Returnal is a sci-fi roguelike in which the protagonist selene is caught on a foreign planet in a time loop. Or? Let’s take a closer look, we see: the whole game turns to psychic trauma. Processes there is not only the story, even the gameplay makes symptoms of a trauma playfully powerful. A psychological view of the design of Return tells how this succeeds.

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ATTENTION : Follow spoilers to the story of Returnal.

Spaceships, Aliens, a time strip – that’s just the surface. What is below, the player is at first hidden from Return, as well as the protagonist Selene. Only from the intermediate sequences, audiologs and the two ends of the game is the whole picture together: it is neither astronaut, nor does it crash on a strange planet.

Selene is traumatized. With her son in the backseat she has a car accident he does not survive. In addition, this accident itself is a traumatization after Selene already had an accident with her mother as a child.

While she stayed without prejudice, her mother was seriously injured and had to give up her dream of space travel. Selene, who feels guilty, wants to become astronaut in their place. This obsession manifests symbolically as a mysterious astronaut, which she sees everywhere – so at the moment before the accident. When she tries to avoid the image of astronaut, the car crashes over a bridge and sinks in the water.

Returnal - Soundtrack - A Mysterious Device

Either way, the events can be interpreted. Clearly this is not, because many scenes are quite abstract. Parts of the story remain ambiguous, under fans find different interpretations. Whether nightmare or personal hell, in the core is always the car accident. And at all levels of the game are references to the trauma theme.

What is a psychic trauma at all? In short, those who are confronted with a life-threatening event reacts with stress symptoms such as fear, nightmares or so-called flashbacks where people feel and act as if they were back in the traumatic situation. If these symptoms persist longer term, one speaks of a post-traumatic stress disorder, short PTBS.

Roguelike or also: Traumatic renewing

In Roguelikes, we have to beat ourselves through a hard world, are constantly confronted with death and survive the whole again and again. However, this description also suits one of the most common PTBS symptoms: the resurrection of traumatic events, in which psychology also mentioned intrusions. Intrusions can be simple memories, but also nightmares or flashbacks. In this case, those affected can suffer a complete perception loss of their environment, even if this condition often lasts only a few minutes.

In Returnal, selene always lives through a nightmare-distorted version of your accident. Each cycle starts with the spaceship crash, which is unmistakably for the accident. In the game, it goes first into a forest area, as well as the traumatic drive starts in a forest, and ends at the bottom of the deep sea, as the accident ends with sinking in the water. In addition, those affected may not remember important aspects of the trauma.

This means dissociative amnesia and also selene suffers below: Although it is trapped in eternal renewal, but at the same time the events are distorted to a story in which she fights as a astronaut on the planet of Atropos around her life. Only at the end of a game run, Selene finds a sunken car and regain access to their memories of the traumatic accident.

Linked from the world

Typical PTBS symptoms include negative attitudes to themselves and the world as well as the feeling of being separated from other people. Even Selene is in absolute loneliness on a stranger planet and has lost every contact with the outside world.

Not only is the traumatic renovation in the Roguelike mechanisms, even a negative perception of the world is conveyed over the gameplay. Atropos is full of enemies, fall and adverse life circumstances. Here powerful holidays. Man fails, stumbling, dies. This is the video game version of a malignant world as well as those affected with PTBS you often experience.

In some cases, a so-called dissociation can come. This means concretely: affected concern itself or the environment as unreal true. As if they were seen from the outside or move through a dream. We also watch that in Returnal. Sometimes Selene Audiologs finds from an earlier self that she finds foreign, sometimes she finds her own body and is literally beside himself.

Similarly, it behaves with the planet ATROPOS, which is changing according to the conventions of the Roguelike genres with each restart and selene – as well as games * indoor – unreal and dreamy appears.


PTBS is often accompanied by risky or self-violent behavior. Also in Returnal we have to play risky again and again. We find the strongest bonuses in the most dangerous rooms, while collecting powerful items we risk negative status effects. We can even note Selene even parasites to the body. While they take advantage of harming them.

For real concerned, approximately a cut injury can provide subjectively relief, at the same time it is a damage to the own body. Finally, every pass ends from Returnal with death. That too has a link to reality: people with PTBS have a 15-time suicide risk as non-traumatized.

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By the way: ** Selene can also be considered as a reminder that women are statistically more common and longer under PTBS suffering than men – a variety of factors can play a role, for example, that they make more frequent training experiences.

Eternal circulation?

A confident end there is unfortunately not in Returnal, even no solution for selenes captivity in the re-life. No matter how often we conclude the game, it always starts from the front. In reality, however, there is a bright spot: for PTBS there are various therapies and they have a high efficacy. Unlike Atropos, we have good opportunities on earth to break the circulation.

An important request: Since our articles from the Mental Health Week are more sensitive topics that have partially requested us a lot while writing, we ask you for a friendly and understanding comment culture at this point. Thank you and have fun reading!