Stories, plots and Gregory Louden, Narrative Director of Returnal.
Positive reviews (which, however, do not always reach 9, but frankly, I don't minde) are spawning in Metacritic and show how, besides being a sci-fi 80s/90s-like horror, the game by Housmarkque Games is a hilarious title. Frantic, unpredictable, bright. You may have heard, however, that narratively speaking it's "suffused", "fragmented", "suspended".
"Plot" is not "story"
If we listen carefully to the words of Gregory Louden, Narrative Director of Returnal, plots have nothing to do with stories (not entirely). Sony audience got used to to cinematic masterpieces that have often pushed us all to compare videogame experiences with cinema. Games like The Last of Us Part II or Uncharted 4: A Thief's End have seduced millions of players, who in a "Fuck the Oscars" mood (quoting Joseph Fares), ended up making some very risky comparisons. Sure, cutscenes, cinematic movements, dialogues, even single lines of these games are often directed by real directors and written by real screenwriters (or by anyone who has a solid background); and sure, these games "look like movies, bro". However, that's just a small part of game storytelling. Listening to Louden (the video above), Returnal's narrative team has done a lot of work on the game's story, but that doesn't mean it has an extremely articulate storyline. I don't know, it could be, I haven't played it yet, but several friends of mine, knowing of my passion and my blog, wrote me:"It seems that narrative is the weak point of the game or so they say". Sorry but no. Plots as we understand them in a movie are not what we mean in a video game. Everything that happens during an animation, the description of an upgrade, even the atmosphere of a place you go through is the construction of a story, of a narrative "hummus" that's behind the plot. Example: I read that during the game we will find Parasites able to give bonuses and penalties to our Selene. They are not chests, nor additional weapons, nor flying icons to catch: they are alien living beings that will stick on our body. This gameplay feature, if you ask me, says nothing about a plot. But it is pure narrative design. It's world-building. It's the story, refined to the maximum, that masks (and enhances) game design. Another example: the world of Atropos will change every time. Obviously, that's a level/game design choice, in order to keep the attention rate of a self-respecting rougelike game high. Yet, since the first announcement of Returnal, it reminded me Solaris (1972) by Andrej Tarkovskij, of how the planet on which Kris Kelvin's station orbited arount took the most dear forms to the protagonist, to deceive him, creating illusions of places and people. Which is fiction, even if Solaris' plot wasn't that articulate. Returnal's research fully represents the spirit of narrative design, that is putting the narrative at the player's service. Not to a viewer, but a player. The other Sony exclusives, fortunately, feel well because they also have gameplay holds up divinely like, almost every title. But be careful when you talk about the plot: the plot only describes causality, while it is the story that creates facts and worlds.
Take some time to watch "Housecast", this series of interviews to the creators of Returnal. There are 5 videos, super interesting. And when someone tells you that they say "Returnal... the plot... etc.", link them this interview.
Oh, yeah, my predictions: Returnal will smash!