With Returnal, the next PS5 exclusive game will be released on April 30th, but we were already allowed to take a look at new gameplay material and then ask the leading developer at Housemarque holes in the stomach. Game Director Harry Kruger as well as Narrative Director Gregory Louden and Marketing Director Mikael Haveri answered our questions for over half an hour. You can find a copy of the very interesting interview in this article. Among other things, it is about the structure of the game, the story in Returnal and the progression through death in the game.
PCG: Returnal (buy now € 79.99 ) is Housemarque's largest production to date. You hired new people, expanded the studio, and changed the structure to develop Triple-A games from now on. So there were some changes during development and then came the corona pandemic. How did you handle it? Has the pandemic had any impact on your work on Returnal?
Mikael Haveri: That's a good question, because yes, a lot has changed for us. Our studio has grown and we are now around 85 people here in Helsinki and we are supported by outside Sony staff. Regarding the pandemic, our luck was that we started developing Returnal about four years ago. It is of course much easier to continue something that is already well advanced than to be just about to start a new project for which you have to reorient yourself. But admittedly, the switch to home office during development was of course a challenge for us as well. However, we are all the more proud of the size and quality of our game and we look forward to releasing it soon.
PCG: You've been working with Sony for a while now, but the release of Returnal is a little different than your last games. Since the PS5 is still fresh on the market and you are now releasing a triple A game, people are suddenly expecting the new big exclusive blockbuster from you. How do you deal with this unfamiliar pressure?
Source: Sony / Housemarque
Harry Kruger: We are very pleased that we are releasing a launch title again in the extended launch period. We were already at the forefront with the PS3 and PS4. With Returnal we hope to deliver a showcase that shows what the hardware is capable of. Of course, this puts a little more pressure on us, but we don't even notice it because we're always focused on creating the best possible gaming experience and making full use of the technology.
PCG: In Returnal we take control of the protagonist Selene, who is not only stranded on a strange planet, but is also trapped in a time loop – in other words: If you die in the game, you have to start all over again. How do you make sure that you don't lose interest in the game when you have to restart over and over again?
Harry Kruger: That's right, our main character Selene is stuck in an endless loop, where even death is no way out. If Selene dies, the game starts again at the point in time when she crashes with her spaceship on Atropos. The interesting thing, however, is that the game world changes with each death. I like to compare that to a rat trapped in an ever-changing maze. The rogue-like aspect of the game is that the game is different every time you have to restart. We designed Returnal to be both challenging and rewarding. No run will be like the other. The paths are different, there are accumulations of other enemies and of course other loot as well as skills to upgrade Selene's weapon. So you experience a completely different story every time you play the Returnal.
PCG: In a Playstation blog article from January you mentioned that it should be possible to buy checkpoints with in-game currency so that if you lose your screen you don't have to start from scratch and you don't lose all of your equipment. How exactly does the feature work and can you use multiple checkpoints in one run?
Source: Sony / Housemarque
Harry Kruger: Buying checkpoints is a way of spending collected in-game currency, and there are also several ways to outwit death or death-related restart. One of them is to buy a checkpoint. One of these checkpoints can be set per area. But there will also be various upgrades and items that help you avoid the restart. For example, there is an item that is kind of an extra life. When you die, you will be brought back to life exactly where you died. This is just an example now, but we really use a well thought-out system to support the player in a balanced way on every run. For example there are also parasites. A parasite may give you this ability to evade death, but it will also negatively affect you in some way. We want players to take risks and be rewarded for it, and we also want players to make some tricky decisions that affect gameplay.
PCG: How long does it take to play the game through in a single run, if that is possible at all?
Mikael Haveri: Theoretically, it is possible to end the game in just one run, but you did not play the game properly because you missed important story elements and certain features. To really experience Returnal, you have to die a few times. That's why you can't really tie the play through to hours of play. We measure it more by the number of deaths. The average gamer will probably die about ten times before mastering an area including a boss. If you reach a new area, you start from the beginning and no longer at the time of the crash. If a player is very unhappy, there are of course more deaths to the boss, but as I said, every run feels unique and motivating and introduces new things, so that you stay on the ball even if you bite the grass a lot. But death is clearly a determining element of the game.
PCG: What was your inspiration for Returnal? When I saw the first trailer back then, I thought: "Cool, it seems a bit like a mixture of alienation and dead space."
Source: Sony / Housemarque
Harry Kruger: Oh, there were a lot of influences. Especially from the dark sci-fi area. Also cosmic horror or horror by Lovecraft as well as psychological topics. All of this not only significantly influenced the look of the game, but also certain philosophical motifs that we take up in our story. The creatures on Atropos were mainly influenced by deep-sea animals. The alien design is based on real scary creatures. Our previous games were also a great inspiration. We have created unique action in previous games that we want to offer in Returnal, but even better and more extreme.
PCG: Although previous Housemarque games also had a story, Returnal is your first game that really should tell a story – did you have to change the way you develop games a lot?
Harry Kruger: In many ways, Returnal is the biggest, most ambitious project we've ever worked on. For the very first time, we have our own team responsible for the story. I think you can imagine that we didn't hire our own story team for Resogun or Nex Machina. So we had to adjust our development path a bit, because gameplay and narration have to go hand in hand. I think Greg can say a little more.
Gregory Louden: The narration is a very big part of Returnal. The story should motivate and drive the player. It should provide aha-moments when the player gets a better insight into the history of the game world after a death. Our goal was not to just tell a story, but a story that would fit in with a rogue-like and especially the explosive action gameplay that you are used to from Housemarque. Our team took a close look at the gameplay of past Housemarque games and found that the feel of the game was catchy, but also layered. We then wanted to tell a multi-layered story that was very dark, but in a way very nice to you. When you finish Returnal you will have some questions. We want Returnal to be one of those players that you think about after the credits have ended and you put the individual story pieces together for yourself. Another of our goals was to create an eerie atmosphere without being a pure horror game. Returnal is a sci-fi action thriller that is supposed to grab the player and not let go. Just like previous Housemarque games you won't let go, because you discover more and more depth in the gameplay and sink into it. And to your previous questions: Players who fail frequently even have the advantage of being able to learn more about the story and the game world than professionals who just rush through. I think that's not only getting us action veterans but also casual gamers. Anyway, we're all very proud of the story and can't wait to tell the players out there.
Source: Sony / Housemarque
PCG: Returnal may not be a pure horror game, but you could already see in the trailers that it uses some horror elements. In order to implement horror in games, it depends on good timing and you have to know how to control the emotions of the players in a targeted manner – how do you do that when the areas in the game are procedurally generated? So you can rely less on scripts such as a Resident Evil.
Gregory Louden: Of course we can't use jumpscares like this, but we didn't want that either. Our goal is rather subliminal horror, so that the player feels insecure. We don't want the player to be frightened for a moment and then just keep playing. We want to confront the player with things that stick, that are not so easy to ignore, that you think about.
Harry Kruger: Exactly. In our story, we address a few issues that are worrying and will take the player away. This creates a completely different form of horror. The combination of a multi-layered story, a mysterious game world and the tough action gameplay makes Returnal a very unique experience in our opinion.
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