It's just being reborn again...and again...and again. Adam 'Griz' Mathew sits down with Housemarque to talk about the PS5 exclusive and the ins and outs of creating an action roguelike sci-fi mind bender.
Like a hungry alien life-form, we did our best to invade and probe the minds behind Returnal, one of the PS5's first true AAA console exclusives. It’s got roguelike elements, bullet-hell arcade goodness, and it's dripping in the sort of sci-fi strangeness that makes its alien planet a mystery worth solving -- one bit of space-age ammo at a time.
In the hot seat: Housemarque Narrative Director Gregory Louden and Biz Dev / Marketing Director Mikael Haveri.
The topic: How this team of arcade shooter master-craftsmen hope to take what they do best and “multiplier up” into a spooky new sub-genre…
Of Influences and Greek Mythology
AusGamers: I have to start by confessing I'm a big fan of Housemarque. I was blasting asteroids when you guys were called Bloodhouse and you released Stardust (1993) on Amiga 500. Over the decades, I've often wondered: are there some Treasure fans among you? Have any of their cult hits informed Returnal?
Mikael Haveri: Treasure is a huge inspiration. I think we usually tend to look at the classics from the west and the classics from the east, and Treasure among others has been one of the key inspiration points. It's sort of good and sad to see some of that arcade heritage disappear. A lot of companies are able to make a switch over to bigger titles, and I think right now we are in this transitional phase [as well]. We see ourselves as a mixture, a hybrid of the classics from both sides of the world.
“In general in terms of bullet hell, we're pushing for new boundaries. Even though there are a few titles out there that do this in the third person, we're really quite innovative and adding a lot of features.”
With regards to Returnal, our Game Director, Harry Krueger, is a huge fan of games like Dodonpachi and others. If you look at Nex Machina, this is very similar in the gameplay style. Obviously we also look at a lot of our back catalog to see what we're going to pick from Resogun and what we're taking from others. Returnal has a few of our staples in there – like the Housemarque dash. In general in terms of bullet hell, we're pushing for new boundaries. Even though there are a few titles out there that do this in the third person, we're really quite innovative and adding a lot of features.
Gregory Louden: It's still about having a game that's easy to pick up hard to master, and it's about having really tight controls where you get to the point you're in a flow state. You lose track of even having the controller.
AG: Returnal is awash in Greek mythology references. The planet is Atropos (goddess of fate and destiny). We're landing in a Helios craft. Selene works for Astra (the five gods of the wandering stars). And in a flashback moment it's shown that Selene herself has a copy of 'Zeus Abdicated' in a bookshelf. What's the allure of this particular chapter of history?
Gregory: I think the really exciting thing with Returnal is this is our first time doing Housemarque storytelling. We want to do storytelling that is ideally as deep as the gameplay can be and as layered. The goal of Returnal is to create a mysterious and haunting narrative, to create something compelling and memorable. And when I say haunting, I don't mean horror or jump scares -- I mean it sticks with you, raises questions.
Selene is a Greek-American, Astra deep space scout who basically comes to Atropos to find this signal, White Shadow. She is compelled to go here. She's seen her screen say 'Approach Forbidden' – the listing of a hostile alien planet – and she goes there anyway. Like a spell, she's compelled to find out the meaning of this place. We're also aiming to deliver a layered character, someone who's relatable that you can connect with. Someone who isn't purely good or purely bad.
Actually, one other thing I would say about Returnal is the only thing that's human is Selene, her pistol and her ship. The rest is alien -- all the weaponry is alien, all the creatures are alien. So we've got a lot of amazing creature design and enemy design for you to look forward to. And obviously the wild bosses, the bullet patterns and all that stuff as well.
Greek mythology is so rich in storytelling, players can discover more meaning -- if you're willing to chip away and scrape the surface of this story, you will get a lot from Returnal.
AG: In the legend for your map screen I noticed you have clearly defined 'sidepaths' and you have 'mainpaths', plus there's always a bright orange objective marker floating off in the ether. How are you handling navigation to the latter? Is there a line to breadcrumb players, or is this a hedge maze approach – there's a vague idea of direction and it's our job to zig and zag toward it as best we can?
Mikael: There may be multiple entries into the main paths where clearly the objectives are central. So you might look at them as the thing you want to reach, but if you are a completionist or you want to build up your character – or maybe get a chance to get some more parasites or upgrade items -- then you might go on the side path. Risky, risky business there.
But yeah, we have this modular design where each area is very handcrafted and built in a way to build on atmosphere with multiple layers that may get unlocked with later permanent items. So a little bit of that layered level design there, and then eventually you'll make it to the [objectives] goals. Each one of those usually unlocks something more permanent. The more of those you do, basically, the more options you have in your later playthroughs.
Gregory: The exciting thing with the map design is that every time you play Returnal the map shuffles. Every time you wake up again, you still have the objective that you've been trying to get towards but you have a whole new collection of main paths, a whole new collection of side paths and other things to discover.
Let’s Talk Gameplay
AG: I think I figured out most of the gameplay mechanics, but there are a few things I need to confirm. You're going with a one weapon system but said weapon is divided into a main attack and an alt-fire, yeah?
Mikael: So basically your sidearm is Selene's only Earth weapon, and then you have plenty of alien weapons as your archetypes. Your alt-fires also get modified in, so there's plenty of those shuffled into the mix. We have weapon stats and there's weapon perks, so the further you get into the game the different modifiers kind of start building in. So even a regular pistol might behave quite differently at Level 15 with perks and a unique alt-fire.
“We have this modular design where each area is very handcrafted and built in a way to build on atmosphere with multiple layers that may get unlocked with later permanent items.”
Gregory: We also make good use of the DualSense for alt-fires. The way that it works is if you press L2, [it squeezes in] halfway and you essentially focus aim. But if you push farther in with the adaptive trigger, it clicks and you're in a new fire mode. So we've almost added a whole new control scheme based on that. Players can customise if they'd like, but I think it's some really cool PS5 exclusive functionality that adds to the action and immersion.
AG: It also looks like you're not going with a dedicated reload button. It's almost like you've got like a mini cooldown if you stay inactive with the weapon, it'll refill on its own?
Gregory: Another cool feature is overload reloading, where basically as you're shooting you can time the right trigger [R2]. Time that so it hits within the bar and you can get and like an overdrive. You'll be able to hit and shoot even harder.
Mikael: It's similar to Alienation if you played it.
AG: I played the pants off of Alienation. Loved the permadeath mode in it. For a while. Until it broke me…
Mikael: Oh, well this game will have those as well!
AG: Oh God *worried sigh* that's..uh great news. Anyway, back to the mechanics – do Selene's weapons jam at all? One of your double-edged “parasite perks” mentions a decreased chance of something called Malfunction. Likewise, there's a main stat called Repair Efficiency?
Gregory: As well as having tight third-person action, we have deep systems for you to replay and kind of modify and change the experience every time. To be more specific, one of the bigger systems we have is Malfunctions. One thing I would say about Returnal is you don't just pick up everything -- there's usually quite a bit of risk and reward in decision making. If you choose to pick up a malignant health, it may actually cause a malfunction that adds a sub objective on the top left corner of the screen for you to go through.
On top of that, we have the [double-edged sword] parasite [perks]. As Selene goes through Atropos, she essentially needs to start almost sacrificing her humanity as she's grafting on alien technology. And putting on multiple parasites could give you the edge to defeat the boss or overcome an elite enemy or other things.
AG: And just with the HUD, I figured out the adrenaline bar [it's a combo/temporary perk system]. I can also see you've gone with non-regen health, which you call Integrity. But I could not for the life of me figure out what's going on with Proficiency.
Mikael: So Proficiency is basically the way we count your gun XP. It's your weaponry proficiency, which also means that the level of the weapons you pick up will be attached to that specific proficiency level. That is the further you go, unlocks the amount of perks – these sort of stat blocks that are integrated into the weapons.
AG: Having full, hyperactive verticality in a third-person shooter is new for you guys. One of the classic mistakes with this genre is having jump on a face button – forcing the player to take their thumb off the aim stick, thereby losing a precious second of focused fire. That could be mitigated on a DualShock 4 that has extra triggers, but currently the PS5's DualSense doesn't support any clip on peripherals like this. Have you considered this wrinkle when designing Returnal's controls?
“As well as having tight third-person action, we have deep systems for you to replay and kind of modify and change the experience every time. To be more specific, one of the bigger systems we have is Malfunctions. One thing I would say about Returnal is you don't just pick up everything -- there's usually quite a bit of risk and reward in decision making.”
Mikael: We've counted it in, in a way. For us, aim-firing is a big key component, as is dash and dodge and all these things. Our default setup defaults to the X being the jump, and then you do lose a little bit of that thumb agility there, but we do have redefinable control schemes. You can go in and mix that up for yourselves again. In previous games we've of course had some unconventional control schemes as well, so here we wanted to start with a default offering that is most relatable to mainstream players.
Different Points of View - First-Person and VR
AG: I seriously doubt you'll elaborate more on the first-person “flashback” horror moments in Returnal, so let's focus on the first-person bits when we're “reborn” in the Helios after death. That ship has some points of interaction -- one is a computer terminal and also three clearly marked storage bins. What's doing there?
Gregory: Firstly [with the first-person moments] we're trying to add more like intimacy with the character. And what's a better way to know Selene than to be in her suit and look at things from her own perspective and get a closer camera to look at our environmental storytelling. I don't think we're sharing what's in those containers at this point, but it's nice that you noticed.
Mikael: One thing I can say about the ship: in Returnal we do have a daily challenge system – you did see the computer for that in the Helios. Basically, players can compete against other players online via a leaderboard. You're all competing on a fixed generation of a particular biome, using particular presets.
AG: Left-field question time. Whenever I see anything in first-person, my brain (somewhat irrationally) goes “Oh, could this be done in VR?” Now, you guys have points on the board in that regard with Super Stardust VR, which was one of the rarer PSVR titles that is technically being played from a third-person view. That said, theoretically, could a perspective shifting hybrid like Returnal work? Have you investigated the possibilities at all?
Mikael: Anything's possible. But in this case it's not something that's in the active mind share currently. With the Super Stardust example, we did have Sony partnership studios take care of most of that development, so in-house we've done very little VR development.
I think that, yes, the house sequence examples I have in my head would work really well, but again there [would be] third person and mobility sickness type issues. I think that there might be a lot to handle, but again maybe some people would really enjoy that. So let's see.
Challenges of Tackling a New Genre
AG: With a Roguelike like Returnal, it feels like your art is imitating life here. Be it the games industry landscape or the surface of an alien planet, Selene's fight and indeed your fight as a developer are similar – you both need to learn new tricks to adapt, survive and escape what could be an endless loop that's not yielding much in the way of meaningful gains. Would that be a fair comparison?
Mikael: (Laughs) It's almost poetic. The funny thing is we draw some of those analogues as well. In Returnal, when you see Selene crash landing, it starts off with asteroids just moving around in the sky [Ed's note: Stardust was an Asteroids clone]. There's a lot of symbology that goes into these things.
“For everyone who's worked on the project, it has been personal. We are a pretty small team at Housemarque, doing a big and ambitious game, and we're all really proud of what we're making.”
Gregory: For everyone who's worked on the project, it has been personal. We are a pretty small team at Housemarque, doing a big and ambitious game, and we're all really proud of what we're making. I think we're putting in a lot of different elements and really trying to create the best experience possible – it's such a huge step up in evolution from the likes of Resogun, Alienation, Nex Machina, and Dead Nation.
AG: Look, you guys have charted a bold course away from the purely arcade fare that you're known for. I suppose my only concern at this point is one of pacing and tone. How does one balance twitch shooting bullet hell that quite literally needs a an adrenaline meter with sections of nervously clomping around an almost sort of survival horror scarehouse?
Mikael: For us it has always been this is Returnal – this is what makes the game unique, and this is how we wanted to make the game. We wanted to have action, and we wanted to have this deep and dark and beautiful narrative for you to discover. So for us, it was about just creating this in unison, creating something and actually not being concerned about that.
Gregory: Our storytelling philosophy was: how do we not infringe on [pacing] -- how do we actually build upon it, how do we deepen it? A lot of it is the player's choice. You'll choose to pick up the audio log, you can choose to re-listen to it again -- there's a lot of recontextualization and foreshadowing with these.
I think that's such an exciting way to tell the story, and it's completely non-linear as well. You'll be listening to Selene from the past, from the future -- maybe close to where you are. There's a lot of different layers for players to discover, but you can [pick up and ignore the audio log] and run into the most fierce combat ever.
Mikael: I'll give you I'll give you one more example, one that freaked me out when I played the game. I was maybe six to ten hours into the game, and I had to stop. I was in the beta, so I couldn't take a screenshot, but I had to take a picture with my cell phone camera and send it to the team. Because this [particular thing] really freaked me out and when you see it, you'll...you'll know what I mean...
So, yeah, there are a lot of these things that will make you stop and I think. They're all deliberate in the way that we want to affect the pacing as well.
PlayStation 5 and Next-Gen Hardware
AG: Let's talk frame rate, something that hasn't been a huge deal-breaker for me, personally, until I played Dirt 5 at 120 frames per second. Now I have great difficulty going back to anything sub 60 fps. What are you targeting with Returnal?
Mikael: We're looking to target 60. I think that's our comfort zone and we're also doing upscaled 4K. That is the sweet spot in terms of where we're at. In general terms, I think we're pushing a lot of the PlayStation 5's boundaries, visually, and the SSD is helping quite a bit as well.
AG: What about 3D audio? Have you delved into that much?
Gregory: So that's been super inspiring. In gameplay you can hear the enemies, hear the bullets and you can hear where the bosses are. Second to second, it adds better comprehension and immersion into the action. It's also just brilliant for storytelling, the fact that you can be inside Selene's space suit, hearing something upstairs in the house -- all these elements.
“I think we're pushing a lot of the PlayStation 5's boundaries, visually, and the SSD is helping quite a bit as well. ”
We also combine that with the DualSense and its haptics; we've had a specialised team that's purely just focused on the way the controller can replicate feelings. You can go through the house, pick up things and really feel them. Actually, we also have our really bombastic opening and within that you wake up in first person and it's raining -- you can feel the rain pattering on the DualSense.
Lastly, having the SSD for a game about [repeatedly] dying is great. Our Housemarque mantra is “one more turn, one more turn,” so having the SSD lets us slingshot you back into the initial ship crash and get you out there again. It's been instrumental to the game. We've built Returnal with PS5 in mind and we've been super grateful to have a ton of support from PlayStation Studios to pull it off and do something really special.
AG: I recently interviewed Nicholas Doucet, Studio Director on Astro's Playroom, and we had this really interesting conversation about haptics expressions. He thinks that any developer wanting to do especially cool haptics ought to move their audio team in closer to the actual gameplay design phase. Is that your feeling as well?
Gregory: It's definitely an extension of the audio design framework. So if you do have somebody working very closely with any type of environmental audios, and such, this translates directly to the definition of the optics. I feel like the “old haptics” is gone and the new haptics is something adjacent to the audio side. Our producer actually set up a chat with the Astro's team as well, for us to understand how they did it. We were so impressed [with their work] so we got tips from them to pull off the best effects possible for Returnal.
Mikael: [With Returnal] the controller talks to you. Like our alt-fire, if you try to shoot and it's not reloaded yet, the controller will tell you and make you instantly fall back to the main fire. There's some really cool stuff waiting for you to experience in Returnal.