Returnal Ending Explained: What Does Selene's Cyclical Nightmare Mean?

Finishing Returnal is much easier said than done. As a matter of fact, players are already calling for Housemarque to add checkpoints and/or a save system so that players can take a break in between runs. However, until that happens, you'll just have to tough it out in this action-packed roguelike, in order to have any chance of getting to the end.

Returnal Ending Explained
Regardless of how you want to interpret the ending of Returnal, you're going to end up spending a lot of time thinking about what it really means.

With that said, Returnal does reward those who persevere. Returnal's mysterious sci-fi story only truly unfolds once you get to the game's credits and it is only by then that players get a true sense of what's actually happening on Atropos.

So, what exactly happens in the ending of Returnal? Is there a secret ending? More importantly, what does it all mean?

Scroll down below to learn more about Returnal's ending.

Returnal Ending Explained

Returnal Ending Explained
The first ending of Returnal alludes to the dark and psychological ending of the bullet-hell action shooter.

Just as you reach the game's climax, you'll start to notice all the recurring themes. For starters, there's the mysterious astronaut, octopus-like creatures, and a seemingly normal car that's somehow parked on the surface of the planet.

The reason why we're pointing these little details is that they play huge roles in explaining the ending of Returnal.

Basically what happens after you beat the final boss in Returnal is that Selene approaches a giant sea creature, asking it if it was the one who brought her to Atropos. Afterward, Returnal takes players to a flashback of the events involving someone who looks like Selene on what seems like planet Earth as the woman drives at night with her child sitting in the backseat.

One of the things that you'll notice in the backseat is that the child is holding an octopus toy.

The child then asks her mother if she can see the white shadow. A few moments later, the mom checks on her daughter in the backseat through the rearview mirror and looks down to tune the radio after some static interference. By the time she looks up though, an astronaut is already standing in the middle of the road.

In an attempt to avoid hitting the figure, the mom swerves, sending the car off of a bridge and into the water.

The following sequences then show the mom struggling to get her child outside of the drowning car, but is ripped away by some unknown force before the credits roll and you're taken back to Returnal's title screen.

How to Get the Secret Returnal Ending

Returnal Ending Explained
Unlike in the first ending, the secret ending finally lets you open up the out-of-place car that you saw.

Now, as if the original ending didn't already put you through the wringer, so to speak, there is actually a secret Returnal ending.

To access the hidden ending of Returnal, you'll have to start all over again. The only difference is that this time, your goal isn't just to clear the game. Rather, you'll have to collect all the Sunface Fragments scattered randomly throughout Returnal's procedurally generated world. Selene also starts talking about putting the sun back together this time around.

To do this, you'll have to die, A LOT. You might even have to go back to the beginning numerous times until you can collect all six of the Sunface Fragments in the game.

Once you do have all six pieces of the Sunface Fragments collected, you can then go back to Selene's 20th-century house and experience the final ending. But, be warned, it's not all story and cinematics just yet. Basically, once you're back inside the old house, you'll need to get the square cube next to the telescope by the window on the second floor and go down to the basement so you can interact with the wheelchair and sit down on it.

The following sequences see Selene aging rapidly as two decomposing bodies of aliens sit next to her.

From here, you'll finally be able to pick up the car keys that you'll need to get inside the car that you saw during the first ending of the game. This means that you'll have to defeat Ophion for the second time so you can go straight to the car, open it, and watch the secret ending of Returnal unfold.

What Happens in the Secret Ending of Returnal?

Returnal Ending Explained
There are multiple ways to interpret this scene in the secret ending and all of them are difficult to wrap your head around.

The secret ending of Returnal takes players to a scene where Selene comes face to face with the same alien that keeps on appearing in her visions throughout the entire game. Sitting in a wheelchair, the alien attempts to attack Selene as she approaches it. She successfully fights it off before a human voice says her name and the scene changes once again.

This time around, we're treated to Selene's first-person view as she watched the car that was supposed to crash into her, the astronaut, swerve off the bridge and head straight into the water.

Returnal then brings the scene back to the mother's perspective inside the drowning car. The main difference is that she no longer struggles to save her daughter and nothing seems to be pulling her away to the surface. The woman simply swims up as soon as she regains consciousness and the scene goes black.

The last thing we hear before the game ends is that of the woman crying out "Helios".

Are the Events of Returnal All Inside Selene’s Head?

Returnal Ending Explained
If you piece everything together, one of the more logical conclusions is that the entirety of Returnal is all happening inside Selene's head.

Returnal's ending is very much subject to interpretation. On one end, you could say that everything that's happening in Returnal is all in Selene's head. This means that Returnal is a game about a broken and damaged protagonist who can't seem to stop replaying a traumatizing event.

If you look at Returnal from this perspective, everything makes sense. This means that it either Selene who was driving or it was the little girl who was Selene. It also helps explain why there are so many octopus-like creatures in the game (a nod to the toy) and why the last biome takes place entirely underwater.

One could argue that this interpretation explains the roguelike nature of Returnal: Selene is living through the tragedy over and over again.

Another explanation is that Returnal is Selene's psyche creating a cyclical nightmare for her to live in just as she's about to die. This would suggest that Selene was the one driving the car and that she's failed to save her daughter. The entire game is then her brain's way of interpreting Selene's entire life flashing before her eyes just before she meets her demise.

Finally, another theory exists that's more sci-fi oriented in which Selene is stuck inside an endless time loop. This is why we see in the secret ending Selene watching the events of the car crash from her perspective and also why the perspective switches to that of the woman, which in this scenario would be Selene, climbing back up to the surface.

Of course, one thing that this theory doesn't explain is all the coincidental links between the numerous tentacle-filled creatures populating Eternal and why, in the first ending, it seems as if Selene regrets leaving her child behind to drown.

Ultimately, it's up to you how you want to interpret the ending of Returnal. Either way, you're going to spend the entire day thinking about it anyway.

Ray Ampoloquio
Ray is a lifelong gamer with a nose for keeping up with the latest news in and out of the gaming industry. When he's not reading, writing, editing, and playing video games, he builds and repairs computers in his spare time. You can find Ray on Twitter.
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