Where other stories represent the minds of their various characters, the entirety of Returnal represents a single mind.
The 20th-century movement of psychoanalysis, commonly understood to have originated with the work of Sigmund Freud, is famous and infamous depending on the context. On the one hand, it paved the way for psychiatry and the treatment of mental health issues, and variants of the framework are still used in some practices today; on the other hand, many of its theoretical peculiarities (especially Freud’s) are considered in the modern world to be antiquated at best and malignantly confused at worst.
Perhaps less commonly recognized yet better grounded in the modern world is psychoanalysis as a mode of literary interpretation: because Freud’s method of understanding and diagnosing real people focused on interpreting the psychological implications of representational content like their dreams, some literary critics have adopted these interpretive methods to infer the psychology of characters in stories based on their behavior and perspective on the world. Even if original psychoanalysis’ grasp on real people is dubious, the thought goes, it can give us a lens through which to understand complex characters and, by extension, the stories in which they’re embedded.
I want to convince you here that Returnal has taken the literary potential of psychoanalysis one step further: instead of merely making its characters amenable to psychoanalytic interpretation, Returnal shows how a world, story, set of characters, and the agency of a player can be used to represent the psychoanalysis of a single mind. The result is a work of art that shows how video games can move beyond our typical common-sense ideas about “worldbuilding” and “solipsism” to create a haunting portrait of the basic tensions that define and motivate a human psyche.
I begin this analysis by sketching the basic psychoanalytic model of the mind as subdivided into the id, ego, and superego, along with the fundamental principles that are understood to motivate them. With this groundwork in place, I show how the main characters of Returnal—Helios, Selene, and the Astronaut—can be read as representing these core psychological elements within the context of one single mind. This, I argue, paves the way for understanding the player’s role in Returnal as an external analytical force, rather than merely as someone role-playing as Selene—which paves the way for a new interpretation of Selene’s journey through every biome in Atropos as the journey of a weakened ego undergoing psychoanalysis. Ultimately, I suggest, Returnal provides us with a compelling model for how interactive stories of all kinds can be interpreted as representing the aesthetics of a single person’s psychology.
- There are thorough spoilers for Returnal throughout this analysis; particularly because several elements of the game’s storytelling crucially turn on undermining player expectations, I’d recommend not reading this until you’ve completed the game.
- Like many schools of theory, psychoanalysis itself remains debated, open to interpretation, and the sum of the contributions of many analysts—not just the most renowned, such as Freud and Jung. My goal here isn’t to make an argument for the correct interpretation of the founding texts of psychoanalysis, nor to endorse the theoretical views of Freud or any other psychoanalyst; my goal, similar to my application of Plato to Xenoblade Chronicles 2, is to present what I take to be the most commonplace understandings of psychoanalysis’ key concepts and show how they can illuminate Returnal’s storytelling in a well-motivated way. My presentation of psychoanalysis here focuses on the theories of Sigmund Freud.
- There are plenty of interesting opportunities to analyze the details of Returnal’s plot and world (what some might call its “lore”), as well as the literal intentions that the game’s creator had when designing its story; this project is different than both of those. My claim here is that psychoanalysis offers us an illuminating perspective on the game’s story that is justified by the content of that story; I don’t intend to present this perspective as the only valuable way of interpreting the game, nor as the way any flesh-and-blood developers “wanted” the game to be interpreted. In Freud’s words, “it is more a question of arriving at new ways of looking at things and new groupings of the facts than of making new discoveries.” You can learn more about this underlying method in “A Three-Stage Method for Analyzing Video-Game Stories.”
Characters as Mind: Mapping Helios, Selene, and the Astronaut to the Id, Ego, and Superego
In order to understand what it means to read Returnal as a psychoanalytic representation of a mind, we need to begin with the building blocks that will ultimately allow us to see the game’s entire story and world in new ways. To do that, we’ll start with reviewing psychoanalysis’ core components of the mind and seeing how those relate to Returnal’s small, closely-knit cast of characters.
Id, Ego, and Superego
To boil psychoanalysis down to a slogan, there are three things in your mind: what you want, what you see, and what you’re supposed to be. Respectively, these are the id, the ego, and the superego.
The id is the wellspring of instincts from which the ego and superego are derived; it is the unconscious, pleasure-motivated aspect of the mind that rules us when we are first born, before we develop a sense of self and our place in the external world. It seeks to satisfy two primary and contradictory impulses—(1) the seeking of pleasure / avoidance of main (the pleasure principle) and (2) the return of life to its original, inanimate state (the death drive)—without attenuation to logic, contradiction, the concept of time, or morality.
The ego is the aspect of the mind, developing out of the id, that constitutes an individual’s perceptual consciousness, perspective on the outside world, and capacity for self-reflection. It derives from bodily sensations, both external (i.e. sensory perception) and internal (i.e. conscious awareness of mental states). The ego, as a perceptual and reflective apparatus, can evolve over time, and it is capable not only of considering and partitioning itself but also doing things like burying, or “repressing,” aspects of itself in an effort to better accommodate the demands of the external world and the desires of the id (and the judgment of the superego, discussed below).
Freud often compared the ego’s relationship to the id to the relationship of a rider to that rider’s horse:
The horse provides the locomotive energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often in the relations between the ego and the id we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go.
The superego is a partitioned and specialized aspect of the ego identified with the concept of conscience, described by Freud as an “observing function” with respect to the ego. This is the aspect of the mind from which one’s moral sense derives and which judges and punishes the ego, imposing tension that creates feelings of guilt and inferiority when its thoughts or behaviors go against social norms or rules; it is the result of the ego internalizing, or “identifying” with, the judgment and guidance of parents and other caretakers / role models. Freud’s explanation of why this happens is intimately related to his infamous theory of the Oedipus complex: as an infant, the theory says, a person’s id attaches its desire to the parent of the opposite sex and therefore resents the parent of the same sex, a conflict that is ultimately resolved by repressing the inappropriate desire and “consolidating” the character of the other parent in the form of an internalized identification with their nature.
In Freud’s view, the fraught universe of an individual’s inner life tells the story of an ego that struggles to satisfy the demands of three very different “masters” at once: the id, which demands satisfaction of its desires; the external world, which represents a separate reality in which the ego must situate itself; and the superego, which demands compliance with standards of proper behaviors and beliefs.
It turns out that this fraught universe maps onto the elements of Returnal in a way that affords us a new, surprisingly cohesive understanding of Selene’s inescapable journey on Atropos.
Helios, Selene, and the Astronaut
While Selene is the main character with which we engage throughout Returnal, there are three main characters within her universe: Helios, the ship that we later discover is a representation of her son; Selene herself, the space explorer trapped on the alien planet of Atropos; and the Astronaut, a faceless, silent presence that seemingly stalks Selene from a distance on Atropos.
My claim is that it’s possible and illuminating to interpret all of Returnal’s fictional content—including plot, world, and characters—symbolically, as a metaphor for one mind rather than a story that represents many characters, with many minds, interacting through some conflict and resolution. The best place to begin understanding and defending this claim is a mapping of these three core characters onto those three core aspects of a psychodynamic mind. Once we interpret Helios, Selene, and the Astronaut within a psychoanalytic framework, we’ll also discover that the meaning of less central but clearly significant aspects of the game—such as Theia, Hyperion, the Sentients, the mythological content of Atropos, and even Octo—becomes much more intelligible in the bargain.
(A note on presentation: because the goal of this argument is to show how three characters can be analyzed as different aspects of a single mind and those aspects, on a psychoanalytic view, are interconnected in complex ways, it will be challenging to understand any of the three comparisons discretely and will become much clearer once all three are in view. I hope, therefore, that you’ll afford me some patience in that regard until the roles of Helios, Selene, and the Astronaut are all in view.)
Helios as Id
How would you design a character to represent a mind’s id: that primordial, contradiction-riddled, desire-driven aspect that exists outside of time and compels an individual without being able to directly recognize or negotiate reality?
Here’s a good place to start:
The player’s initial conception of Helios is that of the ship named “Helios” that Selene pilots, crash-lands on Atropos, “abandons” each time she explores Atropos, and returns to each time she dies on Atropos. It’s all the more surprising, then, when Selene’s fourth visit to the Atroposian representation of her old house reveals Helios to be her son: a child who actually appears to be playing on a PlayStation 5 and controlling Selene from his darkened room, decorated with stars and filled with a range of space-themed toys and books.
The child whom the player takes as her avatar in that fourth House sequence is only identified in Returnal’s subtitles as “Child,” but a journey around the house gradually uncovers a constellation of clues about his identity: letters on the door to his room spell out “Helios”; a voice message on the home phone identifies Selene leaving a message for “sweetheart” that she’s not coming home, her tone indicating she’s speaking to a child. Later, at the conclusion of Act II following Selene’s confrontation of the tentacled creature at the bottom of Abyssal Scar, we see a car crash sequence in which a woman who looks similar to Selene is driving and a young character, identified again in the subtitles as “Child,” is in the backseat, wearing the same overalls and “Child’s Watch” that the child from the house wore—a watch whose Artifact form in the game is described as not wanting to let Selene go.
On the level of plot, Helios is Selene’s child who was buried in the water after she saw the Astronaut on the middle of the bridge in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest; as Selene comes to understand her role in this, she interprets Atropos as a form of punishment for her role in killing him. This tightly aligns with Selene’s comparison of Atropos to the punitive underworlds of Gehenna, Helheim, and Tartarus; particularly given the fact that both Selene and Helios are named after Greek Titans, it’s apt for Selene to compare her apparent psychological torment with Tartarus, the pocket of hell in Greek mythology where the Titans were held and punished after being overthrown by Zeus and the Olympians, a struggle known as the Titanomachy which is referenced in Helios’ ship logs (AST-AL-067).
Beyond plot, the nature and history of Helios suggests an interpretation of him as a representation of a mind’s id rather than a full-fledged character.
- The childlike nature of Helios mirrors the nature of the id as the logic-agnostic aspect of mind that rules the psyche before the external world forces individuation of the ego.
- The constraints of reality and societal expectations bury the id beneath the surface of the psyche; the conflict between Selene and the Astronaut, which we’ll explore further below, leaves Helios buried beneath the water, a common symbol for the unconscious mind.
- Similar to Freud’s analogy of the rider and the horse for the ego and the id, Helios is also represented as the ship which Selene pilots, with Helios giving Selene the locomotive force to direct herself but also taking the reins himself in some ways.
Let’s examine each of these three factors in turn.
Helios as Unfiltered Play
Helios is oriented toward child’s play, more focused on the satisfaction of loosely structured imaginative than the rigid rule sets of more developed games of play. Besides the PlayStation 5, the toys that populate Helios’ dark bedroom in the fourth House sequence of Returnal are all flexible tools of the kind that allow children to play any number of make-believe games. The player sees a structure built of wooden blocks which she can prompt Helios to knock over with the push of a button; drawings on paper, a chalkboard, and the wall just outside his door evoke an imagination that creates and seeks without bounds; walkie-talkies, model spaceships and astronauts, seat belt, and the stuffed octopus, Octo, all gesture at a collection of props through which to create imaginative games.
We see Helios’ philosophy of play in action during the moment in the fourth House sequence when he goes downstairs to the kitchen, discovers the Astronaut reading at the kitchen table, and offers the Astronaut a story that the player can help Helios tell by selecting three storytelling moments from a set of nine possibilities, represented by a child’s writing underneath drawings in Helios’ artistic style.
This interaction with the Astronaut is an especially illuminating portrait of Helios’ psychological content: at a moment when the Astronaut is doubly inflexible—both (1) reading a carefully edited book with a single progression of concepts from beginning to end and (2) non-interactive, unable to be directly swayed by the player’s input—Helios offers a flexible story of whimsy that has no discernible impact on the broader universe of Returnal based on the particular story content the player chooses. The result is a portrait of Helios freely generating stories and fictions with no other motive than mere fun; after the story concludes, he wants to know what the Astronaut thinks and declares, simply and firmly, “It’s so cool!” This is an entity, like the id, that is motivated by desire unmediated by reality or societal constraints.
Helios as a Subliminal Agent
Alone, the observation that a child character is driven by unfiltered desires isn’t especially interesting: that’s basically saying that the child character acts like a child. Things get more interesting, and more id-like, when we add to the mix the consideration that Helios is a subliminal child character.
‘Subliminal’ refers to that which is below a certain threshold; in psychology, ‘subliminal content’ typically describes something that exists within your mind without you consciously realizing it (picture your “favorite” example of subversive sponsored content that draws your attention to a brand without leading you to actually recognize that the brand is being advertised). In the psychoanalytic framework we’ve sketched, the id is subliminal in the sense that it exists entirely “below” the threshold of consciousness in the mind, influencing and driving the ego without the ego directly being able to recognize this.
Helios, it turns out, is similarly subliminal with regard to both space and time within Returnal.
In the first place, Helios has a subliminal relationship to space within Returnal. We see this relationship most jarringly in our first introduction to Helios the Child, when he’s shown to be manipulating Selene, much as the player has been, as someone pushing buttons on the controller of a PlayStation 5; we revisit the relationship at two moments during our next visit to the House, the fifth such visit:
- Attempting to hide from the Astronaut, which he now calls a “monster,” Helios hides inside of the House’s living-room television, which he calls “the submarine’s entrance” and asks Octo for help in locating. This allows him to occupy a kind of otherwise-empty void looking in upon the house—a kind of inversion in his relationship to the game on his PlayStation 5—until the Astronaut reaches into the television and grabs him.
- After the Astronaut grabs Helios, Helios awakes upstairs in the hallway preceding a telescope and tells Octo that he “[has] to go now,” asking Octo to stay and protect “her” and declaring that he’s not scared before looking into the telescope’s eyepiece. Absent any further explanation of or elaboration on this action and given the context of Helios’ first two subliminal manipulations of space, I think the best explanation here is that Helios similarly crosses the threshold of the telescope to exist within its representation of deep space.
Compounding this relationship to space, the dynamics of the House relative to Atropos also make it the case that Helios has a subliminal relationship to time within Returnal. The events within the House are largely orthogonal to the events that Selene and the player experience on Atropos—though they aren’t entirely orthogonal, given that (1) the events in the House occur in a rigid sequence only accessible to Selene based on her completing certain events on Atropos and (2) at least some of the events on Atropos seem to directly depend on events in the house by virtue of Helios controlling Selene through his PlayStation 5.
That being said, time works very differently in the House than it does on Atropos. Rather than endlessly iterating new cycles of the world from a single moment every time a character dies (as is the case with Atropos and Selene), each sequence in the House only happens once, with such finality that the House itself shifts into an ancient, inert relic after the final sequence is complete. One of Selene’s earliest Scout Logs (AST-AL-008), which she discovers near the House after her and the player’s first encounter with it, describes the House as a kind of museum of approximate memories focused more on her feelings than completely accurate content:
I think I am reliving my memories in that house, but… not fully. They’re corroded. Some parts are missing, others seem… manufactured. But I can remember the torment, feeling like I was losing my mind. There’s no comfort here. No safe space. And the Astronaut keeps following me.
But further into the sequence of experiences in the House, it’s not clear whether Selene even has direct access to those events—particularly in the case of the fourth and fifth visits, which the player experiences from the perspective of Helios. After the fourth sequence, Selene has nothing to say about Helios, nor about the presumably jarring experience of being represented in a game that her son is playing; her recognition, after the fifth sequence, of the damage she did to Helios is ambiguous, but it seems to be more focused on the evidence on Atropos of her having shot down Helios the Ship than on the experiences represented within the House.
Time even seems to fold back upon itself in the House in a way that it doesn’t on Atropos: it’s fairly clear that the moment of Astronaut reaching through the television for Helios, which we experience from Helios’ perspective in House Sequence 5, is the same moment we experience in Sequence 3 when Selene reaches into the television before watching the news about her mother’s car crash and the lunar landing—an inference that squares with the later revelation that Selene’s act of overcoming her mother, Theia, transformed her into the Astronaut (more on that below).
Helios the Child, therefore, exists beyond the reach of space and time as Selene conceives of them on Atropos. Freud said that “In the id there is nothing corresponding to the idea of time, no recognition of the passage of time, and […] no alteration of mental processes by the passage of time.” Just so, Helios in Returnal is represented as a timeless child fully insulated from the external world of Atropos while still exerting influence on it, aware of trauma without the ability to situate it in a broader narrative of self. When we see him unbuckle the seatbelt thrown over the chair in his room and quietly remark that “[he] couldn’t unlatch the other one,” we witness a child who feels the pain of a traumatic experience without truly understanding it—yet, as children really do with play and make-believe, he attempts to process it.
Helios as a Director of Selene
Those “attempts to process” bring us to the third observation, that of Helios as the horse and Selene as the rider: the energy of Helios motivates and guides Selene without having complete agency over her. I think that if Sigmund Freud had lived to witness the modern era of video games, he would have traded in his horse-and-rider analogy for an analogy explaining the id and ego in terms of player and avatar, respectively—and I think he would have been hard-pressed to have found a better vehicle for that analogy than the image of Helios controlling Selene at the beginning of the fourth House sequence.
Remember that the point of Freud’s horse-and-rider analogy was that the ego derives its energy from the id and is (1) typically able to direct that energy toward its own goals but (2) occasionally beholden to the desires of the id, compelled to direct that energy toward the ends desired by the id whether or not those ends are intrinsically meaningful to the ego. This is exactly what we see in the relationship between player and avatar in many video-game stories: the player’s input and actions enable the avatar to act toward the goals that it has within the context of the fiction (i.e. whatever goal-fulfillment progresses the story), but the player may also wield that energy in a way that cannot be adequately explained without appeal to the player’s desires, separate from the avatar’s (think, for instance, of the player who simply tries to find the most creative ways possible for Selene to die for the sake of mere entertainment, totally disregarding the goal of her making progress through Atropos). To represent this id-like impulse in a child driven by timeless imagination and a desire for “cool stories” only further underscores this subliminal/superliminal element of the player/avatar relationship in video-game fictions.
But Returnal’s Helios goes further than this. The id’s impositions on the ego, on a psychoanalytic view, typically surface just in those instances when the id is experiencing trauma that is weighing upon the ego. Returnal’s storytelling turns on just this kind of representation of psychic tension, centered—as any proper psychic tension is—on an octopus.
The tentacled creature shown above is a mainstay in Selene’s journey through Atropos. It appears in her dreams, watching her; in Scout Log AST-AL-003, she describes “a moment between death and rebirth when tentacles drag [her] down: screaming; drowning; returning”; it appears in its curled up, spherical form before Selene on multiple occasions throughout her travels on Atropos; it is this creature that awaits her in the deepest pit of Atropos, floating above a glowing surface that looks quite a bit like the convoluted surface of a brain, waiting to reveal to her (and the player) the car crash that forced the confrontation between Selene, Helios, and the Astronaut, submerging Helios deep underwater.
As far as I know, the identity of this creature isn’t explicitly elaborated upon within the game any further than what I just said. Yet with all our foregoing groundwork in hand, I think we can make a compelling case that this creature is a rather intimidating form of a much friendlier entity in the game: Octo, Helios’ beloved octopus plush.
Octo is a clear source of play and comfort for our id stand-in, Helios; at the beginning of part of the fifth House sequence from Helios’ perspective, when Helios can’t find Octo and fears “the dark will drink” Octo, he expresses dismay that, in Octo’s absence, he is “all alone.” Octo also has a habit of showing up in some unusual places: even beyond discovering him in the House, the curious player can also find him (sometimes) quietly occupying a corner of Selene’s cockpit on Helios the Ship.
Symbolically, this attachment of Octo to Selene makes sense: remember that Helios’ very last request for Octo, before disappearing into the telescope, was to “stay and help her”; we can begin to understand this sentiment by viewing it as Helios’ desire for his childhood support to also support his mother from the apparent monster that is the Astronaut. I think we can push this further, though, in order to understand Octo as a representation of the id making trauma manifest to the otherwise ignorant ego—explaining some of the stranger fringe elements of the game’s horror style in the bargain.
Returnal is a game whose strangest moments are mediated by tentacles, but not in the same manner that tentacles populate Lovecraftian visions of eldritch creatures beyond our ken. Rather, these tentacles—particularly in light of Selene’s encounter with the cephalopod at the bottom of Abyssal Scar—seem primarily to represent the intentionality of a single entity guiding and interacting with Selene.
- As Selene notes, these tentacles appear to be the means by which she is pulled back from death to a new cycle on Atropos.
- This same kind of tentacle-textured darkness mediates the house’s living-room television screen from Selene’s perspective in the scene where she reaches through the screen—a scene where, from Helios’ perspective, he’d dropped Octo directly on the other side of the screen.
- The dark particles associated with these tentacles also emanate from the small wooden blocks, reminiscent of the building blocks in Helios’ room, that Selene can find and crush throughout her journeys to the house.
- When Helios holds up Octo to the specter of the Astronaut in the confrontation at the end of the fourth house sequence, tentacles burst out of the Astronaut’s helmet and the memory terminates.
I think that these data show a prima facie relationship between Octo and the cephalopod that guides Selene through Atropos to the bottom of Abyssal Scar. The tentacles manifest at moments that point Selene toward Helios (the pull toward understanding the trauma of the crash; the pull toward reaching out to him across the threshold of the living-room television) and create distance between Helios and the Astronaut (tentacles at most protecting Helios from the Astronaut’s approach and at least helping Helios by terminating the sequence and his interaction with the Astronaut).
By analyzing the cephalopod as Octo, we can close the circuit on a holistic understanding of Helios as a representation of the id. The desire-ruled Helios lies buried, submerged beneath the water, telescopes, and televisions that delineate the unconscious mind; through the medium of a totem that represents secure attachment for him (Octo, what psychoanalysis would call an object cathexis), he reaches out to Selene (the conscious mind) to “help her” by pulling her attention to the unconscious mind (Abyssal Scar) to make manifest to her his core trauma of the car crash—which, by virtue of haunting Helios within the unconscious mind, has weighed on Selene in her conscious experience without her being able to recognize or process the source of that trauma, which she has repressed, burying beneath that which is perceptible in the conscious mind.
On this reading, Helios’ directive (“Stay and help her”) prompts Octo, a preconscious intermediary between unconscious Helios and conscious Selene, to lead Selene through the death cycles of Atropos to uncover the source of this trauma (the car crash) and distance her from the oppressive, judgmental influence of the Astronaut. Recalling Freud’s diagram of the relationship between ego, id, perception, and repressed content, we can understand the trauma of Selene and Helios’ car crash with the Astronaut as a mental event that the ego has chosen to shield itself from through repression, cutting that event off from consciousness; but Helios continues to call Selene’s attention to it, and it is only by resurfacing the event in consciousness that Selene can be free.
From the depths, behind the screen, the childlike id that is Helios calls out, and this call subtly molds the entire experience of the conscious mind. Of course, we can’t fully appreciate what that means until we have Returnal’s representation of the conscious mind in view.
Selene as Ego
A guilt-ridden space explorer on a foreign, hostile, dreamlike planet is a color-by-numbers model for representing the ego, but the most telling image of Selene’s role as ego is a much more mundane one:
Dan Hughes has often extolled the virtues of using film language to read the meaning of non-interactive sequences in video-game stories, and this moment is a prime example of how visual storytelling can represent an entire character with a single gesture. In the memory of the crash that Octo represents to Selene and the player at the end of Act II, we see Selene driving a car through the dark Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Helios awake in the back seat; after Helios asks Selene if she sees the White Shadow, Selene looks at Helios in the rear-view mirror, grasps the mirror with her right hand, adjusts it so as to remove Helios from her field of vision, and averts her eyes, returning to the road ahead.
As we see in microcosm here, Selene is the aspect of mind responsible for navigating the external world and consciousness; she is beholden to the voice of Helios but actively shuts him out of her lived experience. The id, Helios, is the hidden source of the energy reflected and put to use by the ego, Selene, giving another meaning to the fact that these two characters bear the names of Titan siblings of the sun and moon: the moon, Selene, which reflects the energy of the hidden sun, Helios.
Selene’s story is that of Freud’s “poor ego” trying desperately to serve “three harsh masters”—the id, external world, and superego—at once, developing coping mechanisms in the moment-to-moment chaos of her existence as she tries to better understand and liberate herself, with the help of the player, through self-reflection and analysis.
There are three core aspects of Selene’s nature to analyze when interpreting her as a representation of ego:
- her relationship to the external world as represented through Atropos
- the defense mechanisms that populate her perception of Atropos, and her methods of diffusing them
- her representation and analysis of multiple versions of herself throughout the course of her journey on Atropos
Selene as Perceptual Consciousness
At the core of the ego’s relationship with the id is the substitution of the pleasure principle with the reality principle: recognizing that what the id wants doesn’t always align with the limitations imposed by the ego’s sensory experience, and working to reconcile the two. Nowhere are the demands of a hostile and inscrutable reality obvious than Atropos, a world named after the Greek goddess of fate who was responsible for deciding where to sever the threads representing mortal lives, effectively determining the moment of their death.
Atropos is alien, unpredictable, and hostile: ‘alien’ in the sense that it is home to creatures and cultures that Selene must translate rather than understanding natively; ‘unpredictable’ in the sense that its various regions, despite retaining a fixed overall order, shuffle their more granular content and organization every time Selene encounters them; ‘hostile’ in the sense that every organism Selene meets threatens physical harm to her.
There are two antagonistic forces that the external world brings to bear upon the ego within a psychoanalytic framework, and they both play a key role in understanding Selene’s relationship with Atropos.
First, the external world represents a set of data which the ego perceives as separate from itself and must attempt to accommodate. This is the straightforward imposition of the external world that we’ve already discussed as a shift from the pleasure principle governing the id to the reality principle governing the ego. Freud describes the ego as sometimes struggling to accommodate the desires of the id within the constraints of the reality principle by “clothing” the id’s desires with preconscious rationalizations, “gloss[ing] over the conflicts between the id and reality”; the best image of this struggle I can imagine is Helios inputting PlayStation 5 commands that Selene must subsequently mediate within the reality of Atropos, from which Helios is metaphysically removed.
The core data that Selene perceives about Atropos are its intrinsically hostile creatures, the history of the Sentients’ civilization, and its quasi-randomized topography. The acts of the player and Selene collecting data on hostiles, learning attack patterns, exploring Xeno Archives, surveying biomes, and learning which rooms to expect in which orders can all be interpreted as the ego abiding by the reality principle and learning the “rules of the game” for successfully navigating the perceived world in which it is embedded.
But the ego isn’t a crystal-clear looking glass out into the external world, which leads us to the second force at play in their relationship: an ego experiencing psychic tension can project that psychic content onto its perceptions of the external world, changing how it interprets reality. Freud initially focused on analyzing such projections with regard to specific individuals suffering from neuroses—for instance, an individual suffering from a compulsion disorder, perceiving something like his thinking of an old acquaintance’s health as that acquaintance telepathically calling his attention to his impending death—but he subsequently expanded the scope of this theory to account for how cultures give rise to mythology, religion, and other systems of belief. He saw these systems as methods by which man “transferred the structural relations of his own psyche to the outer world,” projecting unconscious processes within the mind in a way that could alleviate tension within the ego itself. The development of such a system, importantly, is similar to the way in which individuals elaborate on their dreams: it rearranges data in such a way as to create coherence where there were previously logical gaps or inconsistencies.
Selene’s relationship to Atropos and its contents features this kind of projection in three key regards.
- The layer of translation between Sentient culture and Selene’s understanding. The Sentients left Xenoglyphs inscribed throughout Atropos in a language foreign to Selene, and Selene initially seems able to translate these inscriptions more accurately as she collects stray Xenoglyph ciphers left all over Atropos. As Selene’s journey progresses, however, an increased collection of ciphers actually leads her to become less accurate in her translation, clearly interpreting the Xenoglyphs in a way that projects her psyche onto the world. For instance, one of the final Xenoglyphs (AST-AX-018) transitions from 99% accuracy, to 39% accuracy, to 1% accuracy as Selene collects more ciphers, with the final translation reading: “THERE MUST BE A WAY TO RECONNECT WITH MY LOST LIFE. YET IT IS ALREADY GONE LIKE THE ASTRONAUT, WHO IS WAITING IN THE FOG. PERHAPS NEXT TIME I WILL HAVE THE STRENGTH TO IGNORE IT. HELIOS LIES SHATTERED AND I MUST PUT HIM BACK TOGETHER.” This raises the question, too, of whether Xeno-Archive projections of the Astronaut and an explorer who looks like Selene are similar projections.
- The overarching progression through Atropos’ biomes elides variations in room structure in favor of a fixed overall narrative progression centered on Selene. Remember that one of Atropos’ core data is that its structure is quasi-randomized, shifting each time Selene dies and is returned to the ship. To impose upon this unpredictable variation (1) constants in any given cycle, such as a room with three fabricators and the residence of the area’s boss, and (2) the fixed order in which Selene visits the six Biomes calls to mind Freud’s discussion of systematic projections rearranging content to disregard logical leaps in favor of new meaning: as we’ll see, the precise order in which Selene proceeds through these seemingly random encounters tells a journey of meaningful psychological discovery of the kind we’d expect if projection were at work.
- The mythological layer of Atropos reinforces the psychoanalytic view of an individual’s psychic projection on the external world as well as the particulars of Selene’s psychic trauma. The bosses of Returnal—Phrike, Ixion, Nemesis, Hyperion, and Ophion—are all named after figures from Greek mythology. There are no optional bosses or divergent outcomes: there is a singular order in which Selene encounters them, and that order, when related to the bosses’ mythological sources, reinforce the story of Selene’s specific psychic trauma and progression to self-understanding. This is further reinforced by the mythological projections on the Ship Logs within Helios the Ship in the latter half of the biomes—as well as in the names of Helios, Selene, and Theia, themselves all mythological allusions as well.
We’ll explore the content of Selene’s projected journey through psychoanalysis across Atropos below, once we have the full analysis of id, ego, and, superego in hand; for our current purposes, it’s sufficient to understand that, as the ego does, Selene occupies the dual role of negotiating the reality of Atropos and imposing the psychic tensions weighing upon her on her perception of Atropos.
Selene as a Defensive Agent
The ways in which the ego alters its perceptions of the world aren’t always a passive manifestation of psychic tension: sometimes, these alterations can be active modes of the ego protecting itself against confronting repressed content that threatens its self-concept. While we’ve already seen the roots of this in Freud’s theories, the notion of these defense mechanisms was first schematized as such by his daughter, Anna Freud, in her The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence; in showing how the ego defends itself against a psychoanalyst’s attempts to make the id’s desires conscious, she also showed how Selene’s difficulties on Atropos can be interpreted as a form of defense against Helios’—and the player’s—attempts to make the unconscious manifest to her.
In the process of an individual’s psychology being subjected to analysis, Anna Freud says, “[t]he ego becomes active in the analysis whenever it desires by means of a counteraction to prevent [the conscious representation of an unconscious instinct] by the id.” These “counteractions,” or defense mechanisms, can take different forms and result from different sources of anxiety; they are obstacles designed by the ego to prevent confronting those sources of anxiety. Recall that we’ve framed the id and the ego’s individuation from it as Helios and the car crash, respectively, with Octo pulling Selene to understand the source of this trauma over the course of her journey; within this context, the obstacles Selene encounters impeding her progress throughout Atropos—the hostiles; the shifting, labyrinthine landscape; suit malfunctions—can be analyzed as defense mechanisms being perceived by the ego, Selene, in order to generate protective impediments to reaching the unconscious instincts of Helios and repressed trauma of her separation from Helios.
Notice that this has an unintuitive consequence that, in my view, starts to capture the essence of what makes Returnal’s world feel holistically unusual: the very elements of the game that make it so difficult for the player to enable the avatar’s progress, on this interpretation, are impositions by the avatar trying to protect herself from discovering something psychically damaging. This is a way of making narrative meaning out of how difficult (at least for me!) the gameplay of Returnal is: as Anna Freud discusses, the ego is a kind of fickle friend in psychoanalysis, simultaneously undergoing the process of self-discovery with the analyst but also manufacturing psychic roadblocks; it’s this kind of paradoxical psychic character that we witness in Selene throughout her journey. The analyst trying to surface the unconscious impulses of an ego must note and analyze the content of its defense mechanisms while simultaneously providing the ego with tools to recognize and overcome them—tools not unlike those with which the player furnishes Selene on her push through Atropos.
The player can augment Selene in a variety of ways:
- Artifacts, synthesized from raw materials on Atropos (obolites), augment Selene’s abilities simply by virtue of her possessing them
- Parasites, simple living organisms on Atropos, attach to Selene’s suit and enhance some of her abilities at the cost of simultaneously impairing her in other capacities
- Xeno-Tech can be repurposed from dead Sentients to give Selene’s suit new abilities (Promethean Insulators, Delphic Visor, Hadal Ballasts, Icarian Grapnel, Atropian Weapon Charger, Hermetic Transmitter, Atropian Blade)
- Environmental progress, through resource acquisition and elimination of hostiles, can enhance Selene’s integrity and weapon proficiency, respectively
- Weapons, which Selene can find and equip throughout Atropos, gain new abilities corresponding to the frequency with which she finds and uses them
If the environmental hazards of Atropos are the ego’s defense mechanisms, then these modes of augmentation are the “[preconscious] connecting-links” that Sigmund Freud argues a psychoanalyst must supply to the ego in order to make it consciously recognize that which has been repressed or otherwise defended against, connecting conscious experience to unconscious instincts through perceptible associations that Anna Freud calls “ideational representatives of repressed instincts,” such as those representatives called to mind through the process of free-association. In just this manner, Selene’s augmentations are objects that naturally emerge or are repurposed out of a combination of her perceptions of the world and Helios’ history, empowering her, as the ego empowered through preconscious connecting-links, to progress deeper through Atropos toward the origin of psychic trauma:
- Many Artifacts are represented by objects related to the House and Helios (the Child’s Watch, the Two-Way Radio, etc.), emulating the process of the ego connecting through free-association to the id through the repurposing of already-conscious materials (oblites); the process of “recalling” these Artifacts—manufacturing them multiple times, deepens Selene’s understanding of them through “Research Levels” that become increasingly more abstract and subconscious—emulates how such connections and repetitious analytical processes can help to solidify preconscious bridges between the ego and id.
- Parasites empower Selene while simultaneously weakening her, much like an ego that becomes vulnerable yet cultivates a potential for better self-knowledge through tools to break down defense mechanisms; evoking the kind of subconscious pull a preconscious connecting-link would have, Selene remarks, “I find myself compelled to attach them to my body.”
- Xeno-Tech is coded as foreign relative to Selene’s Atropos suit, yet it melds with that suit and empowers her literally to reach parts of Atropos she otherwise couldn’t. She reflects on this in Scout Log AST-AL-020: “I’ve continued self-experimentation with more discovered technology. ‘Irreversibly contaminated’… if I define my current status by Scout Regulations. Have I lost a part of myself? The device merged disturbingly well with my suit—like it recognized me. And… that it was waiting for me.” Tools for undoing defense mechanisms are contaminating to the ego’s shield by virtue of undoing its defense mechanisms and making it susceptible to the anxieties against which it was protecting itself; because these preconscious tools are teased, through analysis, out of the ego itself, it’s expected that the fickle friend that is the ego would simultaneously recognize them as foreign yet familiar, as Selene seems to.
- Environmental progress represents how the power of preconscious connections can stack and uncover more unconscious content as the web of free-association is expanded. Think of the momentum and positive feedback loop as the player makes progress with Selene, kills more enemies, acquires more siliphum resin, and increasingly improves Selene’s capacity to push further: this is like momentum with free-association, where more progress begets more movement away from defense mechanisms and toward repressed content.
- Weapons mirror the cultivation of strong preconscious links through the repetitive dimension of free-association: the more commonly they’re “called to mind” through discovery and use on Atropos, the more psychically effective they become through enhanced abilities.
Notice, too, that many of these tools for overcoming defense mechanisms are only unlocked as Selene and the player make some relevant kind of psychic progress, simulating the experience of gradually becoming better equipped to unravel further defense mechanisms as prior defense mechanisms are unraveled. Artifacts tied to Helios are only unlocked as the house sequences are completed; further Xeno-Tech is unlocked only as Selene defeats bosses and progresses through different biomes of Atropos (the symbology of which we’ll discuss below, once id, ego, and superego are all in view).
Selene as Self-Interrogation
Selene doesn’t just hurl herself through Atropos again and again in pursuit of truth: each time she dies, that version of herself is left on Atropos in the form of corpses and Scout Logs, memorializing the plurality of her journeys and perspectives. As she engages with and learns from these versions of herself, she represents another aspect of the ego: its capacity to change over time and reflect on different versions of itself.
Time and shifting psychic pressures can change the ego and even, as we’ll see in a moment, cause the ego to separate and specialize aspects of itself. In the course of analysis or more basic self-reflection, then, the ego is simultaneously an observer, subject, and obstacle: it observes versions of itself while also imposing defense mechanisms to hide the full picture of its existence from itself. We see these contradictory dynamics at play when Selene investigates one of her corpses only to trigger a hostile manifesting: remember, on this interpretation, hostiles constitute defense mechanisms, so this is a microcosm of Selene trying to learn information about herself (in this case, how she failed on a previous journey of self-reflection) and throwing a mental blockage in front of herself to prevent that from happening. If the hostile kills her, the defense mechanism wins and her progress in analysis is lost; if she kills the hostile, she is rewarded with the sort of materials that we analyzed as tools to overcome defense mechanisms and make further progress.
The Scout Logs, on the other hand, go further than giving us insights into the world and experiences of Selene: they methodically articulate the three different ways in which the ego can come out of balance. Remember that the ego is at the mercy of three forces: the id, the external world, and the superego. The ego mounts defense mechanisms based on three different kinds of anxiety: neurotic anxiety, derived from fear of the id’s instinctual power; objective anxiety, derived from fear of the perceived external world; and moral anxiety, derived from fear of the superego’s reproach and punishment. The Scout Logs implicitly help to generate these three anxieties and thereby explain the presence of the ego’s defense mechanisms: in these records, we see versions of the ego that have been unduly subsumed by the id, external world, or superego in Selene’s past on Atropos.
- Scout Logs in which Selene seems detached from reason represent the ego giving in to the strength of the id’s instincts. Logs like AST-AL-017, AST-AL-034, and AST-AL-049 represent a version of Selene from which Selene the Explorer recoils, insisting that she does not want to become that person and that she is not that person. The verbiage in these Logs is mythological, speaking of severing, ascending, falling from Olympus, and seeking into the deep. We’ll discuss more about Atropos’ concept of the Severed and Selene’s involvement in it below, but it’s worth noting now that these appear to represent psychic passions unmediated by reason, which is exactly why the rational apparatus that is the ego (Selene the Explorer) finds the voice on the tape so alien and recoils from it. With the id as the source of passion and the metaphorical center of the id’s energy on Atropos being the Abyssal Scar, this passionate discourse about descent into the abyss shows an ego overpowered by the id.
- Scout Logs in which Selene is straightforwardly focused on the world of Atropos represent an ego directed toward the dangers of the external world. Logs like AST-AL-001, AST-AL-015, and AST-AL-016 catalogue these dangers and Selene’s feelings toward them straightforwardly, noting events in clinical language such as “I barely managed to dispatch the Sentients that attacked me.” That they exclusively focus on the perceived external world, including the defense mechanisms projected onto it, makes them an apt representation of an ego that closes itself off from the other aspects of its own psychology (the id and superego) in favor of purely attending to its surroundings, even if it’s subconsciously molded those surroundings based on its internal tensions (e.g., a superego-colored hostile like a searchlight-style tower topped by an eyeball, or a tentacled hostile that evokes the id-derived Octo).
- Scout Logs in which Selene directs harsh judgment toward herself represent an ego giving into the harsh judgment of the superego. Logs like AST-AL-55, AST-AL-61, and AST-AL-67 illustrate a version of Selene who isn’t merely considering guilt but is also actively submitting to overwhelming guilt: she speaks of “Why I deserve to be here” in relation to the car crash, and she identifies Atropos, as we discussed earlier, as an analogue to mythical prisons for those who sinned. This is the classic portrait of an ego that has allowed itself to be dominated by the superego, totally subsumed by guilt over its perceived trespasses and failings.
Selene’s journey through Atropos is one of discovering and resisting the many imbalances of conscious experience, governed by that oppressive outcropping of ego that frames the entire game with its silent judgment: the superego.
The Astronaut as Superego
The superego is everywhere and nowhere in Returnal.
Early in the player’s journey with Selene through Atropos, Selene discovers a Scout Log (AST-AL-007) reflecting on an inscrutable presence stalking her throughout her travels:
Someone else is here. An astronaut… but that’s impossible. Is it guiding me? Or… following? It reminds me of the old photos my mother showed me, the type of suit she would have worn if not for the accident. But something from the Apollo Era couldn’t withstand this atmosphere.
From these first moments in the game, then, we have an image of the Astronaut as a silent agent that simultaneously observes and exerts force on Selene—a force that evokes the memory of her mother, Theia. What we come to discover through our time with Selene on Atropos is that this Astronaut, as a symbol of the superego, explains the essence of the psychic tension at the heart of Returnal’s story and the mind it represents.
In order to understand the nature and impact of the Astronaut as superego, we’ll consider:
- The nature of Theia, and how Selene displaces her to become the Astronaut
- The Astronaut’s relationship with Helios, and its judgment as an impetus for the ego’s defense mechanisms
- The car crash as the origin of the mind’s psychic trauma, and the ego’s recognition of the crash as a path to psychic freedom
Once we’re through, the door will open to a new interpretation of Returnal’s overall story, as well as a different conception of the player’s role in this psychoanalytic drama.
The Astronaut as Displacement of the Mother
As AST-AL-007 alluded, an analysis of the Astronaut begins with an analysis of Selene’s mother, Theia.
Selene’s commentary on her mother is sparse, as though she were actively avoiding confronting her. In Scout Log AST-AL-008, she remarks on the sense of torment and lack of a space space in her house; in AST-AL-024, she notes that her mother was “[t]he woman who was supposed to step on the surface of another world”; in AST-AL-040, she implies that her mother treated her as though she were always poorly behaved and warranting punishment. In the sixth House sequence, Selene remarks, looking at Theia’s wheelchair, that she “seem[ed] so frightening” but was actually “so much less.” We’re given a conception of Theia—named after the Titan of sight and prophecy, mother of the Titans Selene and Helios—as a bitter and judgmental mother who imposed her values and worldview on Selene according to exacting standards which Selene couldn’t satisfy.
Our conception of Theia is also one that overlaps amply, and not always unambiguously, with our conception of Selene. While everything we analyzed above implies that Selene got into a car crash with Helios, a news report that Selene watches in the third House sequence, interspersed with a report on the lunar landing, indicates that Theia also got into a car crash with a young Selene in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest years earlier, with Theia “suffer[ing] major spinal injuries” and Selene “miraculously […] surviv[ing] unharmed.” The most obvious explanation of what’s going on here on the level of plot is that there were simply two different formative car crashes in Selene’s life: one with her mother in her youth, when she was a passenger, and one with Helios in her adulthood, when she was the driver. Yet the framing of the story invites us to question whether this literal interpretation of events is the most holistically illuminating one: the different accidents appear to have happened in precisely the same place, and the only representation within the narrative that we get of any such car crash identifies the backseat child only as “Child” and the driver only as the child’s mother; we don’t even have Selene’s characteristic heterochromia to use as a clue since neither driver nor passenger has this attribute (since Selene’s ASTRA personnel file identifies this heterochromia as “trauma-induced,” it’s fair to suppose that it was a result of one of the car crashes). The information about Theia’s car crash is also embedded within a house where Selene herself admits that aspects of her memory seem “corroded,” “missing,” or “manufactured.” The sixth and final House sequence only further highlights this identification between Selene and her mother when Selene sits down in her mother’s wheelchair, symbolically adopting her perspective.
I’m not claiming that there’s no distinction between Selene and Theia: we see versions of them directly confront each other at the end of Act III, so they’re clearly conceptually distinct entities. My point is that the evident ambiguity between the two crashes, combined with the fact that our understanding of both is filtered through the lens of Selene’s perspective, gives us reason to believe that Selene identifies or otherwise blurs together the crippling of her judgmental mother with the separation of her from Helios. This identification gives us a basis for interpreting the end of the game’s third act not only as a coherent explanation of the Astronaut’s origin, but also as the formation of the superego to Selene the Ego and Helios the Id.
The final of Returnal’s three acts sees Selene and the player, following Octo’s presentation of the car crash, collecting six Sunface Fragments, one from each of Atropos’ biomes, to recreate the Sunface wall decoration from her house. Doing so allows Selene to confront Theia’s wheelchair in the house and acquire an astronaut-adorned key to the car found at the bottom of Abyssal Scar, leading her to confront a wheelchair-bound Sentient embodying Theia, after which Selene becomes the Astronaut who appeared on the bridge and led to the car crash.
(It may be helpful, at this point, to remember that we are interpreting all of Returnal as a symbolic representation of one mind. Outside of this context, we might be tempted to see the Astronaut on the bridge as a metaphor for something more literal—for instance, an oncoming car. In the psychoanalytic interpretation we’re building, the Astronaut, as symbolic content, is just as “real” as all other elements of the car crash; while this might seem less intuitive in a vacuum, we’ll see that, as part of a holistic analysis of the game, it affords us explanations and understanding of material that’s elusive in a more literal reading of the story’s content.)
Selene’s overthrowal of Theia and metamorphosis into the Astronaut mirrors her identification of the crippling of Theia with Selene’s separation from Helios. We have the portrait of Theia as a judgmental parent that the ego supplants through an internal representation: the Astronaut, or superego, modeled after the expectations and ideals of the parent. The ego, according to Freud, forms “an identification, that is to say, that one ego becomes like another, one which results in the first ego behaving itself in certain respects in the same way as the second; it imitates it, and as it were takes it into itself.” Through this process, it takes up a parent’s “preventive and punitive functions,” creating an internal representative of judgment and behavioral ideals—the superego—that serves to resolve and redirect the initial energies of the id that are directed toward the parents in undesirable ways. It makes sense, therefore, that Selene, representing the ego, would overcome its initial childhood relationship to the punitive parent, Theia, by creating a sequestered version of herself that emulates that judgmental function in a form that directly evokes her mother (“the type of suit [Theia] would have worn if not for the accident”); it also explains why Selene “recognize[s] parts of [her]self within [the jet black skull behind the visor of the Astronaut]” (AST-AL-053): this is an observer and director that Selene has created from herself as an identification with Theia.
By the same token, this analysis of the Astronaut explains what Selene means when she says that the Astronaut “can show the world one face, then another,” that she may have met it before, and that the White Shadow broadcast on Atropos, “[m]athematically, […] was triggered… ages ago. Thousands of years before [Selene] was born” (AST-AL-053; AST-AL-029). Because the superego is responsible for the imposition of norms, moral expectation, and the like, Freud argued that the superego, through parenting, conferred culture and society through countless generations:
In general, parents and similar authorities follow the dictates of their own super-egos in the up-bringing of children. Whatever terms their ego may be on with their super-ego, in the education of the child they are severe and exacting. They have forgotten the difficulties of their own childhood, and are glad to be able to identify themselves fully at last with their own parents, who in their day subjected them to such severe restraints. The result is that the super-ego of the child is not really built up on the model of the parents, but on that of the parents’ super-ego; it takes over the same content, it becomes the vehicle of tradition and of all the age-long values which have been handed down in this way from generation to generation.
This is the reason that the Astronaut is at once deeply personal, a psychic outcropping of Selene and reaction to Theia, and transcendent, reaching back through generations to explain Theia and those before her. It’s why the metaphor and image of the Astronaut, or “White Shadow,” as a broadcast predating Selene by generations is so thematically salient.
The Astronaut as Rival to Helios and Impetus for Selene’s Defense Mechanisms
With an analysis of the Astronaut as superego in hand, we’re now in a position to understand how it interacts with Helios and Selene to catalyze the main narrative frictions of Returnal. The overarching theme of these frictions, in my view, is the tension between chaos and order—with the ego’s quest for freedom caught in the middle.
Let’s return to this moment from House Sequence 4, when Helios interrupts the Astronaut’s reading to tell him a free-form story with the help of the player:
Recall that when we discussed this moment in our analysis of Helios, we used it to study the way in which, consistent with the id’s unstructured instinctual energy, he focuses on loosely structured, imaginative play contra the Astronaut’s perceived rigidity. With our new conception of the Astronaut, we can see this scene as representing the unconscious battles waged between the id and superego.
Freud thought that the id and superego were in many ways more intimately related than either was to the ego because the superego derived from the id’s instincts and energy: if the ego had insufficiently resolved the core conflicts between id and external world, he claimed, then the unresolved energies of the id “[would] find an outlet in the reaction-formations of the ego-ideal [i.e. the superego]. […] The struggle which once raged in the deepest strata of the mind, and was not brought to an end by rapid sublimation and identification, is now carried on in a higher region, like the Battle of the Huns which in Kaulbach’s painting is being fought out in the sky.”
Seen through this lens, the interaction between Helios and the Astronaut becomes less about Helios simply telling the Astronaut a story and more about Helios expressing desires in a way that are interpreted and imposed upon Selene (the ego) through the conduit of the Astronaut. The books of the kind that the Astronaut is reading at the table can be found throughout the house and represent various narratives that share features with Selene’s journey on Atropos: space travel, time cycles, mythic purgatory, and the like. That the Astronaut would be reading such a book is consonant with the view of the superego imposing order and standards of conduct on an ego otherwise more freely behaved: a book collapses the dynamic, multiple-choice stories of interactive media like video games or oral storytelling into a rigid structure with only one series of events and no possibilities beyond those captured by that sequence. To this perspective, Helios—a child and psychic energy whose truly free-form creative activities are (mostly) sealed within his dark, private bedroom—offers an expression of his instinctual desires through the medium of a story told flexibly, for fun—a kind of middle ground between his chalk drawings and the Astronaut’s books. The nuances of Helios’ possible options for the story at the kitchen table—all of which could be read as representing one aspect or another of Selene’s journey in Abyssal Scar—are indiscriminately flattened into the Astronaut’s oppression exerted on Selene, with no choice in Helios’ storytelling making any apparent different to Selene’s journey. It’s this tenuous expression of Helios’ desires that are imposed upon Selene, the ego, through the intermediary of the superego—and this process begets anxiety, which begets the defense mechanisms we analyzed above.
Remember that the id is ultimately driven by two classes of instincts: the pleasure principle and the death drive. An overactive superego, resisting and responding to the desires of the id, can turn these instincts against the ego, cultivating what Freud called “a pure culture of the [death drive]” in which the superego imposes extreme severity and a sense of guilt upon the ego, which the ego in many cases cannot diagnose because of its unconscious origins. This could pervert the death drive, seen manifesting in innocent children as imaginative games of simulated distress, into a superego that oppressively imposes a Tartarus-like prison upon the ego’s conception of itself and the world—just as we see in Returnal. And when an overly exacting superego imposes its limitations upon the expression of an instinct, Anna Freud writes, defense mechanisms arise from this anxiety:
The ego submits to the higher institution [of the superego] and obediently enters into a struggle against the instinctual impulse, with all the consequences which such a struggle entails. The characteristic point about this process is that the ego itself does not regard the impulse which it is fighting as in the least dangerous. The motive which prompts the defense is not originally its own. The instinct is regarded as dangerous because the superego prohibits its gratification and, if it achieves its aim, it will certainly stir up trouble between the ego and the superego.
This connection between defense mechanisms and superego overactivity gives us vital connective tissue in our analysis between the ontology of the Astronaut and the reason that it seems to play a key role in the harsh universe of Atropos despite almost never being visible. On an unconscious level—the House, Returnal’s Kaulbachian battlefield in the sky—Helios reaches out for the kind of boundless play effected by childhood, the kind with little individuation in which rules can be just as easily imposed and done away with, while the Astronaut, silently demanding more rigid, well-formed structure, controls: physically grabbing hold of Helios, imposing narrative structure on Helios’ play, and subliminally manifesting this imposition on Selene through a dislocated sense of punishment and the defense mechanisms that separate her from the capacity to recognize the source of this very tension.
The Astronaut as Psychic Cipher
Let’s take stock. We began with the cryptic world of Atropos, the characters of Helios, Selene, and the Astronaut, and the theoretical framework of psychoanalysis, taken as a method of holistic literary interpretation rather than medicine. Now, we’ve done the work of understanding why Helios is an apt representation of the id, Selene the ego, and the Astronaut the superego, both on their own terms and with respect to their interrelated motives, actions, and reactions. Even if the analysis so far has convinced you of the value in interpreting Returnal in this way, you might still wonder whether it goes any distance toward understanding the most superficially confusing aspect of Returnal’s time-loop structure.
Forget about the fact that Selene is constantly called back to Atropos after she dies (we explained this by analyzing Octo as an impulse calling the ego to repressed content); forget about the ambiguity between two seemingly identical-yet-different car crashes (we explained this by analyzing Selene as undergoing the process of identifying with and internalizing the superego-precursor of her mother, Theia). What about the fact that Selene’s journey across Atropos is seemingly catalyzed by guilt over her car crash with Helios yet also ends with her becoming the Astronaut and causing that same car crash? Do we have to throw up our hands and write this off as a simple narrative time-loop with no further explanation or meaning, an illogical yet satisfying way of tying together Helios, Selene, and the Astronaut into a single, fraught psychology?
I don’t think the situation is so hopeless: in fact, one of the virtues of our analysis of the Astronaut is that it allows us to interpret its role in Returnal’s conclusion as a cipher to the story rather than a case of incoherent time-travel.
In the psychoanalytic interpretation of Returnal, Selene’s car crash with Helios is the source trauma that motivates the psychology of the mind we’re exploring because the ego’s encounter with the authoritative superego (Selene seeing the Astronaut on the bridge) creates the superego anxiety highlighted by Anna Freud in the previous section, disconnecting the ego from the id, burying the id’s desires in a repressed, inscrutable unconscious (Helios being lost under the water) and individuating the mind into the tense tripartite structure of id, ego, and superego. Recalling that the superego is a specialized aspect of the ego that straddles consciousness and unconsciousness, the ego is itself partly responsible for the very imposition of superego that causes this trauma of individuation—but that responsibility, insofar as it remains unconscious, is totally opaque to the ego.
From the perspective of Selene (i.e. the conscious ego), then, there are two different key events that derive from this car crash and the Astronaut:
- The event of the Astronaut actually causing this superego anxiety and trauma of individuation in the first place
- The event of Selene realizing that it was an aspect of herself that caused this superego anxiety and trauma of individuation
The car crash, then, isn’t a case of wonky time-travel causation at all: rather, the car crash itself, , caused the psychic tensions that preceded Selene’s time on Atropos, and the journey through overcoming Selene’s defense mechanisms on Atropos leads to , Selene’s recognition of her involvement as the Astronaut in .
The distinct ways in which Selene’s experience of the car crash is enacted at the end of Act II and Act III reinforces this interpretation of Selene’s gradual discovery of her involvement in it. Freud claimed that one of the core obstacles in making repressed content fully conscious after overcoming defense mechanisms is that an ego would feel compelled to further resist its repressed content by “repeat[ing] as a current experience what is repressed, instead of, as the physician would prefer to see [her] do, recollecting it as a fragment of the past.” This represents Selene’s experience of the car crash at the end of Act II as a contemporary experience, in which she relives her core psychic trauma without consciously understanding her still-repressed role as the Astronaut in this trauma. It’s only once this experience—what Freud calls a “repetition-compulsion”—is enacted that Selene and the player can do the final work of assembling the final preconscious connecting-links—the Sunface Fragments, a clear sun-based allusion to our id, Helios—in order to fully bring to consciousness Selene’s role as the Astronaut.
Thus far, we’ve mostly considered Scout Logs on an individual basis, but I think the sequence of final Scout Logs, AST-AL-062-067, illustrates this analytical transition to self-knowledge extremely well:
- AST-AL-062, “The Lying Truth”: Selene recognizes the car crash as something that’s only just happened in her experience (“A moment of hesitation. Now he’s gone and I remain”) before, unaware of how she ended up within the house representing the unconscious mind, turning her attention to Theia, the source of the superego (“Mother, I’m home”).
- AST-AL-063, “Visions of Glory Beheld”: In the face of “[u]nrelenting terrors,” Selene “fasten[s] the Delphic Visor to [her] mind’s eye,” discovering the “secrets” and “[p]romised places” of the final preconscious links required to make her repressed relationship with the Astronaut conscious (several of the Sunface Fragments can only be found with the Delphic Visor).
- AST-AL-064, “Doorway of Glory Crossed”: With the preconscious connecting-links of the Sunface Fragments in hand, Selene is able to consciously “slot [the House Key rusted with regrets]” into the house’s lock and consciously confront the “[s]uffocating memories” that previously eluded her, turning her passive experience of the House into an intentional confrontation.
- AST-AL-065, “Fragments of Glory Assembled”: Empowered by this new intentionality and conscious awareness, Selene is able to “affix one Sunface Fragment to another,” taking the “[s]mothered fire” that was a repressed id, Helios, and “[r]eignit[ing] the Sun,” fully illuminating in consciousness the entirety of the psychic trauma and Selene’s involvement in it as the Astronaut, internalized heir to Theia.
- AST-AL-066, “The Truth Lying”: The underlying psychic trauma fully conscious, Selene recognizes that she “cannot atone, so [she] accept[s].” She feels a “sense of belonging” in Atropos, unable to heal or undo the psychic trauma of id, ego, and superego, but able to feel consciously empowered by virtue of understanding that trauma rather than being unconsciously ruled by it.
- AST-AL-067, “Departure”: At once melancholic and empowering, “Departure” is Selene’s comparison of the theater of her mind (Atropos, Helios, and the Astronaut) with the cosmic penitentiaries of Gehenna, Helheim, and Tartarus; she recognizes that “[t]he last floors were opening inside of [her]” now that she had reached a conscious understanding of her total psychic life, not allowing her to escape the prison but rather to occupy that prison from a standpoint of personal enlightenment. “It can end because it has now begun”: her torment can end, in other words, because she now consciously grasps its origins in their totality.
This is how the drama of id, ego, and superego both incites and resolves the core tension of Returnal; indeed, it’s no coincidence, on this interpretation, that this sequence of Scout Logs capturing the ego’s passage through resistance to acceptance follows a series of Scout Logs (AST-AL-58-61) focused on psych and fitness evaluations of Selene.
But now we’re confronted with another question that’s been latent in our interpretation ever since we introduced the notion of Selene as Ego overcoming defense mechanisms: if the story of Returnal describes an ego’s passage through analysis to recognize the overall nature and conflicts of the mind to which it belongs, then who, or what, is doing the analyzing?
The Player of Returnal as a Psychoanalyst
In a Scout Log, Selene acknowledges that “these recorded logs will be psych evaluated”; in a log excerpt within the Ship Log (“Xenoanthropology”), Selene muses to her colleagues that “[t]o break a hardening of the creative arteries requires an outside perspective” (emphasis added). Together with the psychodynamic tableau of id, ego, and superego we’ve just painted, these allusions to an outside evaluative perspective call to mind a provocative passage of Freud’s about the role of a psychoanalyst, the therapeutic entity who helps an afflicted person to understand his or her own psychology:
The ego has been weakened by the internal conflict; we must come to its aid. The position is like a civil war which can only be decided by the help of an ally from without. The analytical physician and the weakened ego of the patient, basing themselves upon the real external world, are to combine against the enemies, the instinctual demands of the id and the moral demands of the super-ego. We form a pact with each other. The patient’s sick ego promises us the most complete candour, promises, that is, to put at our disposal all of the material which his self-perception provides; we, on the other hand, assure him of the strictest discretion and put at his service our experience in interpreting material that has been influenced by the unconscious. Our knowledge shall compensate for his ignorance and shall give his ego once more mastery over the lost provinces of his mental life. This pact constitutes the analytic situation.
I think we can gain a new and illuminating perspective within this psychoanalytic reading of Returnal by interpreting the role of Returnal’s player as an external analytical agent who is helping the ego, Selene, to gain “more mastery over the lost provinces of [her] mental life” by guiding her through her conceptions of herself and the world around her in the form of her journey across Atropos. To be sure, the analogy is not perfect—Selene is not represented as an ego self-consciously submitting to evaluation by a therapist within the story of Returnal—but when we remember that, according to this interpretation, Selene is one mere component of a mind, the ego, rather than a holistic character, then it seems more plausible to suppose that, even if the player is not occupying the role of a fully-fledged psychoanalyst, we can interpret the player’s external inputs upon Selene and the rest of Returnal as an external analytical force, not unlike that of psychotherapy, “com[ing] to [the weakened ego’s] aid” and helping it to uncover the unconscious content and tensions of the mind in a way impossible from within the system of the mind itself.
This analysis of the player illuminates two otherwise murky aspects of what it’s like to experience Returnal. Travelling across the world of Atropos with Selene, it doesn’t feel (to me, at least) that one really understands Selene from the inside and is engaging with the story by straightforwardly role-playing as Selene; nor does it feel that one is really acting out a plot that changes the course of the worlds and characters’ lives, a sense that one gets even from superficially similar cyclical stories such as Dark Souls. Rather, it feels as if one were gradually discovering Selene’s nature alongside her through the vehicle of this puzzling alien survey. The psychoanalytic interpretation of Returnal accommodates and explains both of these data: if the player plays the role of an external analytical force, then we’d expect her to maintain distance and lack of direct access to the avatar, the ego; if the world and story of Returnal is one of a single, total psychology, then we’d expect the journey to feel less like the progression of a world- and character-changing plot and more like the cultivation of an understanding that reinterprets the story’s content without thereby advancing a plot. (We even have a narratively grounded explanation, now, for what it means when someone walks away from Returnal because it’s too hard or confusing: the disentangling of a defensive mind in tension can be extremely difficult work, and an analyst unable to see a path to consolidating that mind’s ego and clarifying its disparate tensions may ultimately be led to walk away from the analysis altogether.)
Perhaps the most exciting thing this interpretation of Returnal’s player has to offer is that, combined with our preceding analysis of Helios, Selene, and the Astronaut, it provides us a lens through which to see every event in the plot of Selene’s journey through Atropos as a coherent illustration of the psychoanalytical journey we’ve sketched above, completing a total image of Returnal as a presentation of a single mind.
From Ship Crash to Car Crash: The Atropos Journey as Psychoanalysis
We’ve already examined the nature of Atropos as a projection of Selene the Ego’s psychic structures and we’ve seen how psychoanalysis interprets mythology as an externalizations of just such psychic structures; now, we’ll see how the particular mythology of Atropos aligns with the journey of Selene and player from weakened ego and newcomer analyst to empowered, self-aware ego and informed analyst, respectively. The final remaining piece of theory we need before diving in is the “story” of how the psychoanalytic process typically proceeds, in order to see how that story can be overlaid onto the progression through Atropos.
There are two main phases, very broadly speaking, to psychoanalysis as construed by Freud: the journey to transference, and the journey after transference. Transference is the phenomenon of a patient “transferring” his feelings about an existing authority or parental figure onto a psychoanalyst as a result of the analyst’s guiding the patient’s thoughts and feelings, thereby giving the analyst “the power which [the patient’s] super-ego exercises over his ego.” These “extraordinary powers” conferred upon the analyst, responsibly wielded, allow the analyst to strengthen the patient’s ego, giving it the guidance, self-knowledge, and security to diffuse defense mechanisms and face previously repressed mental content.
So much for the analytical path to the psychic self-knowledge we discussed in the earlier phases of this analysis; now, I want to show you how Selene’s journey through the biomes and confrontations with the Sentient bosses of Atropos represent this very path.
Overgrown Ruins and Phrike
Analyst and ego’s journey on Atropos begins in Overgrown Ruins, a hostile, quasi-randomized forest of thick vegetation and remnants of the Sentients that seem to have populated Atropos in the past. In the Xeno-Archives, we learn about how the Sentients cowered from hostile life on Atropos and used resources from the planet to build defenses, such as automatons. In a vault, sealed away by other Senients (AST-AX-003), is Phrike, a Sentient bearing the name of an embodiment of horror and trembling in Greek mythology.
We see, at the end of Act III, Selene’s confrontation with her mother, Theia, where Theia is represented as a Sentient lifeform. Between this characterization of her mother and our groundwork of Atropos as the ego’s projected conception of the external world, I think that we can interpret the Senients on the whole as the ego’s conception of conscious life beyond itself: this explains why Selene projects her own psychic tensions and journey onto the Sentients while simultaneously ascribing to them identities and concepts the ego would perceive as outside of itself. In the case of Phrike, this is a duality of horror: ‘horror’ in the sense of an unknown entity that poses a threat (a boss) and makes one’s security in the world more tenuous, and ‘horror’ in the sense of being ostracized and isolated, locked away by those who don’t understand you. This is the sense of ignorance, disorientation, and horrifying alienation that accompanies the beginning of analysis when the Analyst Player compels Selene the Ego to explore a world and psychology that, despite being her own, is locked up, repressed, and deeply threatening to her.
Crimson Wastes and Ixion
After overcoming raw horror, claustrophobia, and disorientation, analyst and ego arrive at Crimson Wastes, an exercise in ascending to the peak of a massive mountain. Along the way, in statues and Xeno-Archives, they learn about—and encounter—the Severed, Sentients who traveled to Abyssal Scar, became disconnected from the Sentient Hivemind, and ritualistically wrapped themselves and statues in bandages, seemingly in preparation for a process referred to as Ascension, which they had already failed to complete (AST-AX-005; AST-AL-017). At the summit of Crimson Wastes, bound in midair, is the Severed Sentient Ixion—namesake of the Greek mythological king of Lapiths, who tried to seduce Zeus’ wife, Hera, on Olympus, was tricked by Zeus into seducing a cloud shaped like Hera instead, and was punished by being bound by a wheel forever—a champion of the Severed who sought to confront “the Creator/Destroyer” (AST-AX-004).
The specific lore of Sentient society, the Severed, and the Creator/Destroyer is vague and elusive in the way one would expect a mythology to be; that said, what we can infer about this lore corroborates the continued analytical journey of the ego. The Creator/Destroyer, as we see more clearly later, appears to be a Sentient reference to Selene, who appears to have both, in different cycles of the world, (1) collaborated with the Sentients to develop their society (“Creator”) and (2) incited those that would become the Severed to leave for Abyssal Scar, seeking something else (“Destroyer”) (cf. AST-AX-007; AST-AX-CW1). Those Sentients that reached Abyssal Scar, along with those instances of Selene, disconnected, or Sevreed, from the Hivemind and higher faculties that united Sentient life and Selene’s coherence, encountering “Visions of Glory,” or knowledge of the unconscious id (AST-AX-AS2; AST-AL-063). Upon their return to society, the Severed sought to fully realize the fulfillment of their unconscious awareness through “ascension” to a fully awakened state of being but found that they could not—nor could they interact or relate anymore to those Sentients who were still connected to the Hivemind.
This, I think, is the best available interpretation of the explicitly unclear bandage-wrapping ritual of the Severed: a later Scout Log sees Selene reflecting on the experience of Abyssal Scar as trying to answer the riddle of “How […] you heal a wound within a body that cannot be healed” (AST-AL-41); in reference to the bandages in an earlier Scout Log, she speculates that “[p]erhaps [the Severed] were simply trying to bandage themselves and heal, then transform into something greater and ascend” (AST-AL-022). This is a fitting and disarmingly nuanced metaphor for the second stage of an analyst working on a weakened ego: as unconscious urges and sentiments begin to bubble through the surface through preconscious means such as free-association with the analyst, the ego may become aware of its own weakness and the degree to which these instincts, severed from the conscious mind, have been creating psychic tension below the surface; the ego may seek, before fully comprehending this unconscious content, to find some desperate way to realize or enact that content, only to flail around and become further divided against itself—like the Severed who seek to ascend only to further come into conflict with those still comfortably bound to society’s Hivemind, or like the mythological Ixion who acted out a primal sexual urge on an illusion and was eternally punished for it.
This stage is the beginning of unconscious content manifesting before it is possible for the ego to integrate it in a helpful way; it’s only with the help of the adept analyst (much like the onus on the aptitude of the player in the particularly challenging and long biome of Crimson Wastes) that the ego can continue to progress toward empowerment and awareness.
Derelict Citadel and Nemesis
In the wake of Ixion’s defeat and the acquisition of the Icarian Grapnel, analyst and ego arrive at the last bastion of Sentient society: Derelict Citadel, broadcasting the White Shadow signal from a tower at the top of which a Sentient lies dreaming. It’s here that we learn about the Sentients “follow[ing]” the Creator/Destroyer; we learn about the apparent war that erupted between the Severed and those still attached to the Hivemind, repurposing the automatons that once built cities to instead fight the Severed (AST-AX-007; AST-AX-008; AST-AX-009; AST-AX-DC2). Traversing the Citadel, the player and Selene encounter everything from corrupted, broken-down defense automatons to a Xeno-Archive featuring the Astronaut-stylized broadcast tower we analyzed above. Eventually, the journey terminates at the top of the broadcast tower, where Nemesis, a sleeping Sentient who bears the name of the Greek goddess of retribution against those who commit evil deeds or receive undue good fortune; Nemesis draws Selene into its dream world, forcing a surreal confrontation in which Selene must annihilate the dreamer before finally reaching the White Shadow broadcast.
In our psychoanalytic interpretation of Returnal, this constitutes the transition into transference for the ego and the analyst. On AST-AX-009, the Sentients opine that the only Creator/Destroyer, Selene, “CAN NOW REACH [THE REMAINS OF NEMESIS’ MIND] IF IT IS ABLE TO OVERCOME THE JUDGMENT THAT KEEPS IT TRAPPED IN THE CYCLE”; few battles could better represent a confrontation between a weakened ego and an opaquely understood, overpowered superego than the oppressive dream battle between a tiny space explorer and a massive, unintelligible, flaming face flanked by subordinate entities. We’ve already analyzed the Astronaut and White Shadow broadcast as different faces of the superego derived from Theia, but discovering Derelict Citadel as the seat of judgment, both in the Sentient Nemesis and the broadcast Nemesis seemingly oversees, takes our understanding of superego on Atropos even one step further: it allows us to analyze the Sentients’ Hivemind as a mythological application of the superego represented by the Astronaut.
A corollary of Freud’s view that the superego conveys culture cross-generationally is that, on this reading of psychodynamics, psychologically homogeneous groups are unified by a commonality in the group members’ superegos: “[a] psychological group is a collection of individuals, who have introduced the same person into their super-ego, and on the basis of this common factor have identified themselves with one another in their ego. This naturally only holds for groups who have a leader.” I think this is the key to explaining our earlier observation that the ego, Selene, perceives her mother, Theia, as a Sentient when they meet at the end of Act III: Sentient society represents “a collection of individuals” who have introduced the same person, Theia, into their superego by virtue of their interactions with the Creator/Destroyer, Selene, who both helped to create the Hivemind’s society but also destroyed it by instigating war between the Hivemind and the Severed. Stepping back from the level of plot and onto the level of our psychoanalytic reading of the journey across Atropos, remember that the Sentients constitute the ego’s conception of individuals beyond itself; the Hivemind, therefore, represents the way in which the overbearing influence of the out-of-control superego, derived from Theia, has totally colored the weakened ego’s perception of those beyond herself, such that the cannot conceive of them as bound by any other exacting behavioral, cultural, and moral standards than her own.
It’s this totality of oppressive but opaque superego-driven perception that the analyst must empower the ego to break through, utilizing the psychically illuminating power of a dream—much as Freud did—as a psychologically liberating landscape in which the ego can free itself enough from the superego’s oppressive (yet still not consciously understood) forces to internalize the guidance of the analyst in an analogous role, reaching transference.
Departure and Return
The sequence that may be the most disorienting aspect of Selene’s journey through Atropos also holds the key to marking the ego’s transition from engagement with the preconscious to engagement with the unconscious: Selene’s escape from—and return to—Atropos.
The arrival at the White Shadow broadcast, together with the defeat of Nemesis, allows Selene to send a distress signal to ASTRA, after which she appears, in a cutscene, to be recovered from Atropos, returned to Earth, and given the chance to live out the rest of her life, all the way to a death from (presumably) natural causes. It’s at that point, with mourners looking down into Selene’s still-open grave, that the world seems to “fall away” and she returns to a similar-yet-different Atropos, exclaiming that she and Helios are “both trapped at the bottom” in a reversal that Returnal’s trophy system calls “Failed Escape.”
This puzzling interlude seemingly beyond the scope of Atropos closely resembles one of the the pitfalls into which, Freud warned, an ego recovering its strength through transference could fall: “[t]he danger of these states of transference evidently consists in the possibility of the patient misunderstanding their nature and taking them for fresh real experiences instead of reflections of the past,” leaving them insusceptible to the crucial further analytical work required to render unconscious conflicts fully conscious. When this happens, Freud says, “[i]t is the analyst’s task to tear the patient away each time from the menacing illusion, to show him again and again that what he takes to be a new real life is a reflection of the past.” We can read Selene’s “failed escape” as this kind of experiential misconception: empowered by transference, she, the ego, is able to express a distress call, yet she misunderstands fresh access to her unconscious and preconscious experiences—experiences we’ll see manifest in the next three biomes of Atropos—as a “new real life” she’s able to inhabit beyond the bounds of her existing psychic trauma and memories (and indeed, because it’s a cutscene, beyond the influence of the player, the analyst). The player must “tear the [ego] away […] from the menacing illusion”—fitting language for the image of Selene being pulled downward into oblivion from inside of her own grave—forcing Selene to realize, in her words, that while that set of experiences “wasn’t a lie,” it “changed nothing”: it was merely a conscious surfacing of unconscious content that has yet to be fully understood and processed.
That path to understanding and processing is what comes next.
Echoing Ruins and Hyperion
Echoing Ruins set the same-but-different tone of the post-transference journey of analyst and ego on Atropos. Transference has materially and permanently strengthened the ego, as represented by the fact that Selene’s weapon proficiency now begins at Level 15 rather than Level 1 whenever she is returned to Helios at Echoing Ruins rather than Overgrown Ruins; transference has empowered the analyst to observe and guide the ego in a surrogate-superego role, as represented by the fact that the Astronaut, the previously overbearing presence of superego, is now “missing,” nowhere to be found (AST-AL-037). Immediately, the ruins that evoke Selene’s disoriented beginnings channel something more familiar and illuminating: a piano line that both ego and analyst have experienced in House Sequence 3 and Selene’s Failed Escape from Atropos. It’s the kind of music that calls up deeply seated, unconscious sentiment that Romain Rolland called “an oceanic feeling” in a letter to Freud, and which Freud subsequently describes as a resonance with the earliest developmental stage of the ego in which it was least separated from the instincts of the id and did not yet have any conception of its surroundings as distinct from itself. The music leads Selene to a monstrous organ with which a Sentient, Hyperion—bearing the name of Theia’s husband: the titan, in Greek mythology, of heavenly light, and the father of Selene and Helios—is obsessively playing the tune, returning to the organ to play time and time again even in the midst of its battle with Selene.
Between the music, Hyperion, and the passage of the ego into carefully mediated transference, it should be evident that the analyst and ego now find themselves in the realm of the unconscious, properly equipped and sufficiently strengthened to begin consciously adjudicating the mind’s repressed content. Beyond the name, Hyperion’s identity as Selene’s father is suggested by Scout Log AST-AL-042:
The Severed are still here. Like me. But despite their broken bodies and minds, they’ve ascended. The Severed achieve clarity in madness by climbing the Throne of Exaltation. My father once sat atop it; every organ pipe chanting in a way I never could.
In this world of a cogent, navigable unconscious, the Severed who were so lost in the previous biomes have “clarity,” a clarity effected by the Throne upon which Hyperion plays the song seemingly embedded within the ego, Selene, from childhood. While there’s the clear potential for an Oedipal reading of Selene’s attachment to Hyperion here, particularly given the origins of the overbearing superego in the mother figure of Theia, we don’t need to go down that road in order to understand Hyperion’s role in this psychoanalytical journey: the reflection on the Scout Log indicates Selene’s attachment of some kind, presumably inadmissible by her mother, to her father, rendering Hyperion and his oceanic music a complete tableau of repressed desires, motivated by the id’s pleasure principle, that Selene can now finally begin to access.
In another log, Selene envisions “a black sunrise beneath the ocean” and wonders when it will break through the surface; particularly with Hyperion and Helios both representing the sun, whose light is reflected by the lunar Selene, we can model Hyperion as the unconscious precursor to the more deeply submerged sunrise that is Helios, charting a path by which analyst and ego can begin to plumb the depths of the mind’s trauma of individuation.
With passage through Echoing Ruins and the defeat of Hyperion, analyst and ego have exposed and confronted repressed attachments of the pleasure principle emanating from the id; now, all that remains is to plumb the depths of the unconscious and access the original psychic trauma from which the entire network of mental tension that is Returnal emanates. The “staging room” for that final analytical work is Fractured Wastes, a mirror image of Crimson Wastes: where Crimson Wastes are hot and arid, Fractured Wastes are barren ice atop a deep underwater chasm; when Crimson Wastes described ascent to the highest peak, Fractured Wastes are a prelude to the bottom of the ocean.
There’s no named Sentient for Selene to confront here; instead, she is on a mission to acquire the aptly named Hadal Ballasts, Xeno-Tech that allows her to safely reach Abyssal Scar and the bottom of other bodies of water. Along the way, she finds Severed far more adept and seemingly in their element than those from Crimson Wastes; she also finds “where the Hivemind retrofitted their autonomous machines, altering each one with a new purpose: kill the ‘Severed brethren’” (AST-AL-045; AST-AX-FW3). In Selene, we see the two sides of this dynamic: on the one hand, as the Hivemind did, she and the player are in the process of constructing psychic defenses—preconscious connection-links and the like—to make the exploration of the unconscious an experience that rationality can survive. On the other hand, a truly open exploration of the unconscious runs the risk of severing oneself from the higher mental faculties maintained by the ego and superego: this is what happened to the Severed, and it’s presumably what happened to Selene on the previous occasions represented by the Scout Logs we examined earlier, in which we described her as “giving in to the strength of the id’s instincts.” We see a glimmer of this severing when Selene acquires later-stage Xeno-Tech with unprecedented reverence and identifies it as a gift from the gods rather than a means to an end; this underscores the crucial point, consonant with our psychoanalytic interpretation, that Selene, the ego, cannot stably access the core psychic trauma at the heart of Atropos without the external agency of the player, the analyst, to maintain her direction and coherent sense of self.
But with the player, and with her self-concept intact, a bolstered Selene can safely descend to Abyssal Scar.
Abyssal Scar and Ophion
Finally, all the groundwork laid, all other defense mechanisms undone in the proper order, analyst and ego arrive in the depths from which all the buried psychic energy and tension of the mind emanate. Plunging perpetually deeper, Selene encounters Xeno-Archives that project the history of herself, the Astronaut, and the unconscious knowledge beheld by the Severed (AST-AX-AS3; AST-AX-AS5; AST-AX-AS2). Just above the bottom of the world, she meets Ophion, in name and countenance an allusion to the Greek serpentine Titan who ruled heaven before Cronus overthrew him and cast him down into the ocean. The progenitor and ruler of all that was buried: this is the ultimate guardian of the most deeply repressed content, the car crash, Selene’s forgotten “answer” that explains all the tensions of id, ego, superego, and external world.
The skeletal appearance of Ophion evokes the death drive, that other unconscious instinct of the id that so empowered the superego and turned Atropos into a universe of oppressive guilt and compulsion to self-annihilation. After so many deaths, pulled back by Octo and the analyst, and after facing the instinct of the pleasure principle in Hyperion, Selene is ready to wrestle this defense mechanism into submission and confront the psychodynamic origin.
We know at this point that Selene’s journey is only just beginning—she will subsequently come to understand not only the trauma of the car crash but also her role as the source of the superego—but, to paraphrase Selene, the mythological journey of analysis can now end because the conscious journey of total psychic understanding has begun.
Freedom of Thought
In Freud’s view, “analysis does not set out to abolish the possibility of morbid reactions, but to give the patient’s ego freedom to choose one way or the other.” Traditional psychoanalysis is focused less on cures than it is on the liberty and self-determination that comes from an ego seeing the full picture of the mental universe of which it is one piece. An ego liberated in this way has the opportunity to accept itself, or consciously resist the tensions put upon it, or simply suffer in a more enlightened way.
This analysis of Returnal simultaneously has applications in many other video-game stories and nowhere else besides Returnal. It provides us with a novel way to approach any number of games whose stories and worlds focus on a particular psychology: when playing them, we can ask the question, “What can I learn about this story if I interpret it as representing a single mind that I, the player, am exploring as an external analytical force?” But just as Freud emphasized with respect to the practice of dream-interpretation, it would be futile to take that question and try to extrapolate an entire rule-set for interpreting any such game as a unified psychology: the key to generating real insight out of such an interpretation, rather than fitting a theory’s square peg into a game’s round hole, is to start from the particulars of any given game and see whether a psychological symbology can elevate those particulars to a new register of meaning.
The trauma-induced heterochromia in the eyes of Selene tells the story of an ego pulled in opposite directions by id and superego in the essential pain of becoming an individuated human being, and the heart of Returnal’s story is a player exercising the special power of analytic distance, both real and fictional, to give her the freedom to know that pain. It’s a story that’s not about the resolution of conflict but rather the unearthing of conflict; it’s a world that’s solipsistic not because it focuses on its avatar to the exclusion of all other characters, but rather because the entire world is one character. The psychoanalytical interpretation shows us that a game such as Returnal can use psychodynamics to create history, war, and personal relations all inside a single mind.
- Thanks to Dan Hughes and Stefan Heinrich Simond for review & discussion of an early conception of this analysis on With a Terrible Fate’s weekly podcast. Thanks to them and Nathan Randall for discussion of an earlier written draft. ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis pp. 86-87. ↑
- Cf. The Ego and the Id, pp. 29-30 & 51-52, on the foundational nature of id in relation to ego. ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, pp. 104-105. ↑
- The Ego and the Id, pp. 29-30. ↑
- Ibid., page 31. ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, page 84 & pp. 97-98. ↑
- Ibid., page 108. ↑
- Ibid., pp. 85-86. ↑
- Ibid., pp. 90-92. ↑
- The Ego and the Id, pp. 39-44. Freud’s particular fixation on the sexual dynamics of individuals won’t be a focus in this analysis of Returnal, and I believe that the analysis holds water without that fixation; I mention it here simply in the interest of (1) filling out the background theory and (2) setting up a minor, but significant, aspect of Returnal that I later argue can be explained with specific reference to this dynamic (namely, the role of Hyperion). ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, pp. 108-110. ↑
- For instance, after the fifth House sequence, Selene witnesses Helios the Ship crashing into Atropos, apparently after having been shot by a cannon under Selene’s control. She murmurs: “I destroyed Helios? That means… I’m the cause… of everything. Of course. I understand now. This is why I’m here.” A similar reflection is captured in Selene’s Scout Log AST-AL-055: “I remember everything now. I know why I deserve to be here. The crash. That’s why I belong. It’s the crash I always return to.” ↑
- To my knowledge, the choice of story Helios tells here has no impact on the world of Returnal thereafter, but I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who has evidence to the contrary. ↑
- It should be clear from context, but, in the interest of not making an opaque, space-themed game even more opaque, I’m referring to space as a dimension here—not “space” as in the kind of deep space that an astronaut explores. ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, page 104. ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, page 108. ↑
- There’s more to be said—and more that I have said—about the ontology of how players and avatars are related in video-game fictions, but the aesthetic effects I’m discussing here can be naturally built out of those more foundational elements. ↑
- It’s possible to interpret this interaction between Helios, Octo, and Astronaut as structurally identical to what happens in the living room: this confrontation happens in Selene’s bedroom and Selene also first discovers Octo in her bedroom during the second House sequence. I ultimately don’t find this compelling because there’s no instance in this case of a liminal barrier behind which Helios can hide (as he does with the living-room television in the other case). All the same, we could take the two cases to be structurally identical and not thereby change the broader analysis in any material way: in both cases, then, we could say that Octo is doing the job of guiding Selene while also attempting to shield Helios from the Astronaut, who, unfortunately (like the superego with the ego), follows Selene necessarily. ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, pp. 105-106. ↑
- Although they also confer benefits, parasites aren’t an exception to this rule of organism hostility given that they incur detriments to Selene upon bonding with her. The only possible exception to this rule I can see is the case of a weapon made from organic material, like a Spitmaw Blaster, and it’s far from obvious that we ought to interpret these as fully fledged organisms. ↑
- Totem and Taboo, pp. 142-143. ↑
- Ibid., pp 150-155. ↑
- Ibid., pp. 156-158. ↑
- The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence, page 30. ↑
- We don’t need to go into a full catalogue of defense mechanisms for our current purposes, but Anna Freud counted ten such mechanisms: “regression, repression, reaction formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self […] [,] reversal […] [, and] sublimation” (ibid., 44). ↑
- Ibid., pp. 29-31. ↑
- The Ego and the Id, pp. 21-24; The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence, pp. 30-31. ↑
- The one-time-use items that Selene can find or manufacture could be included in the same conceptual bucket as the Artifacts, but they’re less thematically salient, as far as I can see. ↑
- Scout Log AST-AL-009. ↑
- Cf. The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence, pp. 29-30. ↑
- Ibid., pp. 54-60; cf. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, pp. 118-119. ↑
- This is to say nothing of the fact that in Returnal’s subtitles, the newsreader in the third House sequence identifies the car’s driver as “Thea—[interrupted]” introducing an apparent spelling discrepancy from the name “Theia.” It reads too much into too little to warrant inclusion in the main text of this analysis, but I will point out here that it’s consistent with our broader analysis to interpret that the interposition of an “I” into the name “Thea” represents Selene (the ego, or embodiment of one’s “I” concept) internalizing her mother under the guise of the superego. ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, page 90. ↑
- Ibid; The Ego and the Id, pp. 39-45. ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, page 95. ↑
- The Ego and the Id, pp. 52-53. ↑
- Ibid., page 77. ↑
- Beyond the Pleasure Principle, pp. 11-16. ↑
- The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence, page 55. ↑
- Beyond the Pleasure Principle, page 18. We’ll discuss this further below in the specific context of transference and Selene’s apparent “escape” from Atropos. ↑
- An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, page 36. Emphasis added. ↑
- In the interest of keeping this analysis focused, I won’t rehearse the theoretical basis for interpreting the role of the player in a video-game fiction as distinct from the avatar’s role in that fiction (i.e. the notion that the player can occupy a fictional role in Returnal distinct from the character of Selene). I define and articulate that basis in “The Role of the Player in Video-Game Fictions,” and its application can be seen throughout the rest of my analyses on With a Terrible Fate. ↑
- An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, page 39. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, page 96. ↑
- An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, page 41. Emphasis added. ↑
- Ibid. Emphasis added. ↑
- Civilization and Its Discontents, pp. 7-14. ↑
- Notice that the sun icon branded on the piano in Selene’s Failed Escape sequence, immediately preceding Echoing Ruins, further links the music—and, by extension, Hyperion—symbolically to Helios—and, by extension, to the id. ↑
- Note that Returnal’s platinum trophy—a completion mechanism whose name, I’ve previously argued, can contextualize or recontextualize the overall story of a game—is named “Helios,” further reinforcing that the Analyst Player who chooses to totally exhaust all possible experiences Selene can have on Atropos is thereby fully uncovered the nature of the previously repressed id, empowering Selene’s conception of her psychology to the fullest possible extent. ↑
- The Ego and the Id, page 72, footnote 1. Emphasis in the original. ↑
- An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, pp. 31-32. ↑
- Freud, Anna. The Ego and Mechanisms of Defence. London: Karnac Books, 1993.
- Freud, Sigmund. Hubback, C.J.M. (trans.). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. London: The Hogarth Press, 1942.
- ——. Riviere, Joan (trans.). Civilization and Its Discontents. London: The Hogarth Press, 1930.
- ——. ——. The Ego and the Id. London: The Hogarth Press, 1926.
- ——. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: Carlton House, 1933.
- ——. Strachey, James (trans.). An Outline of Psycho-Analysis. London: The Hogarth Press, 1949.
- ——. Brill, A.A. (trans.). Totem and Taboo. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1919.
- Housemarque. Returnal. Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2021.
Justin · June 23, 2022 at 12:59 pm
First of all, this was an absolutely brilliant analysis and I commend you for it. Bravo. That being said, I’m curious as to what your take is on the medical procedure Selene endures where she asks if she’ll be able to drive afterwards. I begin to wonder if it’s a speculative almost breaking of the fourth wall about the psychoanalysis itself, or if Helios in the back seat is a guilt-induced, personified version of not only her Id, but perhaps a son that never was due to her maybe having just endured an abortion procedure before the second car crash, and the child that was never found being perhaps, as far as the news cycle was concerned, a hallucinated babbling of a traumatized Selene in the hospital after having just recovered from said second car crash.
By all means, offer your thoughts.
P.S. – I would love to see your analysis of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
Aaron Suduiko · November 11, 2022 at 10:39 am
Hi, Justin! Thank you so much for your generous words and thoughts; it means the world to me that you found my work to be meaningful in your understanding of Returnal.
I’ve seen abortion/miscarriage-centric views of Returnal and I think that the game certainly offers a lot to support those readings, but in the context of my own interpretation of the game, I’d say that I favor your first suggestion of how to read it. It may feel a little too glib, but I think that the question of “who will be in the driver’s seat” after psychoanalysis is a thematically salient one: it makes sense to worry that an analytical procedure to reconfigure your identity could also somehow reconfigure your own agency, giving the analyst your own authority in decision-making. The fact that Selene, the ego, is functionally the avatar for the player, the analyst, reinforces this way of thinking about things.
Thanks so much for continuing the conversation along these rich lines! I hope very much that you continue to game, read, and comment—and please know that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is now on my list!