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You Can’t Trust Everything You Hear In Returnal, Devs Tell Us

Returnal, the upcoming PS5 exclusive from Housemarque, takes the typical conventions of the roguelike genre and turns them inwards. The game examines the roguelike from a psychological point of view, converting the whole experience into a thriller as opposed to a horror. “We don’t go out of our way to scare players,” narrative director Greg Louden says. That being said, you won’t always be able to trust what you see and hear either. I sat down with Louden, as well as Returnal marketing director Mikael Haveri, to discuss how the game’s storytelling keeps players on their toes.

“One of the ways the player gets into [the time loop] is the fact that when Selene dies for the first few times, she’s commenting on the fact that she’s reborn in the cycle, and whenever she dies, that’s the constant the player has anchored with,” Haveri says. “She is the only element that is not changing. Selene is always there with the player, but everything else keeps changing. And it’s as weird to her as it is the player.”

While Selene is a constant, the world, Atropos, is not. The world has a variety of different biomes, and players can choose how to make their way across the world. “The quickest route might not always be the safest,” Louden tells me. Aside from the built in variety of the world though, Atropos does not remain the same on each run. Sometimes, even if it looks to be the same, it might not be. “[Selene] immediately thinks at first that this is just a hostile alien planet,” Louden says. “But she begins to see that it’s starting to show things that are intimate and personal to her. When she’s fighting through these hostile creatures and hazards and other things, she actually sees a mysterious house that only she should know. How is this house here? On top of those three layers [Selene, the world, and the time loop], we’re using our production design – how art tells the story for environmental storytelling. For sound design, we use a lot of subtext. So it’s worth questioning what you hear and listening in. We’re working with Bobby Krlic, The Haxan Cloak, who’s providing the score, which provides a whole new layer and elevates the emotions and the atmosphere of the game. So for us, it was about telling this really bold, mysterious and haunting story, and letting the player uncover it through layers as they explore that, but also knowing that we’re Housemarque Games, so we’re not going to compromise on the amazing controls and the amazing creatures and weaponry. That’s all there. But we also have this new pillar for what a Housemarque game is, which is this compelling narrative that blends all of it together and provides you with this new experience.”

It was this idea, a character slowly unravelling a mystery – while trying to stop herself from unravelling – that was always at the heart of Returnal, Louden says. “The important thing for us was to create a character driven story,” he explains. “That was always there from the beginning of Returnal. It was always a character driven story about Selene, who crash landed on an overpass on this hostile alien planet. And whenever she dies, she wakes up again, crash landing on here, with this objective, this mysterious signal ‘White Shadow’ that’s driving her. She’s there for a reason. And as a character, she’s committed to a fault. Our intention with her is to be layered. She’s not someone you’re going to meet right away. She’s someone that you discover as you play Returnal. It’s a mystery that we won’t give you answers to when you jump in immediately.”

But how do these discoveries work when you can’t always trust your surroundings? Naturally, Louden is keeping his cards close to his chest right now. “I don’t know how much I want to say, he laughs. “But yeah, there’s a lot of stuff you can investigate and look into. With the sound design, [you’ll question] is the house there? Is she really seeing this? Is everything moving forward in the right way? There’s a lot of questions that should be raised. Part of the mystery of Returnal is discovering them as you play.”

As well as revealing information on the sound design, the Returnal devs also told us more about the game’s inventive gameplay, how it borrows from the PS1 and Ancient Greek mythology in equal measure, and what defines Selene.

Next: Exclusive Interview: Saber Interactive’s Adam Tedman On His Move From Rockstar, Growing The Studio, And Evil Dead: The Game

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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey

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