Returnal has been out on PlayStation 5 now for a while, which means that a bunch of you have hopefully reached its conclusion by now. A big part of the game's appeal, aside from its slick bullet hell action, is its intriguing, mysterious story. Who exactly is Selene? Why has she ended up on the hostile planet Atropos? What's with the endless loop back to the crash landing?
In this article, we're going to attempt to piece it all together. Returnal's narrative doesn't spell everything out to the player, instead leaving things open to interpretation, which makes it ripe for discussion. In case it isn't clear, we're going to talk about the story in detail as well as show images from late in the game, so here's your spoiler warning.
So, how do we explain Returnal's story and ending? It's a tough one, as it's mostly left wide open for players to draw their own conclusions. However, we subscribe to the idea that most of the game's events are a construct Selene has made for herself.
It's All In Selene's Head
Through the game's audio logs, Xenoglyphs, and sequences inside the House, we can pick up on a few key details. Selene and her mother had a very distant, possibly abusive, relationship. The mother, named Theia, had aspirations to go into space, but a car accident changed her life for the worse. She crashed off the side of a bridge and into the lake below, with a young Selene in the back. In a House sequence, it's pretty clearly spelled out that Theia suffered major spinal injuries from the crash, leaving her wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life, and thus unable to fulfil her dreams of becoming an astronaut. Selene got through the accident unscathed, but it seems her mother became very cold towards her, even blaming her for the crash and for her dreams being dashed.
History Doomed to Repeat Itself
Selene grew up to resent her mother, but was equally obsessed with space. She becomes very much like Theia, and that extends to her relationship with her child. Just as Theia was distant from Selene, Selene struggles with her son Helios — she's repeating the same steps. A focus on her career, sometimes even leaving her son home alone.
Fast forward through the game, and it seems the idea of cycles and recurring events goes deeper than the title's rogue-like loop. After defeating Ophion at the end of Act 2, you'll see the game's first ending. In this cutscene, we see Selene driving through country roads at night, Blue Öyster Cult's (Don't Fear) The Reaper playing on the stereo. Selene seems distracted and absent as she drives, and her son, Helios, is in the back. He asks, "Do you see the white shadow?", seemingly referring to the full moon. Selene doesn't respond. Along the bridge, she sees the astronaut — a figure that's haunted her throughout the game — and swerves to avoid them. The car spins out of control, smashing over the side of the bridge and into the water — the same location from the first crash. We see Selene remove her belt and reach for Helios, but she appears to be dragged away by tentacles before she can help him.
Final Pieces of the Puzzle
In Act 3 of the game, you gather all six Sunface Fragments in order to enter the House for the final time. This sequence reinforces the bad relationship between Selene and Theia. Selene also comments "We were both broken," talking about their accident. Using the car key you receive, you get back to Abyssal Scar, defeat Ophion again, and unlock the submerged vehicle, which triggers the final cutscene.
Here, Selene sees a skeletal, though seemingly pregnant, creature in a wheelchair, which reaches for her before she knocks it down. Representing her mother, the creature points to the stars, and from a first person perspective, it appears that Selene becomes the astronaut herself, stood on the bridge. The car swerves into the lake, and we see Selene swimming up to the surface of the water. She gasps for air, and says "Helios". It seems that she saves her own life but fails to rescue her son, leaving him in the sunken car.
Finding Meaning Throughout the Game
There are aspects of the game that reflect on all of this in clever ways. An obvious one is that the ship is also named Helios, and whenever you leave the crash site to go on another run, it says 'Helios Abandoned', just like how Selene leaves her son in the car. Throughout the game, especially in the second biome, you'll see spires that look an awful lot like spinal columns, representing her mother's injury.
The fourth biome's boss, Hyperion, plays the organ, and you repeatedly hear a melody that sounds a lot like the first notes of (Don't Fear) The Reaper's opening verse. Perhaps we're reading into this too much, but we think it's possible that Hyperion represents Selene's father, who played piano and loved the song. This could be why, at one point, Selene plays the record in a House sequence, and comments, "She never liked this vinyl". We take that to mean Theia, her mother, didn't like to listen to the song because it reminded her of her late husband.
Then there's all the business with the game's ancient civilisations. These could simply be Selene's imagination running wild and inventing the Severed and the Hivemind, as it all ties back to her. Some of the Xeno-archives depict an ASTRA scout, some of the Xenoglyphs refer to her past, and all that "alien" tech she puts on her suit works perfectly. It makes sense that all this stuff is so convenient if it's all coming from Selene's mind.
So, there's this theory, which explores the idea that the game's events are all in Selene's head as she deals with the trauma and guilt from her life, but there are other suggestions.
It's All Really Happening
An alternative take on the story is that the game's events are actually taking place, and Selene really is just stuck on Atropos in this time loop. A wild take on things can be found on Reddit, which suggests that the planet itself manipulates Selene into causing the first crash which injures her mother, which allows her to become an ASTRA scout, meaning she'll travel to Atropos. This loop begins in which the first Selene shoots down the next, and the cycle continues. All the deceased Selene corpses you find are previous iterations that are causing the loop to continue in perpetuity. It's a complicated theory that involves all kinds of alternate timelines.
It's About Hereditary Disease
Another theory we've heard is that Theia wasn't in a wheelchair because of the accident, it's because she had a degenerative disease that meant she grew weaker over time. It was passed onto Selene. A symptom she suffers is seeing "white shadows" in her vision, and her condition means she fails to become an astronaut, instead forced to look after her mother and child. When Helios asks about the white shadow in the car, it suggests the disease has been passed down to him, as well. This theory is essentially an alternate spin on the first one, in which the game's events are an allegory for how Selene is feeling.
Ties to Greek Mythology
The game might adopt a cosmic horror guise with clear Lovecraftian influences, but Greek mythology is just as present throughout. The names of all the characters all come from the Greek pantheon. Selene is god of the moon, and Helios is god of the sun. Theia and Hyperion (one of the game's bosses) are titans, and have the aforementioned children together. Phrike (another boss) is the Greek spirit of horror. Ixion is a being punished by Zeus for lusting after Hera, and is punished by being bound to a flying fiery wheel. Indeed, this boss is bound by several ties when you first see him, and he can fly. There are more as well; Ophion and Nemesis have a basis in Greek myth, and many other smaller references can be found throughout the game.
Anyway, those are some common theories as to what's happening in Returnal, but we want to throw open the discussion to you lot. What are your takes on the game's narrative? Is Selene really trapped on an alien world? Is it all one big metaphor for history being doomed to repeat itself, or the cycle of violence/abuse? Something else entirely? We want to hear all about it in the comments section below.