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Returnal is, of course, a hard game. But not just from a gameplay perspective, which will see players dash and dodge through thousands of neon lights on their way to the end, but also from a narrative point of view.
Typically when a game is as challenging as this, the trade-off is a basic framework story that’s only intended to get you from one place to the next. The exceptions are games like the From Software collection, however even those obtuse stories can spell things out with less mystery than Returnal.
For a game with such a basic and instantly eye-catching premise (you crash land on a hostile planet, and every time you die, you crash land again), the deep web of intrigue that permeates the game is among the reasons it was met with such critical acclaim when it was released.
But balancing a difficult game and a story that requires more textual analysis than your average English exam isn’t easy, so we were keen to talk to one of the people responsible for threading that needle – and thankfully, developer Housemarque obliged.
Eevi Korhonen is a senior narrative designer at the Finnish studio who has been with the company for almost four years. Prior to that, she worked as a game designer at nearby Remedy Entertainment on games like Control, giving her near top billing on two of the most entertaining, and narratively complex new IPs in recent years.
So what was it like to work on Housemarque’s first narrative focused AAA game, how did it balance the story in a rogue-like, and how did Sony, Housemarque’s new owner, react during the development of one of PlayStation 5‘s biggest and boldest exclusives?
“Initially, I don’t think we faced too much pressure, at least we didn’t feel it from the Sony side, it was more the pressure of wanting to do right by Housemarque,” Korhonen told VGC.
“This was our first foray into AAA, the first time we were really investing in the story. Housemarque set up an official narrative team and I was the first official member, so I felt more pressure to do right by that. Sony published many Housemarque games so at the start it felt normal, but I think that expanded a lot during the course of the project as the scope grew bigger than we expected it to be.”
Housemarque’s previous narratives have offered basic frameworks for the arcade action, so few expected such a departure into a dark-sci-fi third-person shooter. David Lynch and Ridley Scott’s Alien were the two cultural hallmarks that creative director Harry Krueger wanted to hit when discussing the game pre-release, and Korhonen says that’s among what drew her to the project.
“We didn’t quite know what Returnal was going to be when we started building it. Now that we have figured it out and that the formula worked so well, we’re looking at what’s next.”
“When I joined, we already had the creative vision from our creative director Harry Krueger,” she explained. “I was intrigued and I wanted to get on board because it sounded like something different that I don’t think other AAA games had done, especially with the combination of the genre. That was the challenge. It was dark, it was creepy. But it also dealt with really mature themes. I wanted to make sure we hit that mark and treated the topics respectfully.
“I was also really interested because it was like ‘hey, we could do an older female protagonist who’s not on this pedestal of being perfect in every way. She’s done a lot of things she’s not proud of’. I wanted to be on board for that.”
But exactly how that narrative would take place wasn’t initially clear. While Housemarque has made incredible arcade-style games across its history, there was no blueprint for an ambitious narrative project like this. Unlike Korhonen’s former home, Remedy Entertainment, the studio had to establish what a Housemarque narrative was, at the same time as coming up with the story of Returnal.
Korhonen mentioned last year that she really wanted to explore what a Housemarque narrative means further, beyond the initial attempt with Returnal. We were curious if she thought that she was on the way to achieving this.
“Definitely. We grew so much as a team. We didn’t quite know what Returnal was going to be when we started building it. Now that we have figured it out and that the formula worked so well, we’re looking at what’s next. Now that we’ve been bought by Sony, we have a runway to go even wilder, with all that financial backing and stability.”
Housemarque was acquired by the Japanese console maker in June of 2021. At the time, PlayStation Studios boss Herman Hulst welcomed them with open arms. “I have been a fan of Housemarque since the studio’s early days when they introduced Super Stardust HD to PlayStation fans,” he said in a statement at the time.
But since the acquisition, the team has been dropping hints about what’s coming next. Speaking to VentureBeat in March, Housemarque CEO and co-founder Ilari Kuittinen said the studio’s next project was still in the conception phase. “It’s early days with us starting a new game, a new IP, concepting it out,” he said. “We’ll see what comes with that.”
Korhonen told us that while the next game will indeed be a new IP, some of Returnal’s DNA will flow through the new project. “Returnal was so ambitious. We dreamt super big, but we still had to leave so much on the cutting room floor,” she explained. “All of these ideas and narrative systems. I’m super excited to pick up those pieces and see how those fit our new IP story.
“Now that we’ve been bought by Sony, we have a runway to go even wilder, with all that financial backing and stability.”
“We didn’t quite have the handle on how big [Returnal] was going to be, building for a new platform on a new engine with a new team, all of those things require some learning. Now we have that team that has gone through the fire and learned how to build a game like Returnal. So now we get to start off stronger.”
Korhonen also spoke of the challenges that the team faced developing a narrative that could be delivered to the player through the course of a rogue-like.
“I think we’ve learned the importance of pacing and how difficult that is in a rogue-like game. It’s very hard to control and say ‘okay, now we hit them with this perfect story beat’, that’s kind of the beauty of linear games, you get to control that absolutely perfectly.
“Letting go of that and somehow building the sandbox or the playground for players in a way that means certain story blocks become available is challenging.”
Returnal is steeped in mystery and even players who manage to complete the gruelling main quest may find themselves left with more questions than answers. Korhonen told VGC that making sure the player was getting a clear story while maintaining a sense of wonder and mystery was a challenge.
“It was a tightrope walk. My boss Greg Louden, the narrative director, and I tried to ensure that both sides were included. So I was more, ‘let’s make it more mysterious, let’s let the player puzzle it out with the community’ while Greg was kind of like, ‘okay, but we have to make sure that they understand some of this story’.”
In Returnal, the game’s narrative is conveyed in short bursts, with seemingly random clips flashed at the player. However, there are also longer audio logs and written passages to be found.
“It’s hard to kind of see, even with all this priming, until it’s actually in the game, how is it pacing? How is it looking together with all the other elements? So up until the last moment, we’re still cutting, we’re still editing, and then tweaking the wording and making things a bit clearer.”
However, for Korhonen, this mystery was part of what drew her to the project, and watching the community engage with and unravel said mystery is still something she checks up on, over a year later.
“I’ve been stalking our subreddit, and there have been wonderful little discoveries… there is something I’m still hoping that they will discover about the Tower Sisyphus. It’s not as much of a secret, more like a nice philosophical reference to the name. But nobody has put that on Reddit yet, so I haven’t seen anyone make that connection. But hopefully, someone will maybe after this.”
“I had this idea that Housemarque and Remedy are essentially going for the same thing in different directions. Housemarque is known for its gameplay and Remedy is known for its storytelling”
This kind of narrative mystery that’s heavily reliant on player agency isn’t new to the narrative designer. She previously worked on Control, another sci-fi horror shooter with a female protagonist. We wondered, being that so much narrative NDA seems to be shared between the games, if she felt this is central to the way she likes to tell stories in games.
“I had this idea that Housemarque and Remedy are essentially going for the same thing in different directions. Housemarque is known for its gameplay and Remedy is known for its storytelling, and with Control and Returnal they’re starting to edge together, so I think it’s natural that they feel similar.
“They both give the player a lot of agency and there’s a lot of optional storytelling and world-building on the side, I am very keen on continuing that. I feel like it gives the player choice, and it doesn’t feel forced. You’re never looking for gameplay and then feel like you’re forced to do the story. It means the optional story bits become more rewarding because the player has to engage with them.”
Control and Returnal also both feature female lead characters, still somewhat uncommon in the AAA space, although less so in the era of the Horizon series, and The Last of Us, but we were curious what this meant to her.
“It’s not a 100% must for me to work on a game with a female lead, but it does make me engage with the story more. I think there’s more storytelling we haven’t seen from the female perspective. I’m not opposed to male-led stories, it’s just we’ve seen many of those perspectives. We’ve seen the ‘brown-haired white man goes and saves the world’. You could explore neurodivergent disabled men, it would just be a different perspective to it.
“I feel like female protagonists are an obvious way of getting a new perspective and I have something to contribute to that as part of the team.”
Does this mean we’ll see Selene again? “I can’t comment on that much,” the writer replied with a laugh. “But I think the boys did slip in sometime earlier this year that we are working on an original IP. Of course, if we return to Selene’s story after that, you know, that remains to be seen.”
Returnal’s critical success continued into award season, where it picked up several BAFTA awards, including Best Game. Korhonen called the award ceremony the “experience of a lifetime.”
“It was my biggest award ceremony ever, and I would have been happy if we took home the audio or music award, I really wanted those, I know how hard they worked on that beautiful score. Then we got both of those and just after that, Jane Perry got her award, so that was three of the nine we were nominated for.
“I have very vague recollections of being on stage because it was all so mind-blowing. It was such an honour, and the group of nominees were excellent. Of course, next time I want to go for the narrative BAFTA, but we got Best Game, which was just more amazing than I can put into words… which is difficult because words are my thing!”
Before our time with Eevi Korhonen was up, we wanted to selfishly ask her about a fan-favourite moment from the game, and how it came to be.
Spoilers for the fourth Returnal boss follow…
“The Blue Öyster Cult moment came about because we were thinking like ‘okay, we should have like a meaningful song’ and from the start, we knew we needed the musician boss to have a recognisable melody, so we talked about what songs could fit the theme and someone suggested jokingly ‘What about Don’t Fear the Reaper?’ and we thought it was the obvious choice, but the more we looked at it and the lyrics we started thinking that it was pretty good.
“(laughing) Then we really hoped Sony would cut a deal for it and get it in the budget, so it went from a top of our head joke to in the game.
We asked Eevi what song she’d include in a future game if she could pick anything.
“Purity Ring, especially their earlier stuff, something like Lofticries, I’d love to make a game using that, but that’s just my weirdness.
Returnal is available now on PlayStation 5 and is included in the newly refreshed PlayStation Plus service at the Extra and Premium tiers.