Returnal, the PS5-exclusive action game about not having fall damage but then picking up an item that gives you fall damage, has been out for about three weeks, which means more and more players are talking about the ending.
You don’t need to roll the credits to see that Returnal is steeped in imagery and the ending would end up wrapped in metaphor. At every turn, Returnal is exactly the type of pointedly mind-bending narrative that begets heady discussion about “what it all means” and “what’s really going on here?” I’ve read a whole bunch of fan theories about Returnal’s ending, and even have some of my own. (Don’t worry, I’ll spare you.)
Needless to say, this post covers major spoilers for Returnal.
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Returnal starts with you, as futuristic interstellar scout Selene Vassos, crash-landing on an uncharted planet called Atropos. Every time you fail, the planet’s landscape shifts, and you start back from square one. Atropos is, or was, home to a race known as the Sentients. They have a militant wing, called the Severed, that broke off from the main group after meeting some unknown entity in the depths.
At various intervals, you explore a midcentury house from a first-person perspective and piece together moments from Selene’s apparent past. There are six of these segments. A silent Apollo-era astronaut pops up throughout.
The game is broken into three acts. These acts break down, in broad strokes, as follows:
- In the first act, your goal on Atropos is to find and reach a signal called “White Shadow,” broadcast from the top of a derelict radio tower. You find it. You face off and defeat a monster called Nemesis. You’re rescued and returned to Earth. And then you die.
- The second act kicks off with you coming back to life. Time has ostensibly passed. Yes, you’re still stuck in the same loop, except your goal this time is to dive into the depths to confront a giant monster that lives below. Defeating that monster sparks a series of cutscenes in which Selene, driving a sedan with a kid in the backseat, spots an Apollo-era astronaut in the middle of the road and drives right off a bridge into water. The credits roll.
- But wait, the game’s not over yet! The third act largely consists of retreading old ground, where you scour each of the game’s six biomes to find MacGuffin items. This unlocks the final house sequence, at which point you can then face off against the same giant monster to see the true ending: Selene was the astronaut that “caused” the crash.
Pretty vague ending, right? Some players have suggested that Selene’s mother, Theia, died by suicide and then encountered a celestial being that allowed her to fabricate a new world. Others think that the entire game takes place in the split-second moments before Selene dies in the car crash, like a neon-surged DMT death trip. And then there are those of the mind that it’s all real, not metaphorical at all, and that Atropos is an exoplanet with inexplicable, godlike even, powers that loop time indefinitely. The game’s story makes room for all these notions to feel fairly solid.
My favorite player theory, though, is one by Reddit user SomeoneGMForMe, who posted a miniature dissertation this week that’s juuust out there enough to the point where it actually makes a whole lot of sense. They think there’s no reason to assume Returnal is told in chronological order. With that in mind, the second act is a prologue, the third act offers contextualizing details, and the first act is actually the final chapter, the real ending.
The whole idea is, as SomeoneGMForMe put it, “one of the ‘it’s all a metaphor’ theories.” Everything that happens on Atropos is a stand-in for how Selene grapples with her real-world trauma, with the biomes being visual metaphors for various thoughts and feelings bouncing around Selene’s head. For instance, the second biome, the Crimson Wastes, is littered with structures that look a whole lot like stacked vertebrae. Those represent fractured spines, a key part of Returnal’s real-world story. And speaking of fractured, that’s why the fifth biome—a frozen-over iteration of the Crimson Wastes—is called the Fractured Wastes.
Let’s break it down chronologically.
SomeoneGMForMe thinks Theia is a trainee in the Apollo astronaut program, which tracks with the game’s ‘70s-inspired setting. Before the events of the game, Theia crashes a car. (You catch snippets of the news report about the incident during one of the house sequences, where it’s noted that Theia crashed during clear conditions in broad daylight.) Selene, who was in the backseat, is fine, but Theia ends up paralyzed, and blames Selene. That’s where the game starts.
Act two according to SomeoneGMForMe, shows how Theia takes her bottled-up emotions out on Selene, who then relies on medication to cope with the resulting trauma. Selene grows up overcome with aspirations of becoming an astronaut, to compensate for what her mother was no longer able to do. Selene has a son, Helios, but she’s not exactly the most attentive mother. She applies for the Astra space program, but is rejected. (You can read the rejection letter during one of the house sequences.)
One night, Selene is driving, Helios in the backseat. In the background, you can hear Blue Öyster Cult’s smash hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” through the stereo. That song didn’t come out until 1976, putting this scene squarely at some point after the Apollo missions, and therefore after when Theia would’ve suffered the first crash. Anyway, Helios says, “Do you see the white shadow?” Selene spots an Apollo-era astronaut and veers off a bridge and into the water below. Helios dies. Selene is paralyzed, just like Theia. Act one starts here, and is a metaphor for how Selene grapples with these events.
Then, details from the third act color in the twist: Selene, presumably in an effort to rid herself of lingering trauma, burns down her home...with Theia inside of it! From there, the rest of the final first-act cutscene—all the real-world stuff, in particular the imagery that shows Selene getting buried—is the rest of Selene’s life.
For sure, SomeoneGMForMe’s theory leaves some questions unanswered: What’s the deal with the Sentient archive rooms, for instance? And if Hyperion, per the Greek mytheme that informs Returnal, is Selene’s dad, and shows up as the fourth biome boss in the game, why is he not present at all in the “real” plotline? But damn if it isn’t one of the most thoroughly convincing ideas about what the hell happened in Returnal. You can read the whole thing—which collates a deeper trove of supporting evidence, if the above didn’t convince you already—right here.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)