Returnal’s Best Moment Shows It’s Much More Than Meets The Eye

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.

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