Housemarque are coming out of the wilderness of video game development, having spent three and a half years searching for and then building their answer to the eternal question: “What’s next?” Returnal is that answer. Their biggest game to date, a step away from the purist arcade action of the last decade and a half, and a dramatic step up in the scope and ambition of their production, and yet something that should fundamentally feel familiar.
We’ll start, in an almost fitting way considering the themes of their upcoming game, at the end of our conversation with Housemarque’s Harry Krueger (Game Director) and Mikael Haveri (Director of Business Development and Marketing). It is “definitely the beginning of a brave new chapter for Housemarque,” Harry tells us, “and we feel that with Returnal, we are laying the groundwork and this will largely redefine what players expect from Housemarque in this generation to come.”
For those that don’t know, Housemarque has been lauded through the last decade and a half as one of the masters of arcade action. Super Stardust HD gave way to Dead Nation, Resogun, Alienation and beyond, but the returns on pure arcade games diminished, the company declaring after the launch of Matterfall that they would seek new pastures. That led, quite inevitably, to the announcement of the battle royale Stormdivers, a now-cancelled game that would shift to the third-person perspective for the first time. Instead, the studio as a whole dove into Returnal, expanding to meet the task as well as working with outside developers.
“I think overall it’s been good stepping stones,” Mikael said. “Matterfall was our first Unreal Engine game and then the learnings in between really help us to fine-tune the setup for Returnal. Now, of course, we have the whole team working diligently, plus a lot of help from our publisher. So it’s really the culmination of things getting to this point.” Harry added, “The size of the team has grown quite significantly, and with that, of course, there are new challenges or new ways that we need to adopt for communicating and for iterating over the gameplay, which has been one of our cornerstones in development in previous games as well.”
A shift of genre doesn’t mean that the baby has gone out with the bathwater though. No, it should be clear for anyone to see that there’s still plenty of Housemarque’s roots and DNA deep within Returnal, so while it’s branded a roguelike – “a third person, bullet hell, arcade adventure, enriched with roguelike elements, and with a deep and compelling narrative,” if you will – it’s a more natural evolution.
Roguelike is typically seen as a genre in its own right, but maybe it’s better to think of it as a framework that other genres can live within – Spelunky is a platformer, Enter the Gungeon an arcade bullet-hell shooter, Hades an action-RPG. So within that structure, you’ll find the beating heart of Housemarque still beating. Harry said, “In many ways, [Returnal] does feel like the natural and perhaps inevitable evolution of the Housemarque formula. All of the trademark Housemarque traits that players have learned to recognise and love in our previous games will definitely be present in Returnal and even taken to the next level. Tight and responsive controls, explosive feedback, that satisfying core gameplay loop that just keeps pulling you back for more.”
Wind it back a second. A deep and compelling narrative? Are you telling us that rescuing the humans in Resogun wasn’t deep and engaging?
“It’s a matter of perspective, absolutely,” Mikael replied to my quip. “For those humans, it was the best story and the most important story… But yeah, we do have a little bit more nuance [in Returnal], and actually, very, a lot of layers, the way we tell the story is a very non-linear approach as well. So we’re playing with the art form a lot this time around.”
Melding a story to a roguelike structure is a challenge that has rarely been tackled, with the excellent character-driven narrative of Hades a standout in 2020. However, Selene’s journey through Returnal is an isolated one that’s haunted by its repetition and echoes of herself that ripple through time.
“I think generally combining an evolving narrative with a kind of roguelike structure is something fairly new – it’s definitely new for us in many ways,” Harry said, “and I think it just comes down to embracing the fundamental nature of roguelike games, which is about death and rebirth. […] So there are many layers to the story that will only be uncovered as you replay the game. As you die, you try again and again, you will be uncovering these layers to the story. So you’ll be drip feeding some, for example, logs, or other Selene corpses that you can find that give you these small insights into these other lifetimes that Selene has lived and died on the planet.”
Then there’s the spooky house that you might come across, suddenly shifting the pace of the game, stepping further outside Housemarque’s comfort zones to inject moments of more deliberate psychological horror.
“In addition to the third-person run and gun and exploration and intense action, we shift to a first-person perspective, to have a more intimate, let’s say, contact with Selene’s mysterious past. So there are these house sequences that I don’t want to say too much to not spoil the story, but these give you a really different kind of connection to exploring Selene’s memories, and also gives our 3D audio a good opportunity to shine as well.”
He continued, “The internal keyword for our story has been mystery. Our goal has been to haunt the player and these are exactly the kind of questions that we’re hoping that players will take away from the game as well. Just wondering about, was this the first time that she was here? When did she come? How many other lifetimes? Why doesn’t she remember, you know, what happened before and after? […]These are definitely the kind of things and questions we want players to be asking as well as they’re playing Returnal as they unfold the mystery.”
It’s going to be fascinating to see how the story can sink its hooks into players, and the first element of that will be stepping out of Selene’s crashed space ship for the very first time, encountering a dark and foreboding world filled with menacing alien beasts.
Harry recalled, “When we first started, we just allowed ourselves to dream, you know, and we thought, okay, what’s what speaks to us? What resonates with us? So we started immediately with dark sci-fi as kind of a theme there, so definitely [H.R. Geiger], but also with a bit of this cosmic horror or Lovecraftian Horror, kind of sprinkled there as well. That has influenced our aesthetic, our world-building and also a lot of the philosophical themes we explore throughout the game as well.”
And for the enemies, “We took a lot of inspiration from deep-sea creatures and bioluminescence there, which are arguably some of the most alien things that one can find on our own planet. And aside from looking, of course, quite spectacular, these also tie in nicely to gameplay readability as well. So from that perspective, you can see that one of our biggest inspirations has also been just our previous catalogue of games. This neon inspired really bright high contrast, explosive action that’s there and just taken to the next level in Returnal, and now it’s contrasted against a much darker bleaker and deeper, I would say, world in the background.”
One thing Mikael highlighted was that, with unfamiliar alien forms and “when they have a ton of tentacles,” you need to be certain from their animation when they’re building up to attack you. There’s little leeway for failure in a roguelike.
The aim is, much as with Housemarque’s arcade titles, for there to be replayability. A lot of that comes from the procedural generation – as is typical, this leans on having hand-crafted rooms that are filled with varying enemies and appearing in different orders and layouts – and then there’s the biomes, with rooms able to appear thematically in multiple forms, and the varying weaponry, power-ups and abilities that you’ll acquire, or choose to acquire on a given run.
The game you have before you will expand through multiple plays as well, the meta-game progression opening up new options for you.
Mikael revealed, “You always start at the crash landing, but as you do unlock some items and the perma-progression side, they will then give you more options, and our level design is in such a way that there are multiple layers of entry points and you can go deeper into the side stuff or skipping things. If you feel very confident about taking on challenges.
Harry added, “The way that we’ve designed the game is that it expands the more you play it. So in the beginning, you have a fairly limited kind of pathway, limited options, you just have to overcome the challenges. As you get more and more abilities, like your melee, your hookshot, keys to other biomes, slowly the world will expand. As you replay the game, it will just be richer with possible options in terms of player progression in terms of traversal, and more flexibility in which order you tackle the biomes as well. In many ways, you will be teased by a lot of these obstacles.
“The first time you play, you will see some, you know, some faraway area that you cannot access or a ledge that’s teasing you with the shiny collectible that you cannot reach yet. That’s designed in a way to build curiosity and intrigue, and when you finally get these permanent upgrades, in some ways, it recontextualizes the entire content for you. So you have this excitement to go back, revisit all of those same areas and gain access to entirely new content and progression.”
To bring things full circle, let’s visit the start of our interview, the first question that I’m sure from all that you’ve just read you can figure out for yourself: What does the name ‘Returnal’ represent?
“So in Returnal, the central theme is that our character Selene is trapped in a time loop. Every time that she dies on this hostile alien planet, she is brought back just moments before the inevitable crash landing, and she’s trapped in this cycle that she cannot escape from. So in a way she is returning eternally, over and over, and reliving that same nightmare. So that’s where the name comes from. Of course, it’s a combination of return and eternal.”
Thanks to Harry and Mikael for taking the time to speak with us. You can find our companion Returnal preview here. That past, present and future of Selene’s tortured quest across this alien world will be out on PlayStation 5 on 30th April 2021.