Returnal is Spinning in the New Weird

Buildings typically behave themselves. Their visitors clumsily navigate and exist in them causing wear and tear and worse, but buildings patiently tolerate most transgressions and simply get on with the task of being walls, floors, windows and the rest. So what happens when buildings go rogue?

The New Weird is a literary subgenre that seeks to examine and modernise the inscrutable. As a reaction to traditional Gothic ghost stories that are now so worn they retain little impact, the New Weird asks whether the supernatural or scientific can be reinstated with its former awe and terror. There are some common motifs in the New Weird stories; abstract beings with unstated objectives, ambiguous resolutions and architecture that behaves as intentionally as any human or animal.

New Weird has undergone something of a miniature critical (if not commercial) resurgence in the last five years, and as such its key characteristics are undergoing cultural osmosis into other mediums such as movies and video games. Returnal, created by the veteran developers at Housemarque and released on PS5 this April, is the latest.

Returnal’s unique pitch is to take a beloved but typically indie-centric game genre (the roguelike / roguelite) characterised by titles such as Hades, Spelunky, and The Binding Of Isaac and say hey, what if we spent loads of money on it. And spend they did; as a result the game positively drips with particle effects, brilliantly implemented haptic feedback and a paranoid, seething soundtrack by Bobby Krlic. The investment here comes together when sound ー both controller and monitor, haptics and music come together in waves of feedback to the player ー you’re thinking of Rez and you’d be right to ー a multi-sensory experience that itself nods towards the heightened or altered states experienced by many of the characters in New Weird stories, such as the users of fictional substance ‘dreamshit’ in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, who find their memories and dreams broadcast themselves to extradimensional beings while under its influence.

Pre release trailer for Returnal.

Beyond this obvious and enjoyable polish, what makes Returnal fascinating is how it uses the untrustworthy architecture of the New Weird to deliver an experience that not only cribs from the aesthetic hallmarks of the genre, but uses the foundation of roguelikes to tie mechanics and narrative together in a way that is truly authentic to the style of fiction.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House Of Leaves describes a documentary named The Navidson Record. In it, a photojournalist and their family discover that a new, physically impossible space suddenly exists in their house where none did before. They attempt to investigate, map out and understand the space but find it to be so alien to human expectations of layout and navigation that it quickly becomes physically and mentally dangerous to do so. Worse, the space changes around them of its own volition and with no obvious motive, instilling a deep fear into the expedition and ensuring no two trips into the space are alike.

At the outset of Returnal, protagonist Selene crash lands on an alien planet named Atropos, having travelled there tracking an (unexplained to the player) radio signal named ‘White Shadow’. Having explored the planet’s surface, we soon die and wake once more at our crashed ship. From there on everything is different, the rooms we explored have been reconfigured, threats relocated, the planet and its structures conspiring against the player’s attempt to master the environment by refusing to adhere to expectations. We don’t have the luxury of seeing these shifts occur, as in Alex Proyas’ film Dark City, in which a city endlessly reconfigures its entire layout against a permanent blanket of night; in Returnal it simply happens in the instant between our recent end, and starting anew. Among roguelites this contortion of environments on death is typical, but Returnal leans into its commonality with the New Weird like few other games before it by incorporating its traditions narratively. One early story beat that Returnal establishes is the presence on Atropos of an entirely familiar and earthly wooden framed house. Selene recognises the building personally and we are given the opportunity to explore the space periodically, walking among clues to Selene’s motivations and the relevance of her family history. It’s a familiar and human structure, in stark contrast to the architecture of Atropos at large, which can be impossibly huge, recalling the towering and featureless obelisks navigated by the characters of Tsutomu Nihei’s manga series BLAME! which are not principally designed for human but machine traversal.

The inhospitable environments of the manga series BLAME!

Entirely shorn of context, the house becomes a totem to a past the player has little understanding of. What should be familiar and reassuring instead only serves to heighten the alien nature of the environment it is set against. This too has a tradition in the New Weird. In Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy of novels, a lighthouse becomes the epicentre of conflict between humans and another form of existence, its guiding light substituted for a warning to maintain distance.

Proximity to the lighthouse leads to incredible distortions of time and space, ideas and DNA reconfiguring in ways the human mind struggles to comprehend. In Returnal, the environment also distorts the familiar into something more dangerous, beyond even the narrative anchor of the house. The enemies we fight have basis in reality but lack accuracy or deviate wildly: big cats with living tentacled manes glowing as though under a dark light, octopi that fly rather than swim, their heads reset in the mould of giant brutalist mallets, and manta rays (pro tip: prioritise the manta rays!) that dart effortlessly through the air towards the player.

The provocation to the player here is the same as each time a procedurally generated door slams open leaving dust particles suspended in air to reveal Selene’s wooden framed house – you think you know what this is, but you do not.

In letting the player pursue their instinctive video game goals (progress, survival) without explicitly offering clarifications on the environment and story in compact intervals, Returnal separates itself from a game such at Remedy’s 2019 action-adventure Control, which pays aesthetic homage to the New Weird in its brutalist structures and disembodied threats, but goes on to spell out its narrative and background, however idiosyncratic, in a very gamey way at every turn. It may be in the latter stages that Returnal also falls back on exposition as a way to wrap up its narrative goals (confession, the author is on world three, game is hard), but this would fly in the face of the expectations it carefully sets the player over the course of the game. 

Returnal is a game of unlikely but calculated match ups: Triple-A and roguelite, procedural and authored, that give it a character you might not be expecting. On one hand, it is not inaccurate to describe the game as a third person sci-fi shooter, but the Weirdness and imagination in the bones of the game go beyond many of the connotations that label conjures. You think you know what this is, but you do not.

Words: Luke Jackson.

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