An upcoming PlayStation 5 game is hoping to please fans of dark science-fiction, particularly those who enjoy Lovecraftian and Lynchian horror.
Returnal is the latest from Housemarque, the Finnish developer behind games like Resogun, Outland, Nex Machina and Alienation.
In it, players take control of Selene, a deep space scout who has crash-landed on a shape-shifting world and must search the barren landscape of an ancient civilization for a way to escape.
The game promises relentless roguelike gameplay on Atropos, a procedurally generated planet that is different every time Selene dies and is respawned to try again.
In Returnal, mystery is said to stalk the player's every move as they explore, discover and fight their way through a terrifying alien world.
Recently I interviewed the game's narrative director Gregory Louden to find out more about it. Our full conversation is printed below.
Newshub: For a lot of people who are really passionate about pop culture - people who go to conventions and so forth - science-fiction is perhaps their favourite genre. Sci-fi horror in particular can inspire passionate fandom. Why do you think it's so great for storytelling and what are the main films you drew inspiration from for Returnal?
Gregory Louden: We have been influenced by classic dark science-fiction films and literature, psychological horror and cosmic Lovecraftian and Lynchian horror. We have done lots of research to create something unique for players to explore, while also respect previous greats. Dark sci-fi for me is such a great paradigm to explore because it allows full creativity of the creatures, the environments, the technology, soundscapes and allows creators like us to explore deeper themes outside of normal reality. I will say Returnal is an action thriller game, not a horror, but we do explore darker themes.
One of the reasons I love this genre is that it can play on the unknown of outer space and the alien world, but also blur that with madness and keep the audience guessing about what's real and what is imagined. Is that the case with Returnal, and if so, how?
Definitely. We follow Selene, our Greek-American ASTRA deep space scout and we explore what happens to someone who is trapped in a never ending cycle where death is no escape. What brings someone to accept the call of the void? Returnal is more than just a sci-fi action game and as you play you begin to learn about Selene and Atropos are more deeply connected than you think.
There's a mix of first-person and third-person gameplay. Can you tell me what each means and why both are used?
Returnal is primarily a third-person action shooter with roguelike elements which builds upon all of Housemarques' previous games, but brings this bullet hell, arcade-inspired action to PS5 level production values. Combine that with our roguelike elements and it's a game that constantly changes on every cycle. We also have first person story sequences where you can explore your ship and a mysterious house that has appeared on Atropos. We use this to allow the growing of a deeper connection to Selene and literally be in her shoes, to experience her memories inside of these moments.
There is a loop mechanic and procedural generation in Returnal which can be great to make sure it's always different and diverse, but how do you ensure that it isn't so random that players lose interest?
All of Returnal is handcrafted, but the most exciting thing about the game is every time you play we procedurally generate these moments, connected our handcrafted environments, combats and narrative beats. It still surprises me with the countless variations we provide whenever you explore Atropos with Selene.
The narrative looks really trippy and mysterious. As you're piecing together Selene's memories and discovering what's going on, how do you balance it so that it is mysterious enough to keep the player on edge but the narrative is also explicit enough to keep us engaged with what's unfolding?
Our goal has been to tell a mysterious, layered, and haunting story. Not haunting like horror, but haunting like something that lingers and stays with you. For us we like stories that leave you with lots of questions, and Returnal delivers on that. We also needed to create a story that survives repletion like our gameplay, so our dense and layered story is built to stay interesting and mysterious but is also revealed the more you explore Atropos. Atropos, our planet, is a character in Returnal, built with subtext in our environments and sound design, which also has remnants of an extinct alien civilization that players can come to explore and piece together via their writings, technology and visual archives.
This appears to be quite a challenging game. How do you balance keeping it hard - which makes it rewarding - but ensure it doesn't get frustrating?
It has been built to be a challenging but rewarding game, and dying is the part of the game. If anything, dying is how you learn more about Selene, yourself as a player, and the Atropos in many ways. Along with this as you explore Atropos, Selene fortunately can collect permanent progress from the alien technology.
I'm especially interested in how parasites affect players in combination with other items. These can positively and negatively affect stats, which isn't uncommon for items in RPGs, but the idea of it being alien parasites so original - how does that work?
Parasites are fantastic worldbuilding for us and Returnal has been about strong production design where we blend our narrative with our gameplay. You can collect multiple parasites and attach them to yourself adding more risk, but also more reward. For example, a parasite my regenerate your suit health, but it will also cause damage to you whenever you pick up a new weapon. So it's this sort of decision making which ensures every cycle of Returnal is unique and memorable.
The boss fight looks really cool, in how challenging the gameplay looks but also just being really visually dazzling. Is this the area of the game where you've most been able to take advantage of the power of next-gen in the PS5?
Our boss fights in Returnal are pure Housemarque action where we make use of our world class VFX team to the full extent. This boss is Phrike and makes full use of our bullet hell. On top of this with PS5 we use the DualSense for amazing haptics, brilliant 3D audio and when you die at Phrike it's a lightning fast new cycle via the PS5.
Looking forward to feeling those haptics! Lastly, what's your number one favourite thing about Returnal?
How well it feels to play the game. Since I joined years ago, the controls and feeling of the game is exceptional. Playing Returnal is a joy and made me want to up my game to match how well it plays with a dark, deep and beautiful story for players to discover.
Returnal is set to be released for the PS5 on April 30.