When describing Returnal to anyone who’s maybe interested in the game, I’ve been relying on that classic “comparison” technique. For instance, I might say that Returnal is like “Risk of Rain meets Metroid,” or that its gameplay reminds me of a “Bullet hell shooter crossed with a roguelike.”
Most people know that those kinds of comparisons are rarely accurate. However, they offer a simple way of describing something new by comparing it to things that are already known and more established. More often than not, the best way to get someone to try something different is to base your description of it on something familiar.
Yet, the one comparison I haven’t been able to shake whenever I think of Returnal is also the one that I don’t make lightly or just throw out there to get people interested in the game. No, it’s a more complicated comparison that highlights one of Returnal‘s most brilliant qualities, even if it’s not necessarily one of the game’s biggest selling points from a back-of-the-box perspective.
See, Returnal isn’t just a roguelike with Metroidvania elements or a bullet hell game converted into a third-person shooter. It’s also a shockingly effective horror game that combines the best aspects of two of the greatest horror movies ever made: Alien and Hereditary.
Returnal‘s Alien comparisons are easy enough to understand even from the outset. The game’s opening throws you into the thick of a hostile alien world with an overwhelming atmosphere that is clearly designed to provoke that same feeling of isolation we saw in that classic 1979 movie. Even that film’s famous tagline (“In space, no one can hear you scream”) is based on the idea of facing an indescribable terror without anyone being there to respond to even the most primordial cry for help.
Returnal‘s protagonist, Selene, may be better trained and better equipped for such a scenario than the crew of the Nostromo were (Dead Space does a “better” job of reviving Alien‘s blue-collar sci-fi themes), but there’s still this lingering sense that you are fundamentally unprepared for whatever it is that you’ve just stumbled upon.
It’s when you start to explore Returnal‘s world that the Alien comparisons really establish themselves, though. Remember the scene in Alien when the crew discovers that giant skeletal figure sitting near what initially appears to be some kind of weapon? Long before we started calling it the “Space Jockey” and long before it became the centerpiece of a deep piece of franchise lore, that figure was largely meant to make you say “WTF?” as you wondered just what the crew and we as the audience had just walked into. This isn’t just a story about a killer alien; it’s a trip into a much larger world that none of the travelers understand.
Returnal effectively utilizes a similar trick. Through the use of Dark Souls‘ style storytelling in which much of the lore and explanations are hidden in descriptions, logs, and environmental clues, Returnal effectively keeps us at a distance at all times whenever you just want a basic understanding of what’s happening. Besides, most players will be more concerned moment to moment with surviving another onslaught from hostile forces than they will be with uncovering the history and nature of those forces or why you are all caught in a time loop together.
This is where you really see how Returnal‘s designers and writers clearly understand what really made the horror in Alien so effective. If Alien and Returnal were all about you vs. hostile creatures, you might eventually become comfortable with your situation. Sometimes, having an obvious enemy to distract you can make things clearer even if only for a little while. Instead, both stories use that hostile force as the piece of a much larger puzzle that you know exists but just can’t clearly see in any way that allows you to understand and make peace with it.
Returnal and Alien make it clear that you didn’t just run into a bad neighborhood in space; you’ve found yourself in the middle of something that you may never truly understand and simply don’t belong in. In both cases, the worst moments come when the adrenaline stops and you realize that you’re more alone than you ever imagined was possible.
That’s where Returnal pulls off its greatest trick. Rather than allow you to find comfort in whatever knowledge you may gain from analyzing your thoughts and making some sense of your situation, it corrupts those thoughts by sending the message that the only thing worse than being alone on a planet of hostile creatures is being alone with yourself. That’s when the horrors of Hereditary enter the picture.
Among other things, Hereditary was the horror movie of the “23andMe” generation. At a time when we’re more aware than ever of how our genetics can quietly shape our fate, Hereditary highlighted the horror of feeling like you can’t escape the circumstances that led you to wherever you are in life no matter how hard you believe you are trying. There’s nothing scarier than feeling helpless, and Hereditary emphasized the idea that the most powerful force we’re helpless against is often internal rather than external.
Returnal plays with a similar idea through its brilliant house sequences. Early in the game, you encounter a fairly traditional-looking house that certainly doesn’t seem like it belongs on an alien planet. Without diving too deeply into spoilers, this house certainly doesn’t belong on this world as its foundations are firmly set in the mind of our protagonist.
The scenes in this house briefly convert Returnal from a third-person action game to a first-person horror game just as it changes our perspective on who Selene is, what this planet is, and why we are all really in this incredible situation. We may think that Selene’s greatest challenge is escaping the time loop seemingly triggered by the external forces that inhabit the planet she crashed on, but the scenes in this house argue that even if Selene escapes the planet, there’s another loop that overwhelms her own life that she may never be able to escape in such a heroic way.
Just as Hereditary was built on the concept that some of the horrors that affect our lives the most are planted in us at a time when we’re most helpless (childhood) and complemented that idea with a more fantastical demonic story that played with similar themes (as well as our expectations of them), Returnal suggests that the concept of a time loop isn’t quite as alien as it seems. Who among us hasn’t felt trapped in the feeling that we’ve lost control of our lives and are stuck in a pattern but haven’t been able to explain the feeling in such a way that offers a form of release and relief?
The theory that the events of Hereditary and Returnal are somehow in the protagonist’s head is less interesting than the realization that what we’re seeing is the embodiment of this lingering, formless fear that has lived inside of them. They’ve wanted that feeling to be out of them, and it’s only when it’s manifested itself in such a way that they can truly appreciate the horror of this indescribable terror that’s burrowed into their souls and has been living with them this entire time.
By combining the best of Alien and Hereditary, Returnal puts us in a place where external terrors isolate us by weighing us down with the inescapable feeling that we do not belong here. That isolation forces us to turn inward for a place to breathe, but it’s there that a reexamination of ourselves reveals that the worst place we can imagine (a place where you are truly alone and doomed to repeat your mistakes) may indeed be exactly where we belong because its the world we’ve made for ourselves or were perhaps somehow destined to always arrive at.