Returnal Ending Theories & Secret Endings

Learn everything you need to know about the ending and secret ending of Returnal and how the entire plot of the game comes together.

Returnal Ending and Secret Ending Explained
Returnal Ending and Secret Ending Explained

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!

Key Takeaways

  • 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

Returnal Ending ExplainedCredit: 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

Theories Regarding Returnal EndingCredit: IGN YouTube

The ending of Returnal has sparked various interpretations and theories among players. One basic interpretation is that it’s another instance of Selene being pulled into the time loop, with the red-eyed monster responsible for her return to Atropos.

However, some players find this explanation too simplistic, as it doesn’t account for all the mysteries and hints dropped throughout the game. A popular theory suggests that none of the events in the game are real, and they exist only in Selene’s mind as a way for her to cope with trauma and guilt.

This theory gains support from various in-game references and the recurring astronaut figure. Nevertheless, it raises questions about certain game sequences, such as Selene’s return to Earth and the personal connection between the bosses and Selene.

Ultimately, the game’s ending left many players with unanswered questions. The secret ending, if considered, may offer additional insights and explanations to help clarify the game’s narrative.

How To Unlock Returnal Secret Ending

How To Unlock Returnal Secret EndingCredit: IGN YouTube

  1. Collect all six Sunface Fragments scattered throughout various biomes.
  2. Return to the Echoing Ruins and enter the House once again.
  3. Complete the House sequence, ensuring you have the car keys.
  4. Progress to the end of the game and defeat Ophion again.
  5. Reach the final area with the abandoned car.
  6. Use the car key to open the door and trigger the secret ending.

Remember that you must defeat the boss in the third biome before attempting to unlock the secret ending, and you need all six Sunface Fragments. Interacting with the terminal in the room is essential to trigger the secret ending.

Returnal Secret Ending Explained

Returnal Secret Ending ExplainedCredit: IGN YouTube

Returnal’s secret ending provides a surreal and enigmatic perspective on Selene’s story. When Selene opens the car door and activates the secret ending, she finds herself in a dark void of space facing a strange, somewhat human-looking, pregnant creature in a wheelchair named Theia.

Theia suddenly attacks Selene, who fights back and throws Theia to the ground. The creature calls out Selene’s name, revealing its identity.

The perspective then shifts to Selene, and the camera appears to be inside her helmet, focusing on her gloved hands and stars before reflecting her eyes in her helmet.

A car comes speeding towards her and swerves at the last moment, crashing into the water. This reveals that the car was the same one driven by the mother in the first ending, and the astronaut Selene almost hit was herself.

The perspective then shifts to the mother in the car underwater. She swims away from the crash, heading towards the surface, but the screen goes dark before we see her breaking through.

The ending suggests that the mother, presumed to be a version of Selene, swerved to avoid hitting a future or parallel version of herself and crashed into the water with her son, Helios. She survives the accident but abandons her son to death, shedding light on the “Helios Abandoned” message seen throughout the game.

While the secret ending doesn’t provide concrete answers, it aligns with and confirms many player theories, adding further layers of mystery to the game’s narrative.

Theories Regarding Returnal Secret Ending

Theories Regarding Returnal Secret EndingCredit: 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

None Of It Is RealCredit: IGN YouTube

The theory that the events in the game are happening inside Selene’s head is a compelling interpretation, and the secret ending adds more weight to this idea. In this theory, Selene’s guilt and trauma play a significant role in shaping the narrative:

  1. The Car Crash: The theory suggests that the car crash sequence with the mother and son, Selene and Helios, represents a traumatic event from Selene’s past. The guilt and grief over her perceived role in her son’s death weigh heavily on her.
  2. Abandonment and Guilt: The presence of the stuffed toy at the shipwreck site and the repeated message of “Helios Abandoned” are seen as symbols of Selene’s overwhelming guilt for what she believes to be her abandonment of her son. This guilt is a recurring theme in the game.
  3. Relationship with Theia: Selene’s strained relationship with her own mother, Theia, adds another layer to this theory. The neglect and possible abuse Selene experienced from her mother may have influenced her attitude towards her own son, further contributing to her sense of guilt and inadequacy as a mother.
  4. “Don’t Fear the Reaper”: The use of the song “Don’t Fear the Reaper” during the car accident and Selene’s fights with Hyperion suggests a potential connection to her past. Some speculate that her father, possibly named Hyperion, taught her the song. However, concrete evidence for this part of the theory is lacking.
  5. The Time Loop: The time loop in the game is interpreted as a representation of Selene’s inability to escape her grief and guilt. It constantly brings her back to the moment of the car crash, forcing her to confront her perceived role in her son’s death repeatedly.

History Is Repeating Itself

History Is Repeating ItselfCredit: IGN YouTube

The theory that the mother and son in the car crash are not Selene and her son but instead a young Theia and a possible older brother of Selene named Helios is an intriguing interpretation of the game’s narrative. It offers a unique perspective on the story’s dynamics and the relationships between the characters:

  1. Theia’s Tragic Past: In this theory, Theia’s distant behavior towards Selene is attributed to the loss of her first child, Helios, and her subsequent rejection by ASTRA. This tragic history fuels bitterness towards her daughter and sets the stage for the strained relationship between Theia and Selene.
  2. Repeated Car Crash: The car crash is seen as a recurring event, but this time with Selene and her own son, who is named after his uncle Helios. The inability to save her son in this situation mirrors Theia’s past loss and could be a manifestation of Selene’s repeated cycles of suffering.
  3. Rejection Letter: The theory suggests that the rejection letter seen in the game is Theia’s rather than Selene’s, implying that Theia experienced a similar rejection from ASTRA. This further links the characters’ experiences and motivations.
  4. Biome Structure: The placement and structure of the biomes in the game are pointed out as supporting evidence. The repetition and shift in the biomes halfway through the game could symbolize the transition from Theia’s story to Selene’s, which unfolds in a similar manner until the ending.

It’s All Real

It’s All RealCredit: IGN YouTube

The theory that Selene is indeed stuck in a time loop and the events in the game are real occurrences is another compelling interpretation of the Returnal secret ending. This theory suggests that the car crash is the initial event that led Selene to Atropos, and her gasping and calling out “Helios” in both the Earth and Atropos scenes indicate a recurring cycle of her experiences:

  1. Real Time Loop: According to this theory, Selene’s constant return to Atropos upon her death is a genuine time loop. The gasping and muttering “Helios” in both scenes suggest that she repeatedly experiences the same events, with her memories resetting each time she returns to Atropos.
  2. The Car Crash as a Trigger: The car crash is seen as the catalyst that started Selene’s time loop, with her being dragged to Atropos by a creature. This traumatic event becomes the beginning of her recurring journey.
  3. Parallels in Dialogues: The similarities in Selene’s dialogues between the two scenes are highlighted as evidence that she is trapped in a real time loop. The gasp at the end of the water sequence is interpreted as her waking up after dying once more, reinforcing the idea of a genuine time loop.

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.

Greek Mythology

Greek MythologyCredit: IGN YouTube

The theory that Returnal draws inspiration from Greek mythology, particularly in its themes and character names, is an interesting interpretation. While it may not have gained widespread popularity, it’s worth exploring the connections and parallels between the game and ancient myths:

  1. The Planet Atropos: The planet’s name, Atropos, is a direct reference to one of the three Fates in Greek mythology. Atropos was responsible for cutting the thread of human life, signifying an element of finality and fate in Selene’s journey.
  2. Themes of Hubris and Fate: The game’s exploration of themes like hubris, fate, and the cyclical nature of life and death align with common themes found in Greek mythology. The idea of a hero’s journey and self-discovery is also a recurring motif in ancient myths and epics.
  3. Boss Fights: The inclusion of boss fights against creatures like Gorgon and Ophion, both of which have ties to Greek mythology, further reinforces the connection between the game and ancient 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

References In The GameCredit: IGN YouTube

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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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