This article contains spoilers for Returnal.
In case you haven’t heard, Returnal is one of the best games of 2021, one of the PlayStation team’s most original supported projects in years, and one of the best reasons to be angry that you still can’t find a PlayStation 5.
Returnal is also the source of one of the most compelling and confusing video game stories in recent memory. Much like Hades, Returnal uses its roguelike gameplay as the basis for a complicated time loop narrative that leads to multiple endings that have so far left many scratching their heads.
So what exactly happens at the end of Returnal? While it seems like the game’s writers intended for the exact events and their implications to be left open for a healthy degree of interpretation, here’s a brief rundown of the major moments in Returnal‘s two endings as well as a couple of popular interpretations of what it all means:
Returnal Ending Explained
After you beat Ophion in Act 2, you’ll enter a crater and dive to the bottom of a large body of water. There, you’ll strangely encounter a car that looks like it’s been underwater for quite some time as well as what appears to be a globe that soon morphs into a kind of sea creature.
Things soon get stranger as Selene flashes back to a time when a mother and a child were driving in the car you’ve just seen. The mother certainly looks like Selene. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays on the radio as the child asks if the mother sees the “White Shadow.” Soon thereafter, the radio starts to cut out, which distracts the mother long enough to ensure she doesn’t see a strange figure dressed in a vintage astronaut suit standing in the middle of the road.
The mother swerves at the last minute to try to avoid the figure, but she crashes through the side of the bridge and into the water below. The mother is not able to pull the child from the wreckage and is soon pulled away (possibly by the creature). We see someone swimming away from the wreckage, but since it’s in first-person, we can’t quite tell who it is. In any case, fog soon fills the screen. The implication here seems to be that Selene is being pulled through the time loop once more.
One of the more popular early interpretations of this ending suggests that the events of Returnal are all a dream. The idea behind that explanation is that Selene was obsessed with her work, was in a terrible car accident partially caused by fatigue, and has essentially imagined her journey through Returnal as either a dream formed in her dying moments or some way to cope with what really happened by replacing the events of this accident in her mind with a grand adventure.
There is some evidence to support that theory. We know that Selene was obsessed with her work and that her own mother was also consumed by her profession. We’ve also seen glimpses of that astronaut figure throughout the game, and the mysterious signal that inspired Selene to explore Atropos was simply known as the “White Shadow.” Put it all together, and you’ve certainly got a compelling case for some kind of dream scenario.
However, aspects of that story don’t quite seem to add up. If this was all a dream, then how do you explain the other “false” endings we saw throughout the title which saw Selene return to Earth only to be thrown into the loop again? If she’s imagining all of this, then what was the trigger that eventually caused her to discover what “really” happened? Also, how do you explain the radio cutting out so strangely, the true identity of the figure in the road, and the timeline of when Selene is supposedly having this dream?
Could it be that the accident threw Selene into a kind of purgatory where she is forced to confront her final moments as a form of punishment? That would certainly help to explain the theme of the game’s difficulty and cover up a couple of other loose ends. However, it turns out there’s another ending in Returnal which opens up some new possibilities…
How to Unlock Returnal’s Secret Ending
If you want to unlock Returnal’s secret (and possible “true”) ending, you’ll need to complete the following steps:
- Beat Act 2 once and access the base ending.
- Find the six Sunface Fragments spread across each Biome in the game. Their locations are somewhat randomized relative to when you’ll find them, but they do appear in specific rooms in each Biome you can eventually encounter. You also don’t need to collect them all in one run.
- Complete all “House Sequences” across Act 1 and Act 2. These must be completed in order, and you won’t be able to finish them if you don’t have all of the Sunface Fragments.
- The final House Sequence should take you to a room where you find a Car Key. Take that item.
- Complete Returnal’s second Act again, defeat Ophion, and use the Car Key on the sedan you find at the bottom of the crater. This will trigger the secret ending.
Returnal Secret Ending Explained
Returnal’s secret ending sees Selene confront a strange figure in a wheelchair. The figure soon jumps up and grabs Selene by the throat, but Selene is able to fight them off. It’s then that we see that the creature’s name is Theia: the name of Selene’s mother. From here, Selene is transported to another world. She soon finds herself standing in the middle of a bridge in her spacesuit as a car swerves to avoid her and crashes into the water below.
After that, we move to the perspective of one of the car’s survivors as they swim to the surface. We don’t see them reach the surface, but we do hear Selene cry “Helios” (the name of her ship) just before the credits roll.
Wow. Well, it’s obvious enough that this ending implies that Selene was transported back in time and was the astronaut that caused the car accident. This ending (and the house sequence events that precede it) also seem to confirm that Selene wasn’t the one driving the car in the original ending and that she was the child. The real driver was her mom, Theia.
If that’s true, then it seems like we have to reinterpret the events of the other ending and the game itself. My theory is that Selene’s time paradox is both literal and metaphorical. Along with the idea that Selene was the figure that caused the car crash years ago, an earlier scene suggests that Selene paradoxically shot down her own ship. This would imply that Selene does have control over her situation (to a degree) and that not everything we’re seeing is a dream or metaphor.
Metaphorically speaking, though, the thematic implication is that Selene was caught in a time loop in her own life by trying to live out the dreams of space exploration that her mother couldn’t as a result of potentially being paralyzed after that car accident (although the wheelchair could again be a metaphor). We even see a letter during one of the house sequences that suggest her mother was rejected for such a program due to physical condition.
In fact, one of the biggest implications of those house sequences is that Selene became obsessed with the idea of exploring space at an early age partially because it was her own mother’s obsession and seemed to be a way that they could occasionally bond. It’s possible that obsession grew as Selene did and that she ignored other parts of her life (possibly her own child) in pursuit of her goal. It’s sometimes a little tough to tell whether or not the child we see in the flashbacks is Selene, Selene’s child, or a combination of both, but the fact it’s hard to always tell could strengthen the argument that Selene and her child lived similar lives.
I also believe the game’s secret ending is its “real” ending if for no other reason than most stories have more than two acts. The fact this ending is found in the third act seems to suggest it is the canonical conclusion.
That being the case, it appears that this ending implies that Selene does eventually escape the time loop after mechanically finding the pieces required to break the cycle and escapes her own hereditary time loop by realizing the full implication of some of the events that led her here. There’s also the possibility that the person we see escape the car in this ending is young Selene who can now choose a different life from a young age, but hearing Selene shout “Helios” suggests to me that she has returned to her ship and can go back home.
Speaking of Helios, there’s also the historical significance of all of the names in the game. Helios is the god of the sun in Greek mythology, Selene is the goddess of the moon, and Theia is the mother of Helios and Selene. There’s also the matter of the planet’s name: Atropos. In Greek mythology, Atropos was the oldest of the three fates of destiny and the one responsible for “cutting the thread” and ending mortal lives. Yes, Atropos kills Selene over and over, but given that a new thread is measured each time, is it possible that one of them avoided that fate or that Selene was paradoxically able to reshape her circumstances? Does the scene in which Selene grabs the car keys imply that she’s now in control?
Basically, I’m willing to accept the purgatory explanation as it covers a lot of narrative ground and seems to be the simplest solution available, but it feels much more likely to me that whatever we’re seeing at the end of Returnal is designed to suggest that Selene has broken both a literal time loop and a more thematic one that was quietly haunting her life. Given how weird this whole thing is, though, be sure to share your interpretations and suggestions in the comments below.