Returnal has released on PlayStation 5. This AAA roguelike pulls players into the countless cycles of the eldritch planet Atropos. With it, players have been introduced to a brand new hero in the shape of Astra scout Selene Vassos.
Selene Vassos is placed in an unthinkable and unbelievable scenario. She crash-lands on Atropos when answering a broadcast signal known as the “White Shadow.” Selene can’t find her weapon so goes off to search for it, leaving the relative safety of her ship, Helios. She stumbles across the corpse of an Astra scout and comes to the horrible realization that this corpse is hers. She can’t understand how this has happened. Thankfully, she keeps her head and takes the gun from the corpse, hoping that she won’t repeat what has transpired here.
This brief moment is telling. It gives us a glimpse of Selene’s mental stability. She keeps a cool head even when challenged by this planet and the horrors that lie within it. Time, reality, and perhaps even alien gods are against her, but she never stops. Her drive is almost inhuman. Complicating that she has to restart her journey to find the source of the “White Shadow” broadcast is that she finds recordings from her past lives.
They give her tips and knowledge that she can apply to her latest run, but when you scratch a little deeper, what they really elucidate is her state of mind. She sees the potential in some of the recordings of her losing her mind and giving into the madness of Atropos. As well as this, there are recordings where past Selene has also given into the augmentation of her own body. These recordings muse on whether she has become less human, even at times wondering whether she has become something more.
This disturbs Selene and pushes her further in her quest to achieve freedom from the tendrils of Atropos.
Within Returnal is the theme of growing stronger from the mistakes of the past. This can be seen in Selene Vassos’ visits to her home, which has somehow manifested on Atropos. Is this the planet playing some kind of trick on Selene? Is she losing her mind, or is there something far more sinister at work?
I won’t spoil this revelation, but the message is clear that Selene is running from something in her past, as sections of her house are locked off to her until she pushes further into Atropos. And each time she enters her home, we see how she has wrestled with the troubles of her life. She has tried to move on, but, like the alien planet, Selene’s past will not easily let her go. This trauma takes the shape of a silent astronaut that stalks her.
This being represents many aspects of Selene’s life. It represents her past, her relationship with her family. I think that it prominently deals with her regret — all the things left unsaid in her previous life. If Selene were a lesser character, she would be swallowed up by this planet and the trauma it is weaponizing against her. Instead, she is forged in fire. She traverses neon jungles, is battered to near exhaustion by storms while traversing a red waste, and is chased across a collapsing citadel by horrifying aliens and their broken automatons.
I’ve never seen someone face such odds and remain steadfast since I first laid eyes on Ellen Ripley — one of the premier figures in the sci-fi / horror genre. Ripley is a character that has not been replicated in style or quality, but Selene is definitely a sister in arms. Selene enters a realm of gods and stares them down. She is ready for them. She returns to the safety of Helios every time she dies, protected by the Greek god of the sun, and she leaves his embrace to face the horrors of the xeno gods — these dark and unrecognizable monsters.
It is this blind determination and inhuman focus that makes Selene Vassos a modern icon in not just the realm of roguelikes but also the sci-fi / horror genre. She is a woman trying to stay in the present and not repeat the mistakes of the past, whether they be supernatural or otherwise. She utilizes both her strengths and her weaknesses to phenomenal effect, and with the player’s help, she can escape the xeno hellscape she finds herself in.