when I was younger. When games were new and so was I, online gaming didn't exist. My friends and I played by sitting on the sofa or floor, and just passing the controller back and forth. I remember playing through the first Dragon Quest game on NES that way in high school (it was called Dragon Warrior way back then). That's also how I played the original Resident Evil on PS1, sitting with a group of buddies in our apartment and just taking turns. The first Tomb Raider. The first couple Silent Hill games. Armored Core. Grand Theft Auto 3. Just an endless list, really. For years, there was no such thing as a "single player game". There were just 1-player games that we played together.
Of course, as I got older, my life shifted away, and more and more gaming became something I do alone. Those friends are now husbands and wives, dads and moms, scattered all across the country. I miss them terribly, and when I think of our time together, I almost always picture us on the sofa drinking beers and working our way through some new game. Laughing, and saying stuff like "Oh my God, you SUCK!" and throwing pillows at each other.
Playing Returnal with my son reminded me of how much gaming has become a solo activity in my life, something that I do by myself in an empty room. I had forgotten the warm laughter and hysterical smack talk that naturally occurs when you play with other people - particularly when you are attempting to work through something difficult together.
But playing with my son also forced me to up my game in order to keep up with him and not shame myself during my time on the sticks. Seeing Returnal through fresh eyes allowed me start making connections that I had previously missed (Oh, the doors with an "O" above them aren't really doors at all, but just open passageways to the next chamber). Before last night, I had been enjoying Returnal in an obsessive, possibly unhealthy way. But playing with someone else opened up the game for me a little bit and let me actually have fun with it.
So if you, like me, are struggling with Returnal, consider calling a buddy. Share play the game between two consoles remotely if you have to. Bring in one of your kids, or your sister, or your husband. Sit back, lighten up, and laugh about it. Tell someone how much they suck. I promise you that you will see the game in a new light.
And if you still don't get anywhere, don't worry about it so much. Returnal is hard as nails. But at least you won't be dying alone.