Image courtesy of Housemarque

Deciphering the narrative-driven procedural horror of Returnal

Brian Crecente
Headquartered in Helsinki, Finland, Housemarque is a game developer working on console and PC. True to the core gamer audience, Housemarque prioritizes stratified gameplay mechanics and impeccable audiovisual execution to create euphoric gaming experiences. Housemarque was co-founded in 1995 by Harri Tikkanen and Ilari Kuittinen. Prior to joining forces, Harri and Ilari founded two of Finland’s first game development studios – Bloodhouse and Terramarque. Today, Housemarque is one of the most experienced and well-known developers of downloadable games for console platforms, with a successful track record spanning 25-plus years and has developed titles for PS4 including Resogun, Alienation, Matterfall, and Nex Machina.
Returnal blends the death and design of a roguelike with otherworldly visuals and a storyline that unravels with each new attempt at surviving on the monstrous planet of Atropos. 

Developed by Housemarque, the game is a marked departure for a studio best known for its eye-candy arcade-like shoot ‘em ups. 

We chatted with some of the team about its decision to make the leap to third-person AAA development, how its roots helped to inspire the Lovecraftian look of Returnal, and why PlayStation 5 and its next-gen tech was the right home for their playable horrorscape.

Housemarque is best known for its frenetic, arcade-inspired games, but in 2018, you announced your decision to transition away from these titles and into what you called AAA development. How did that decision impact the design choices behind Returnal?

Mikael Haveri, Business Developer and Marketing Director:
Gameplay as a nuanced core pillar still stands strongly at the center of our upcoming games. We want to continue our iterative design process in larger games as well and try to find interesting and fun mechanics to add to already proven types of gameplay experiences. When the game is intuitive enough, players can get into a flow state and really realize their role and hone that as a skill. This is a heritage that we’ve had in our arcade days and we have really learned to harness during the last 10 plus years that we’ve had close cooperation with Sony.

At its core, Returnal is very much an arcade game and a lot of our fans will notice many similarities from our past catalog of homages. That being said, Returnal also combines modern genres and ends up being an entry that feels distinctly different from any other currently out there. I personally think it plays a bit like MDK and feels a bit like Silent Hill. Different helmets this time, but these examples ooze the best parts from the ‘90s and are not necessarily as “arcade” as before. Additionally, the new clear influences come from Roguelikes and Soulslikes, clearly the most modern influences, but our end product is not quite like any title from these genres either.

How have your deep roots in the sort of arcade-play aesthetic and feel of your past games shaped what you are trying to do with Returnal?

Clearly you come to rely on conventions that have been proven internally and externally, so we draw a lot from games like Alienation and Nex Machina while balancing the environmental movement and bullet wave pacing. It’s all about having fun with trying to avoid attacks and taking on multiple enemies or obstacles at the same time. We want to keep the player always engaged and feeling like they are in total control. Once we feel that, gameplay-wise, there is a cohesive system in place, we start looking at pacing and creating atmosphere.

Our hope is that Returnal will keep players engaged over many loops, so dying and restarting needs to really feel fun. Permanent items, narrative entries, and new ways to traverse the environments really adds to keeping the whole experience fresh, but the core gameplay needs to be the main reason for Returnal.
How has Housemarque as a studio evolved over the past few years of transition to this new sort of game development?

Since 1995, there have been lots of types of titles in development at Housemarque, we’ve even had some third-person prototypes go really far into pre-production after our snowboarding games. Super Stardust HD really started our golden age of smaller arcade-centric titles, so most of our current learnings come from the extended decade that includes the PS3 and the PS4.

In 2017 with Matterfall, we had our first UE4 game, while Nex Machina was the last entry on our own engine. We had been talking to [Epic] for years about switching over, but finally, we organized our efforts and had a reasonably painless transition over those two projects, with half the company jumping over first. This way, we had experts on Unreal that could help others as we took on larger projects. Still, expanding to larger-scale projects, new cameras, added dimensions, and so on, has created hurdles for us to clear. Proper processes and organization have been at the forefront and also lately remote working has been a factor as well.

Overall, we feel that Returnal fully presents the current state of Housemarque and how the latest transition as a studio has allowed us to hone new skills. Hopefully, players can see the love we have put into it and find out what the potential of future Housemarque games feels like.

How has the change in genre changed your approach to game development?

Gregory Louden, Narrative Director:
Returnal is an evolution and revolution of all of our previous titles. It continues our goals of "gameplay is king," replayability 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 at Sony Interactive Entertainment, after our long collaboration of having titles in multiple PlayStation console launch windows, wanted to support this as well and the result is Returnal.

[Housemarque Game Director] Harry Krueger and [Co-founder] Harri Tikkanen came together with the original concept of a character-driven dark sci-fi action time loop thriller with psychological elements. Our next progression was changing perspective from our traditional side-scrolling perspective to third-person, along with the addition of roguelike elements. Last but not least, it involved creating a narrative team to add a 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. 
Image courtesy of Housemarque
What made you decide to design your first AAA game as a psychological horror title? 

With Returnal, our goal has been to tell a mysterious, layered, and haunting story. Not haunting like jump scares, but haunting like something that stays with you. For us, we like stories that leave you with lots of questions and messages, and Returnal delivers on that. 

We also wanted to create a story that survives repletion like our gameplay does, so our dense and layered story is built to stay interesting and mysterious but also be revealed as you replay and fight forward per cycle. This is why Returnal had to be a psychological thriller.

Are there particular elements in that genre that you felt matched well with the game mechanics you wanted to explore?

Our biggest reference for Returnal has been our own Housemarque games, and 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 third-person shooters can be. Our bullet hell, arcade spirited, and tight controls work extremely well and plays like our other titles but with a new style and taste for players. On top of this, we have a dense narrative for players to dig through and uncover as well when they're in flow.

Returnal aims to mix the procedurally-generated approach of a rogue-lite with the often necessary driving force of the deep narratives found in horror. How have you managed to achieve this?

All of Returnal is handcrafted, but the most exciting thing about the game is every time you play, we procedurally connect these moments, connecting our handcrafted environments, level design, combat, and narrative beats. It still surprises me with how wild the variation can be as Selene fights across Atropos and the surprises we have set up.

Narratively, the psychological aspects and the dark sci-fi time loop paradigm are achieved through our philosophy of adding lots of hidden layers narratively that are uncovered through repetition. Our gameplay is made for repetition, discovery, and then mastery. Our story follows the same goals. The cyclical nature of the narrative design means the more you push forward, the more you discover Selene, her past, and her reason for coming to Atropos.

After fighting through many cycles with Selene, sacrificing her humanity through fusing with alien technology, these new layers of her character and story are revealed through audio logs, cinematics, voice-over, our production design, and sound design. Returnal is a game that rewards players that piece together the story. It is challenging but rewarding in that way. I also feel it is a story that can only be told in games as it is defined by the cycle and is delivered non-linearly. Returnal is told by you re-examining earlier logs, questioning earlier moments, and deciphering all of the questions we have set up.

To me, great stories are loops and are about characters changing from these loops. Returnal, I feel, is a story about uncovering ownership and breaking the cycle we put ourselves in.

In terms of the story behind Returnal, I read that Selene -- the game’s protagonist -- is a Greek-American deep-space scout who finds herself marooned on a planet called Atropos. In Greek mythology, Atropos is one of the three sisters of fate and destiny. Specifically, she’s the Fate who cuts the thread of each mortal, defining their moment and method of death. How tied is that to the game’s overarching themes and mechanics of death?

All of this is intentional and is part of this layered approach of storytelling. I urge players to question and research our words, question what they read, see, and hear in Returnal. We want this all to create a mysterious, layered, and haunting story that will stay with players and be something for them to piece together.
Image courtesy of Housemarque
Are there any particular horror properties that inspired or influenced the design of Returnal?

For Returnal, we have been influenced by all the classic dark science-fiction films and literature, psychological horror, Lovecraftian horror, and Lynchian soundscapes and stories. We have done lots of research to create something unique for players to explore, while also respecting previous greats. 

Dark sci-fi is such a great paradigm to explore because it allows full creativity of the creatures, the environments, the technology, soundscapes and allows creators like us to explore deeper themes outside of normal reality. We haven't held back and there is lots of new gameplay to explore as a result.

I’m fascinated by the eclectic, bizarre, other-worldly approach you took to creature design. What drove those design decisions and how were they tied to both the narrative and gameplay?

Our art direction all comes from our story and concept, where we use subtext and meaning to drive our visuals and worldbuilding. Our creature design in particular is driven and inspired by deep-sea creatures, the most otherworldly creatures you can find on earth. We also took reference from our story, which is better discovered than told.

Can you talk a little bit about your decision to shift the game’s perspective from third- to first-person throughout the game? Why do this and how was it achieved?

Returnal is primarily a third-person sci-fi shooter but we also have explorable first-person story sequences where you can explore your crashed ship Helios, and the mysterious house that has appeared on Atropos in the Overgrown Ruins. We use this perspective to allow players to grow a deeper connection to Selene and literally be in her shoes and experience her memories inside of these moments. This greater sense of intimacy and closeness allows us to provide a closer view of the environments and soundscape of exploring these intimate and personal moments. Combined with the 3D audio capability hearing the sounds upstairs when downstairs and DualSense haptics to feel the textures of things makes these first-person moments even more intimate and powerful. 

What made you decide to develop this game with Unreal Engine and how has that impacted the game’s design?

Housemarque, over our 26-year history, is dedicated to creating our own technology, but we also wanted to evolve our type of games to an even higher production value as a PlayStation Studios exclusive. With this in mind, we decided to use Unreal Engine to build upon Epic's experience of creating high production value console defining games over Epic's long history too. Unreal Engine has been great because we have been able to continue to create our own technology and also leverage tools like Blueprints, cinematic systems, and more with Returnal.

Housemarque is also known for creating compelling launch games for each iteration of the PlayStation. How did your shift to AAA impact your take on creating something for PlayStation 5 and how did it compare to working on previous PlayStation consoles?

Totally new areas like narrative are always the largest hurdles to take on, so we’re glad to have great people like Gregory onboard. As new tech and hardware comes along, that simply allows us to experiment and push for cool things like visual effects. Some of these are quite experimental. For example, all of the tentacles are done with our own particle tech and we think they really capture a new type of visual in games by borrowing from our cephalopod friends below the seas.

Using a third-person camera again after 20 years is also quite new, but a lot of our previous experience from action games really helped us lock in a tight core loop fairly early on, so nothing too major there. Overall, it's still been a challenge, but we're glad we shifted to Unreal already with Matterfall and gave our teams time to grow into Returnal. Covid didn't exactly make things easier either, so we are quite proud of the achievements here, and shipping a game from home is a unique experience for sure.
Image courtesy of Housemarque
How are the landscape and creators of Atropos impacted by technologies like ray-tracing and 4K resolution?

Returnal has been a huge step evolution for all of us at Housemarque going from top-down or side-scrollers to a PlayStation Studios third-person shooter action thriller. Returnal is a 4K, SSD-driven third-person shooter action roguelike. So, it plays super-fast, loads incredibly fast, and is super smooth. On top of this, the world of Atropos evolves and changes with every cycle and session. So, our art pipeline had to be driven for variety and more. We are really proud of the results and we feel this is just the start of our evolution ahead in this new paradigm of high-production value games. 

What PS5 technological advances is Housemarque tapping into for Returnal and how is it making use of them?

Returnal is a PS5 exclusive, and we are making full use of all the next-gen features to showcase as much as we can. PS5 features like the lightning-fast SSD allow our death cycle to be super-fast, so players don’t have to wait long. On death, you can fight again with Selene quickly. We use the adaptive triggers to allow our new Alt Fire system and 3D audio capability to deeply immerse you in our world and give you extra information for our bullet-hell combat. Last but not least, we leverage the DualSense controller to allow you to feel the texture of the experience from raindrops on the pad to deeper more cinematic moments in our first-person segments and cinematic set-pieces.

In Returnal, we use adaptive triggers for feedback when using all the alien weaponry that can be discovered. When you push L2 halfway down, there's a satisfying click and within that mode, you unlock Alt Fire which allows you to have a randomized alternative attack ranging from lightning to explosive launcher and much more. We can't wait for players to feel, hear, and experience how PS5 technology and Returnal come together.

What elements of Unreal Engine did you find most useful in bringing your vision of Returnal to life?

Blueprints have been critical for us and have allowed our design team to quickly prototyping level designs, weapon variation, and deep gameplay systems. Housemarque games are defined by how well they play, and speed and iteration are key for this. Combined with this being our evolution into making higher-production value games, Unreal Engine has been a key technology allowing us to deliver our explosive action gameplay, roguelike variation, and compelling narrative on PlayStation 5.
Image courtesy of Housemarque
Is there any particular gameplay or visual elements of your game’s design you’d like to call out to explain how it was achieved? If so, please do.

Our explosive Housemarque action gameplay in Returnal is amazing, but I would like to highlight the Kaamos Engine, our world-class VFX is our own proprietary technology we have created as a plugin for UE4 and it has allowed us to deliver amazing and breathtaking VFX in Returnal. This is the same technology we used in Resogun and Nex Machina and it is pushed even further in Returnal. We use it for the flora of the alien bioluminescent plants, the countless tentacles seen across the hostiles across Atropos, and the firepower and devastation from it as players fight forward. We also have the voxelization effect used when hostiles are destroyed, which reminds me of the effects from Resogun.

So, our world-class VFX continues with Returnal and uses millions of particles to achieve it.

What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?

The possibilities shared by the Unreal Engine 5 reveal, live-action volume stage innovations and MetaHuman announcement were also super exciting for us all at Housemarque. We are curious to review it all ahead and see if it fits with our next Housemarque game. PS5 is an incredible platform too, and we feel we have delivered another great PlayStation launch window title with Returnal.

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Housemarque and Returnal?

You can earn more about Returnal on the official PlayStation page and follow us at Housemarque on Twitter, Facebook, Discord, or our website.

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