Hey everyone, we’ve been very happy to see Returnal resonating so strongly with musicians, and this time we wanted to do a deep dive into one of our Heads. In general, Boss duels have always been an essential test of skill for players in action plays, and of course they’ve been a strong staple of the Housemarque formula in our past titles as well. With Returnal we really wanted to dedicate some time to create something special for our Boss encounters, and support musicians with some powerful and memorable instants. We’ve been thrilled to see that players ought to have enjoying our Superiors still further, and today we wanted to share some notes on Hyperion, who seems to have speedily become a favorite among musicians!
SPOILER WARNING: this article contains spoilers about the story of Returnal. It’s generally recommended that you read this only after overcoming Hyperion, and ideally have checked credits roll.
From the very beginnings, our goal with the story of Returnal was to haunt the musician. On a personal level, many special and haunting minutes I’ve experienced in plays and movie have often been accompanied by powerful music. In many cases I be considered that music is likely to be single-handedly responsible for creating the emotional impact and humor of a scene. This capability of music itself to express very complex, raw emotions in a unique behavior- to express the intangible- was the initial seed of inspiration here.
This importance of music was also immediately woven into our story, along with our other central elements and themes earlier today. It would like first of all envisioning our key story defeats( beginning, middle and specially our culminate ), and then consciously running backwards from there: identifying which perplex fragments we would seed throughout the experience to get under the player’s skin, and generate the sentiments of an overarching, layered mystery for players to solve.
One of the crucial puzzle articles was intended to be a specific piece of music, and throughout the game there are multiple clues that a particular melody is very important to Selene.( Note that I’m being intentionally vague to avoid spoiling too much here !)
In parallel, we likewise knew that we’d want to have some epic honchoes in the game. These required to be memorable highlights that would provide a challenge for musicians and serve as milestones of progress, but they would also need strongly resonate with musicians emotionally and be thematically tied to our narrative as well. In addition to the harsh, dark sci-fi elements of Returnal, we also wanted to explore some more psychological/ surreal themes with our narrative. Our Bosses would serve as climactic an expression of those topics. So from very early on we knew that we’d have one Boss that would play with this theme of musicality. This boss was simply codenamed “The Musician” internally, eventually this became Hyperion.
The idea for the Musician came first, and then the rest of the Echoing Ruins was built around it to support its presence.
“The Musician’s” visual designing
There were some keywords we used to guide our initial concepting for Hypersion: unsettling, musicality, tragic, dramatic, theatricality. Much like our other Heads, we wanted to make this encounter feel majestic. And what could possibly be more majestic than applying an alien Church Organ?
I’ve ever received the church organ to be one of my favorite instruments( and has been tied to many of my favorite Boss battles in plays ), and its ability to express grandeur is simply unmatched. It’s also a very beautiful organ in itself, and there was a lot of inspiration drawn from researching large Cathedral church organs. Their massive magnitude, how they implement air to practically “breathe” life into tunes, and how their assortment can express both highly delicate clangs but likewise be very imposing and bombastic when … It feels alive and powerful- the perfect fit for Returnal.
The Musician himself was visualized predominantly as a tragic figure: a being that is bound to this otherworldly organ through multiple organic vines and tentacles, fused in a nightmarish, symbiotic relation. The Musician is clearly obsessed with playing this haunting melody repeatedly- much like Selene is also haunted by it- and now that it’s bound to the organ it’s destined to be trapped there playing this melody forever. The hunched over seem was inspired by virtuoso pianists, who often appear to be in a meditative unconsciousnes when playing back their songs. Musician, instrument and music are one and inseparable.
From the early stages we likewise had the idea of building the back of the boss appear like it could also be its front. We wanted to combine the imagery of the Musician’s back part being forcibly bound( virtually in a ritualistic mode) to the organ via the organic vines, while also keeping his arms free to play the instrument in the front as well. We likewise added some subtle facial characteristics on its back, to shape the encounter feel slightly more unsettling and also give the player something more recognizable to shoot at( as otherwise its thin silhouette would also get lost amongst the vines and details ).
Now let’s look at how we built towards the encounter between Selene and Hyperion in-game, as well as the design of the combat itself. Extra insight comes from Returnal’s Principal Music Producer Joe Thwaites and Senior Game Designer John Hollingworth.
Act I- Failed escape and the song’s setup
Right before Selene reaches the Echoing Ruins, she suffers our “Failed Escape” culminating. In this cinematic, Selene returns to Earth and detects herself haunted by many recollections and she tries to resume a normal life. One of these haunting remembrances seems strongly tied to this particular melody, which merely pours out when she sits in front of a forte-piano again. She doesn’t remember exactly why it’s important yet, only that it is. She’ll become obsessed with this melody for the rest of her life. The cinematic ends with her- now aged- hands playing it one last-place hour. She takes the whodunit of the music with her to her grave.
Behave II- The Cycle continues and the ascension
Selene dies, and reawakens on Atropos. One of the first things she notices is that same melody playing, as if the planet is using it to harass her further.
Joe Thwaites: “The key objective[ of the Echoing Ruins] is to find the source. This music swims in and out of the ambient, environmental music: if you stop to listen, you can hear the distant clangs of the foreigner organ float in the wind. We utilized 3D audio abilities* to position the melody in the environment. As you move through the level, the tune will play from the direction of the Echoing Vault, helping to lead the musician to the source of the music. Pass through the Echoing Vault and you entire the spire … Hyperion’s resting ground.
As you explore the Echoing Ruins, you encounter various hollow flowers that seem to be playing the same melody. They all seem to suggest that there’s a central source of this music- an extra riddle for Selene to solve.
“As you stand at the lower end of the spire, the arpeggiated organ tune that you have been following echoes through the environment, dedicating the sense that you are standing inside a cathedral. As you clamber the spire, the clearer that music becomes. We wanted to create the feeling of moving towards the objective. We use the interval from the top of the spire as a constant to add new layers and feed intensity into the music. We also add layers of saturation as you approach the top, dedicating the sense that the foreigner organ is so loud that it’s distorting.”
When you work your course to the top, you’re confronted with a surreal sight: this huge creature obsessively- yet serenely- playing an organic church-like organ.
Joe Thwaites: “Once the musician steps into the arena the humor the modifications and the tempo picks up.”
Act III- The Bullet Ballet
For our boss battle, we wanted The Musician to utilize the organ. It would demonstrate its mastery of the organ( and attached vines/ tentacles) to assault Selene with a cacophony of bullets and a cosmic symphony of blowups. There would be multiple attack types that they are able to resemble spores to tie into the organic nature of the organ, and lots of bullet hell motifs to drive our avoidance gameplay.
Joe Thwaites: “The tune that you have been following is now played at a much faster tempo and in conjunction with Bobby Krilic’s much more intense boss fight score. As the fight plays out, the music intensifies with each phase, introducing more factors, fuller percussion, and thicker harmonic textures.”
John Hollington:” The objective of the combat designing was to mirror the dominating, intensifying soundtrack. With each passing stage certain difficulties and intensity increases, Hyperion plays the Organ near the end of each phase to loose brand-new chords of demolition at the player.”
Joe Thwaites: “Hyperion’s obsession with the tune and the repetition nature of this arpeggio makes a relentless wall of tone that accompanies the barrage of projectiles that is coming from the organ. The organ music itself is made-up of a combination of real and synthetic organs put through some processing to make the seem aggressive and alien. This sits really nicely with Bobby Krilic’s percussive and synth-driven score which kicks in when the combat starts.”
John Hollington: “Similar to a single musical note, each onslaught from the barrel of the organ doesn’t offer much on it’s own, but when they all come together in sequence it supplies a challenging bullet hell symphony which personnels the musician to keep moving until it is silenced.
“Every pattern was carefully balanced and tweaked from countless amounts of testing. As a squad we were always pushing for bigger attempts, more bullets and impressive chaotic motifs, especially for the Organ. However, we were very cautious of impediment and readability. The visual expression of the projectiles play a tremendous persona in that. By contrasting them clearly against each other it allows the player to quickly and easily identify the patterns and react to the attacks.
“The colour of projectiles employed represent the style of onslaught. Green is commonly used for more random , non-direct clusters( Low reaction response from the musician ). Orange is reserved for slower moving non-targeting shapes that eat room( Medium player reaction) and blue bullets are for Hyperion’s main attempts, they are often direct and expect the musician to quickly respond to the threat( High reaction ). These consistent colour-coordinated layers work together and overlap to create a genuinely chaotic scene, but one which allows the player to work around, read security threats clearly and slip through the designed gaps.
The attempts need to present themselves so even though they are the player is completely overwhelmed at first, after hour, practice and suffer the boss could be defeated without the player taking a single slam of damage. This was something we would have to prove before we submitted each iteration.”
Throughout the duel the vines are progressively broken and detached from its back part, unknowingly “liberating” the Musician from the clutches of the organ. Yet even without this constraint, the Musician still returns to the solace of the organ for one final day as he feels his terminate drawing near in the last phase. This gleans further symmetry with Selene’s story in the Failed Escape, where Selene is also seen repeatedly playing this music just moments before her fatality as well.
Behave IV- The stillnes
Just like many encounters in Returnal, the Musician also plays an important role in Selene’s story. Defeating Hyperion recognizes a bittersweet moment in Selene’s journey: although she stillness the song, the haunting music still loiters in her mind as she deters exploring great significance. Along with the players sharing her passage, they will discover the significance of this song( and much more) later in the game together.
Thanks so much for reading about the origins of Hyperion, and thanks to players who have stepped in the haunting world of Atropos. Returnal is available now on PS5.
* 3D audio requires stereo headphones( analog or USB ).
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