Returnal, released in 2021, just became available for PC, and it has brought with it a new wave of players confused about the ending and secret ending of the game. The game’s plot was hard to follow and disorienting to the players, and the two endings are accurate representations of that, leaving audiences baffled about what happened and what it meant for the main character – Selene.
Remember that Returnal has not confirmed the meaning behind its ending or plot, leaving it open for interpretation by the players and audiences, and it shows in how it was presented. Therefore, much of what you will find here will be speculation and theories revolving around the facts the two endings brought to light.
WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS!
- The ending takes place after defeating Ophion in Act 2 of the game.
- It shows a mother and son in a car crash after narrowly avoiding an astronaut in the middle of the road.
- The ending seems to show the existence of a time loop and that Selene was pulled into it by a sea monster after she could not save her son.
- The Returnal secret ending is unlocked after collecting all the Sunface Fragments and getting the car keys.
- Secret ending shows that the astronaut was Selene herself.
- Moreover, it seems to show that it was all in Selene’s head but also appears to confirm other popular theories.
- Both endings leave much to the player’s interpretation.
Returnal Ending Explained
Credit: IGN YouTube
The game follows the story of Selene, a space explorer who crash lands on a hostile alien planet and is stuck in a time loop, constantly reliving the same events repeatedly. As she progresses through the game, Selene discovers the truth about the Atropos and the cause of her time loop leading up to the game’s ending.
Selene discovers that the planet she is stranded on is not just any alien planet but, in fact, a living organism known as Atropos. The time loop that Selene is trapped in is the doing of Atropos itself, which can manipulate time to protect itself from threats. Selene discovers that she is not the first space explorer to land on Atropos and that many others have been trapped in the same time loop, including her own past selves.
As Selene progresses through the game, she learns more about Atropos and its history, eventually confronting the source of the time loop: a conscious entity known as Ophion – the game’s final boss.
After defeating Ophion in Act 2 of the game, Selena travels through the depths and discovers an abandoned car that she cannot open. Moving further along, she encounters a giant monster. She asks if it was “the one who brought her here”, and the scene cuts off.
The game now shows a sequence of a mother and son driving in a car on a dark road. The mother appears to be Selene, and the child in the backseat is her son – Helios. Helios asks his mother if she “sees the White Shadow”. The radio plays “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in the background, a song that has played significance in the game.
The mother gets distracted adjusting the radio and, when she looks up, finds someone in an astronaut suit in the middle of the road. To avoid hitting the astronaut, the mother swerves the car, driving it off the bridge and crashing into the water.
She wakes up inside the water, struggles out of the seatbelt, and reaches for her son. Beside the car, we see the same monster Selene encountered before the sequence in the water. Before the mother can get to her son, she appears to be dragged away from him – by the monster or something else, if left unclear.
The last thing we see here is someone seemingly swimming away from the car, but the identity of whoever it is is a mystery as the scene is shown in first-person.
Theories Regarding Returnal Ending
Credit: IGN YouTube
The most basic interpretation of this ending is that this was another instance of Selene being pulled into the time loop. This indicates that the red-eyed monster in the depths brought Selene to Atropos and has now dragged her there to relive what happened during the game.
While covering many of the basics, this explanation ignores the hints dropped throughout the game and doesn’t fit the tone the game has set in its plot. Many argue that it ties up too nicely, considering all the mysteries the players deal with and completely ignores the astronaut’s identity and the significance of all the clues Selene discovers on her journey.
A popular theory is that none of this – Atropos, the enemies, and all of Selene’s journey – is not real and is simply inside her head. It is widely believed that the game’s plot was merely a way for Selene to deal with her trauma and guilt, making up a story for her life where she reaches acceptance.
There’s a lot of evidence to support this theory since we see many references to the ending sequence scene throughout the game. The time on the clock in the car is 8:36, which is displayed on another clock in the House sequence in the game. Helios’s stuffed toy also appears in the ship wreckage if you visit it. Moreover, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays during Selene’s fight against Hyperion– the boss of the fourth biome.
However, this theory also leaves a lot of questions unanswered at this point. If this was all in Selene’s head, who was the astronaut on the road – a figure we see multiple times in the game -? What about the entire sequence in the game where Selene returns to Earth and lives out her whole life, only to return to Atropos upon her death?
The significance of the game bosses and their strange personal connection to Selene seems to be explained by the theory that the accident we see here resulted in Selene abandoning her child and saving herself, which resulted in her being sent to her own personal hell.
The belief that this is Selene’s purgatory, where she faces her final moments, traumas, and regrets, seems a popular explanation for the game’s difficulty but, once again, doesn’t really seem to cover much else.
This ending didn’t really answer many players’ questions regarding the game. However, a lot of, if not all, the confusion was cleared up with the Returnal secret ending.
How To Unlock Returnal Secret Ending
Credit: IGN YouTube
Returnal has a secret ending that can be unlocked by completing specific tasks in the game. To access the secret ending, players must complete the following steps:
- Complete the game at least one time.
- Collect all six Sunface Fragments in the game. These fragments are scattered throughout different biomes in the game and can be obtained by defeating certain enemies or exploring hidden areas.
- Return to the Echoing Ruins and enter the House once again.
- Finish the House sequence, making sure you now have the car keys.
- Progress to the end of the game again and defeat Ophion once more.
- Jump to the final area, where you will find the abandoned car.
- Use the car key to open the door and trigger the secret ending.
Note that the Returnal secret ending can only be unlocked after you have defeated the boss in the third biome, and you must have all six Sunface Fragments in your possession. Also, make sure to interact with the terminal in the room to trigger the secret ending, as more than simply entering the space is needed to unlock it.
The secret ending provides a new perspective on the game’s story and sets up the possibility of future stories in the same universe. It is worth the effort to unlock if you are a fan of the game’s story and lore.
Returnal Secret Ending Explained
Credit: IGN YouTube
Once Selene opens the car door and activates the secret ending, she is transported to a dark void of space. She stands in front of a strange alien-like creature in a wheelchair. The beast almost seems to be somewhat human and appears to be pregnant.
The creature suddenly jumps up and attacks Selene, who throws it to the ground. We find that the creature’s name is Theia as it raises its head to look at Selene and calls out her name in a rasping voice.
Selene is now shown turning her head, and the camera follows her, seemingly fading into the back of her head, signifying that we are now seeing things from her perspective. We see her hands covered in the stark white gloves of her astronaut suit and some stars before we see what appears to be a reflection of her eyes in her helmet.
Suddenly a car comes speeding towards her and veers to the side at the last second before the screen darkens. All we hear is the splash of the car hitting the water. This tells us that the car was the same one the mother was driving in the first ending, and the astronaut she almost hit was Selene herself.
The game now changes perspective to the mother in the car, at the bottom of the water. We find that she was the one we previously saw swimming away from the crash, heading towards what seems to be surface, but the screen goes dark before we can see her breaking through.
The last thing we hear is a woman, presumably the mother, gasping sharply and calling “Helios”. This tells us that the mother, who we still presume to be a version of Selene, swerved the car to avoid a future or parallel version of Selene and crashed into the water with her son.
She swims away from the crash and survives the accident but abandons her son to death. The “Helios Abandoned” message appearing throughout the game seems to originate from here.
Returnal’s secret ending certainly does not give concrete answers as to what is happening to Selene and what the premise of the game was, but it does give credence to many theories, confirming some in many ways.
Theories Regarding Returnal Secret Ending
Credit: IGN YouTube
Due to the ambiguous nature of the Returnal secret ending, much speculation has been surrounding its meaning. Some theories have grown incredibly popular due to how much material is available in the game to support them.
None Of It Is Real
Credit: IGN YouTube
Once again, one of the most prevalent theories is that it is all happening inside Selene’s head. However, the secret ending provides much more material favouring this theory. For this theory, we assume that the mother and son in the car crash are Selene and her son Helios.
We see that Selene went through the traumatising experience of having a, however indirect, role in her son’s death. She obviously feels a lot of guilt for that. The stuffed toy in the site of the ship wreckage in the game and the repeated message of “Helios Abandoned” seem to tell us that she is consistently faced with the fact that she feels she abandoned her son to his death.
We also know that Selene did not have a good relationship with her mother, Theia. Theia seems negligent towards Selene, bordering on abuse. Selene seems to adopt this attitude towards her own son, possibly feeling bitter and resentful by the responsibility of him that she feels interferes with her own life. The ASTRA rejection letter seen in the game supports this assumption.
The theory expands to include the element of the song “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, playing during the accident and Selene’s fights with Hyperion, her asking him if he taught her that song. Some speculate that Selene’s father was named Hyperion and that he taught her that song. However, there is little to no evidence to support this.
The most crucial facet of this theory is the time loop. Many believe that the time loop represents Selene’s inability to escape her grief by again and again bringing her to the exact moment of the car crash. Anyway she looks at it, she believes herself to be at fault for.
History Is Repeating Itself
Credit: IGN YouTube
Another popular and strongly supported theory is that the mother and son in the crash are not Selene or her son. Instead, they are a young Theia and a possible older brother of Selene’s named Helios.
Theia could be distant towards Selene due to losing her first child and getting rejected by ASTRA, which fuels her bitterness towards her daughter. This leads to Selene’s harsh feelings towards her mother, and her obsession with Theia, which we see many times.
The car crash could then be a repetition, but this time with Selene and her son, named after his uncle, who Selene cannot save. Furthermore, this theory decides that the rejection letter is Theia’s rather than Selene’s. Selene lives out her life stuck in a cycle of repeating her mother’s mistakes until she finds her escape through her findings on Atropos.
The primary supporting factor of this theory in the game is the structure and placement of the biomes. The nature of the biomes seems to repeat itself halfway through the game, seemingly signifying the end of Theia’s story and the start of Selene’s, which plays out much the same way until the ending.
The theory is attractive due to its implications for Selene’s history, but it is doubtful due to the lack of concrete evidence supporting it.
It’s All Real
Credit: IGN YouTube
The last primary theory regarding the Returnal secret ending is that it’s all simply true. Selene is stuck in a time loop where she returns to Atropos upon her every death. The car crash seems to be the first loop where she is dragged to Atropos by the creature we see in the water.
There’s a lot of evidence in the game to support this theory. Most notably, how we see Selene come back to life after her life plays out on Earth. When she wakes up back on Atropos after her death, she gasps out loud sharply and, after expressing her disbelief, mutters, “Helios”.
In the ending scene, we see Selene swimming up towards the surface of the water after the crash. However, we don’t actually see her breakthrough but instead see her slowing down before the screen blacks out, and we hear her gasp sharply and call out, “Helios”.
Both dialogues sound almost similar, and it could be said that the gasp we hear at the end is not Selene having reached the surface and breathing in the air but her waking up after dying once more. This would prove that the time loop Selene is trapped in is real, and the astronaut is just another version of her.
This theory makes the entire play through of the game very fulfilling but, once more, has too much contradicting it. All the hints and references to Selene’s trauma and past on Atropos tell us that some of it is in Selene’s head to some extent.
Credit: IGN YouTube
One theory that’s not very popular but has very dedicated people backing it is that the entire plot of Returnal is inspired by or, to some extent, is a modern retelling of popular Greek mythology.
The planet’s name is one of the most obvious connections to Greek mythology. In Greek mythology, the three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, were responsible for spinning the thread of human life, measuring it, and finally cutting it. Atropos was explicitly in charge of cutting the cord of life, which may be a reference to the cyclical nature of Selene’s journey on the planet.
Additionally, the game’s story explores themes of hubris, fate, and the cyclical nature of life and death that are also common in Greek mythology. Selene’s journey of self-discovery and redemption may also be a nod to the hero’s journey, a typical narrative structure in ancient myths and epics.
Finally, the game’s boss fights, which include battles against Gorgon and Ophion, two creatures from Greek mythology, further reinforce the connection to ancient myths and legends.
Overall, while Returnal is not a direct adaptation of any specific Greek myth, the game’s story and themes draw on common motifs and elements from ancient myths and epics, adding a layer of depth and meaning to the game’s narrative.
This theory gained little traction due to the lack of significant evidence other than the characters’ names.
References In The Game
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Returnal is a game that is intentionally designed to be mysterious and disorienting, with many of its secrets and story details hidden beneath the surface. Several hints throughout the game point to the game’s eventual ending. Here are a few examples:
- Repeating patterns: As players progress through the game, they may notice repeating patterns and themes that hint at the cyclical nature of Selene’s journey. For example, the same artefacts and symbols may appear in different areas, suggesting that Selene relives the same events repeatedly.
- Audio logs: Throughout the game, players can find audio records left behind by previous explorers who were stranded on Atropos. These logs hint at the planet’s true nature, the time loop, and the dangers that Selene will face as she explores.
- Environmental clues: The game’s environments also provide hints about the nature of Atropos and the time loop. For example, players may notice strange organic growths or other life signs suggesting the planet is more than just a lifeless rock.
- Selene’s own memories: As players progress through the game, Selene’s own memories and experiences provide clues about the true nature of her situation. For example, she may remember events that haven’t happened yet or encounter echoes of herself from previous loops, suggesting that time is not linear on Atropos.
Overall, the hints and clues in Returnal are designed to slowly reveal the truth about the game’s story and the nature of the time loop that Selene is trapped in. As players explore and discover more of Atropos and its history, they can piece together the game’s ultimate ending and the choices that Selene must make to break free from her prison. The conclusion is built to leave much up to the player’s interpretation.
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