Returnal‘s hybrid shooter and roguelite gameplay is mostly why critics have showered glowing praise upon it, but its bizarre story is also worth a similar amount of acclaim. However, the storytelling is mostly told indirectly through flashbacks, weird hallucinations, journals, and audio logs. It’s structured in a way where many people will have different interpretations of it as they piece together what they think it all means. Even though there probably isn’t one definitive answer, here are our best theories about Returnal’s ending.
The Returnal ending, explained
Returnal’s true ending can only be unlocked after beating Act 3. This requires multiple steps and might take players some time to accomplish. But doing all the proper steps does unlock a new ending cutscene, even though the fight preceding it is the same.
This ending shows Selene confronting the decrepit woman in the wheelchair and throwing her to the ground. It then flashes and implies that Selene was the astronaut the whole time as the other Selene crashes the car into the astronaut Selene. The driver Selene that plunged into the lake then swims up to the surface of the water as it cuts to black. She gasps, “Helios!” before it goes to credits.
There are a couple ways to interpret this. “Helios” is the name of her ship and this implies that she has not escaped Atropos since her ship, Helios, is at the beginning of every loop. The game also continues on like normal and restarts the loop once again after the credits finish as if she has fallen back into the cycle.
It is also possible to see it as her calling out to her son named Helios, which would mean that she escaped the loop and found him (even though he’d probably still be inside the sinking car). The screen is black during this segment so there’s no definitive answer and the duality of the word “Helios” in this context keeps it ambiguous.
But there is much more to it than that and depends on how literal your interpretation of the game is. Even though there is some room to see it as an actual journey into space that has gone awry, the game more heavily supports the idea that Selene was never an astronaut and therefore did not venture out into the stars. In this scenario, Atropos would appear to be some sort of purgatory brought upon her by the big monster in the lake she crashed into.
Her problems could be manifesting as the events seen in the game, especially given how it indicates that she was a poor, absentee mother to Helios. This gives more meaning to the “Helios abandoned” message that pops up at the start of every loop as the player moves into the first room away from the ship. Every loop also begins with her ship crashing, symbolically mirroring her car crash that put her into the loop.
She also spins a globe in the house and says she “always wanted to leave,” hinting that she wanted to become an astronaut. The letter in the second house sequence is also a rejection letter to an “applicant” from Astra, which gives credence to this theory.
Who is the driver?
There’s also some debate on who the driver is at the end of the game, but it appears to be Selene. The big Eldritch-like being does take away the driver and this would make sense if it was Selene as it looks like her and Helios is in the back seat.
He is the same child that the player controls in a couple of the house sequences (although he is referred to as “Child” in the subtitles) and is also wearing the same watch both instances.
The driver’s identity would normally not be a point of contention, but some think it is Theia in the driver’s seat here as she was also in an accident with her child, Selene. However, this is likely more of the game showing cyclical patterns and further tying it to its roguelite foundation. The two stories surrounding the car crash sound almost identical and there are a lot parental issues going on, making it easier to mistake them for the same sequence.
The news report in the house flashback sequences states that a car veered off a bridge and the driver sustained spinal injuries and the “daughter was miraculously” fine. “Daughter” entails that this crash is about Selene and her mother. And, as shown in the final cutscene, Selene also drove off a bridge with her child in the car.
Selene also had trouble with her mother. Given how the person behind the wheel sustained potentially paralyzing injuries and the implied bad relationship between Selene and her mom, it would suggest that the woman in the wheelchair is a twisted form of her mother. Selene puts on a record and states how “she never liked this vinyl” and threateningly proclaims, “Mother, I’m home” at the final home sequence. This is far more explicit at the end of that final sequence as she says, “I regret what happened, but you deserved it” before throwing the wheelchair monster to the ground. Short blips of the wheelchair monster also pop up on the screen during some death loading screens like a subconscious horror invading her dying thoughts.
The game also illustrates that Helios also had problems with his mom. He’s home all by himself in the playable house sequences. Selene’s neglectful voicemail is on the answering machine as he struggles to find food while alone at home. The astronaut is at the table like some sort of hallucinated parental figure, which would make sense given Helios’ fascination with space (a possible interest passed down from his mother) and the distance between him and Selene.
Returnal is all about cycles so it would make sense that Selene also abandoned her child and made the same mistakes as her mom, including crashing her car with a child inside. Selene even says she and her mother were “both broken” at the final house sequence. So, while similar and easy to blend into one story, that’s exactly the point. And, as an aside, in Greek mythology, Theia is Selene’s mother, after all (but in Greek mythology, Helios is also Selene’s brother, making these ties a little bizarre).
There is possibly an interpretation that Theia and Selene are the same person or a version of Selene (as there appear to be many, given the amount of corpses on Atropos and recordings of past Selenes). But this doesn’t appear to be as strongly supported as the other theories.
Who is the astronaut and what does it mean?
It is rather clear (for this game’s standards, at least) that the astronaut is Selene in some form — she even morphs into it in the final scene in the above picture — but there are a few ways to read into it. One avenue is thinking that Selene is an actual astronaut that went to space and left her family behind. However, this is a more literal interpretation that seemingly goes against some of the other pieces of aforementioned evidence.
The other more supported avenue would be looking at Selene being an astronaut in the metaphorical sense because she was a distant parent that also happened to want to be an astronaut. There are a few examples that show the schism between Selene and Helios like when she grabs his toy octopus in the second house sequence and it begins to strangle her and when she tries to open the door to his room in the first house sequence and she can’t bring herself to.
Returnal supports all sorts of different theories and there still may be secrets out there that could change everything. It’s hard to say, but it’s remarkable that Housemarque was able to craft a game where the story is seemingly as recursive and longstanding as its gameplay.