Back to Atropos — An interview with Returnal Narrative Director Gregory Louden of Housemarque

In my mind, Returnal is one of the most unique games I’ve played in quite some time. This Game Of The Year contender came out of nowhere honestly, yeah, it looked neat, but no one knew what to expect from a studio without any AAA titles under their built and a propensity to go against the grain with their gameplay. But talent and creativity are needed in a scene that features too many copies, and what Returnal has done has left an impression on anyone who picks up a DualSense and journeys to Atropos. With the new 2.0 update hitting the game (adding a suspend save and photo mode), we reached out to ask a few questions to Housemarque’s Narrative Director on Returnal, Gregory Louden, and he had some great things to say. We hope you enjoy this extra look at one of the best games to release in 2021!

Preview - Let's Play Returnal! - PS5 [Gaming Trend]

Gaming Trend: What do you feel were challenges you faced moving from smaller projects to something of a AAA scope?

Gregory Louden: Returnal was the first step in our evolution for all of us at Housemarque going from top down and side scrollers to now 3rd person shooters. It was filled with many challenges artistically, technologically and game design wise. However our biggest goal despite all of this was to keep our identity and DNA intact through continuing our goals of “Gameplay is king”, replayability, tight controls and games that are defined by being “easy to pick up, hard to master”. However as a studio we also wanted to evolve and create something bigger, bolder and even more ambitious. Our amazing partners ( and now family ) at Playstation Studios were able to support this, and the result was Returnal.

As a team we all came together to follow the original concept from Harry Krueger and Harri Tikkanen of a character driven dark sci-fi action time loop thriller with psychological elements. Last but not least it involved creating a narrative team from scratch to help tell the concepts deep and compelling story for players to replay and rethink as they fight through Returnal. With this vision and foundation all of the teams involved built our gameplay, the narrative, the art, the sound and technology to service this.

Lastly we also wanted to be a showcase for Playstation 5 through 3D Audio, Fast Loading, DualSense and more. So it was many challenges but we’re very proud and happy with the results. Along with feeling very inspired to be part of Playstation Studios ahead.

GT: A lot of people talk about the game being “too hard”. Do you think Returnal is intentionally difficult?

GL: With Returnal we intended to create a challenging but rewarding experience, and dying is part of it. We also wanted to give the experience of fighting, dying and learning with Selene on Atropos as it evolves and changes on every cycle. So this sense of challenge and replaying was essential to our vision of Returnal’s experience. As Selene dies over and over on Atropos, we wanted players to also connect with this. By the end players through this challenge ideally feel every gut-wrenching death with Selene and eventually overcome this challenge to reach the conclusion.

GT: With that in mind, the newly added “suspend” option is certainly appreciated. How did the decision making process work in looking for a feature that helped players out, but didn’t compromise the integrity of the game?

GL: On Returnal’s release we really appreciated all of the feedback and support from players. As a team we looked over it all, reflected on the release and two big things were raised and we wanted to deliver them with Returnal 2.0, “Photo Mode” and “Suspend Cycle”. With “Suspend Cycle” our goal was to keep our vision of Selene’s journey on Atropos where every cycle is generated and unique, but also allow players to suspend this unique generation and experience it at their own pace.

It was a big undertaking for the team at Housemarque and we worked on the design, technology and functionality since release. It took a lot of testing and effort, but we are very proud of the results and we hope players appreciate this addition to Returnal. We feel it allows us to keep our vision of the shape-shifting and mysterious Atropos while also allowing a bit more flexibility as well. It is also optional and must be activated for every use, so players can choose or not choose to use it ahead. I personally think it’s a game changer and a great addition and has been great to play Returnal with “Suspend Cycle” and “Photo Mode” with 2.0.

Returnal - The House on Atropos - PS5 [Gaming Trend]

GT: Playing the game you can see nods to things like Alien or Metroid, even if unintentional. Are there any games or movies that influenced what you did in Returnal specifically, especially that we may not know about or notice?

GL: We were influenced by classic dark science-fiction films and literature, psychological thrillers along with Lovecraftian and Lynchian atmospheres. We have done lots of research to create something unique for players to explore, while also respecting previous greats. Our biggest reference for Returnal gameplay has been our own Housemarque games, but we wanted to evolve them within a new perspective. We wanted to bring all of our experience to this new perspective and share our view of what 3rd person shooters can be ahead.

Despite all of these influences we wanted to create something unique and unconventional with Returnal.

GT: Housemarque certainly seems to shy away from traditional game making, at least in terms of genre. Do you think the team will continue to stick with the bullet hell stylings, or is Returnal your grand finale?

GL: At Housemarque we are proud of our DNA and what makes our games unique.

I can’t share anything at this time about what’s next but like every Housemarque game it will be an evolution of all our games before it.

GT: Similarly with the roguelike/lite genre, what made the team decide to go that route? And on that note, which came first, the story or the genre selection?

GL: Our original concept was to tell a character driven dark sci-fi action time loop thriller with psychological elements. We also are heavily invested in wanting to make highly replayable games across all of our games. So investing and creating a special death cycle and world that shuffles on Atropos was an early idea to ensure a consistent and unpredictable challenge. We also had our ending, our main character and general direction established early on. From this setup we developed it further layer by layer and component by component in the final version you get to play today with Returnal.

GT: Selene is an exceptional character. Where did the ideas for her originate? What influenced her design?

GL: Selene Vassos, our Greek-American ASTRA deep space scout, was with us from the original concept. We knew we wanted to tell a mysterious, layered, and haunting story and she is the crucial element of it. We wanted to create a character and story that lingers and stays with you. We also wanted to unveil her story piece by piece and created her to be complicated, confident, intelligent and driven to a fault. We knew her past and what took her to Atropos, and our narrative design and storytelling it in Returnal. We also wanted to tell a character driven story that could only be told in games. As Returnal loops with Selene you understand her layer by layer in a non-linear way.

Returnal - Ixion Boss Fight - PS5 [Gaming Trend]

GT: Lastly, I’ve got to ask, favorite boss? Favorite enemy?

GL: My favourite boss is definitely Ixion at the peak of the Crimson Wastes. I love the score by Bobby Krlic ( Haxan Cloak ) and the intensity of it. First time I beat Ixion I jumped up and was very happy. Favourite enemy would have to be Kereberon, the first enemy we introduce in the Overgrown Ruins and haunts players throughout. I recommend players examine the sounds they make. It’s sounds actually are clues for Returnal’s ending if you listen in…

Returnal is available now on PS5, and you can grab a physical or digital copy through the available platforms. We loved Returnal and gave it a 90/100, and if you want to know more, check out our review right here.

Lead Video Game Editor | [email protected]

David Burdette is a gamer/writer/content creator from TN and Lead Editor for Gaming Trend. He loves Playstation, Star Wars, Marvel, and many other fandoms. He also plays way too much Call Of Duty. You can chat with him on Twitter @SplitEnd89.

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