Best Of 2021: Returnal's Best Moment Shows It's Much More Than Meets The Eye
Returnal waits a very long time to play its most impressive card.
Subverting players' expectations is one of the best ways to turn a good game into a memorable game--a distinction that is increasingly important with the ballooning number of titles releasing each year. Perhaps better than any other 2021 game, Returnal managed to achieve this via a mid-game moment that I've thought about routinely since the game launched this past April. This moment, shocking in its own right, signified a major shift from traditional science-fiction to something much more psychological and personal, and it showed developer Housemarque's prowess at something far beyond standard arcade shooters.
Major spoilers for Returnal to follow!
From the opening sequence of Returnal, you're tasked with one seemingly straightforward task: escape. The morphing and extremely hostile planet you find yourself trapped on is filled with monsters and dangerous bosses at the end of each of its biomes, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and reaching this point sends protagonist Selene home, where she lives a peaceful existence and dies of old age, surrounded by her loved ones. And then she wakes up back on the planet, only with everything even more disturbing, decrepit, and deadly.
It was never the planet that was keeping Selene trapped. In fact, the planet likely doesn't even exist. Selene's "escape" was not a physical one at all, but her own futile attempt to ignore her past and move on without properly addressing it.
It's a brilliant twist in its own right, making it clear that Returnal is not some corny Wayward Pines knockoff where advanced technology is holding Selene captive. Instead, it's her own memories, and the hours spent after the twist gradually begin to peel back the facade previously shown. Nearly everything is a metaphor for Selene's own life, from the ship she talks to like it's a person--because it represents her child--to the ship she intentionally shot down representing her self-sabotage and failure to accept a tragic accident in her past.
Had that moment of horrific discovery not occurred midway through Returnal, any of these revelations, as intentionally vague as some of them are, would have seemed like deus ex machina moments tacked on to "blow your mind" during the game's true ending. But because Housemarque showed just a little bit of its hand, it planted the seeds of doubt in my mind.
I began to question everything I saw, from the bizarre vignettes in the creepy old house to the enemies themselves. It made the roguelite structure even more satisfying, with shifts in Selene's perception of reality as she forced herself to relive her trauma over and over again. This wasn't a genre shift Housemarque made simply to reach a wider audience. It certainly accomplished that, too, but it served to create a symbiotic relationship between the narrative, structure, and occasionally terrifying action in a way that few games have ever accomplished.
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