Look at that screen. That’s more or less the opening screen of Outer Wilds, an extremely acclaimed and talked up game, including among some people whose opinions I trust very well. I bought it a few weeks ago and went in knowing nearly nothing about it, since it seemed like one of those kinds of games, the kind you’d rather go into blind.
Usually I write a post like this once I’ve finished a game, but Outer Wilds is a complicated case for me. Not in a bad way — the game has an extremely thoughtful design, with a unique concept that works for me so far. But I don’t know whether I’ll get around to finishing it anytime soon. Yet I still do have some thoughts about it, just not thoughts I can put into the context of a proper review — since I haven’t finished the game yet and might never do so. I’m not a professional game journalist after all; they’re the only ones who can review games they’ve barely played (sorry for the jab, but I couldn’t resist it.)
Or maybe there’s no real difference between reviewing a game and “giving thoughts” about it. I just want to be straightforward about what this post is. It might turn out to be a sort of “part 1” to an actual review I write once I complete Outer Wilds if that happens, but that is an if. So fair warning. I’ll also be spoiling what I know so far (though if you’ve played the game to an ending, please don’t spoil that for me in the comments, but feel free to comment otherwise. I gain energy from reading new comments much like vampires gain energy from drinking fresh blood. Well, maybe that’s not the best analogy.)
Outer Wilds is a sort of space exploration game, though not the traditional sort at all. It takes place in a star system that’s home to one actually habitable planet (though more on that later, because we’ll stretch the definition of “habitable” soon) and a bunch of other planets that are both interesting and complete fucking nightmares to navigate, though some more than others. You play nameless protagonist, a newly minted astronaut from Timber Hearth, a planet home to a peaceful-looking vertically-built town inside a crater and full of other blue four-eyed beings. These guys are extremely interested in exploring their star system and have built a series of spacecraft with both take-off and landing ability — think a more versatile version of the Apollo lunar lander.
The natives of Timber Hearth aren’t merely interested in poking around randomly either — one of their greatest goals is to discover new information about the Nomai, an ancient race of aliens who left their mark across the system in the form of ruins, writings, and other artifacts.
Your mission is simple enough: when you’re prepared, get in the spacecraft at the top of the launch pad in the center of town, lift off, and start exploring. While up at the observatory/museum to get your launch code from the scientist Feldspar, however, everything gets a lot more complicated when an ancient Nomai statue recovered from a ruin turns towards you, opens its eyes, and sends you into a sort of trance or trip for several seconds. It’s not quite clear what this is all about at first, and your colleagues are just shocked that the statue has moved and opened its eyes seemingly of its own will (though they unfortunately missed the part where you were given a mystical experience by hypnosis or whatever that incident might have been.)
Now following my own playthrough — after I had my head back on straight, I returned to the launch pad, got into the rickety as hell looking spacecraft I’d been provided, and took off. Liftoff was easy enough, and in just several seconds I was in space, with plenty of locations in my star system to visit.
I chose this nearby planet. Seemed promising enough. I was still getting the hang of space flight, but I was more or less able to get into orbit around this Giant’s Deep planet and try landing.
This was a mistake. So I thought at first, anyway, as my lander fell through the planet’s thick cloud layer and into its violent tornadoes that sent it flying again, then plunging into the ocean beneath. Scared out of my wits by this surprise, I immediately got the holy fuck off of this planet, blindly firing the thrusters that were somehow still working to send me back into space.
Shortly afterwards I found a planet or a moon or something that wasn’t on my chart and apparently had no name. Without any other goals at the moment, I approached it.
After moving into landing mode and switching cameras, I saw nothing under my spacecraft. Switching views again, the moon had completely disappeared.
Thoroughly confused at this point, I flew around a bit longer, then headed back towards my home planet. I’d completely neglected its moon, called the Attlerock. Probably would have been the place to start my journey but somehow I missed it. So I landed there, discovering a base occupied by one of my fellow four-eyed blue guy astronauts. After a friendly conversation and a little info-gathering, I wandered around the planet in my space suit, keeping a watch on my oxygen level.
I didn’t get screenshots of what happened next, but if you’ve played the game even for half an hour you’ve seen and heard it yourself: after a short musical cue plays, the Sun collapses in on itself and explodes in a blue-white supernova, vaporizing all planets, moons, and life around it in the process.
Fortunately, this wasn’t game over. In fact, this first death seems to be where Outer Wilds actually begins. Following this surprise disaster, you’re resurrected, sent right back to your initial spot by the fire on Timber Hearth just before launch. Moreover, the player character remembers everything that’s happened, up to and including dying in a supernova.
Soon enough it’s revealed that this is a Groundhog Day-esque time loop, perhaps triggered by that Nomai statue that sent you on the trip: you have 22 minutes to explore before the Sun collapses again and explodes, inevitably killing you and everyone else, at which point you’re again sent back to the starting point. Strangely enough, you seem to be the only one so far who realizes this is going on — you’ll later find characters who also keep their memories from past loops, but nobody on Timber Hearth knows what the hell you’re talking about when you try to warn them of the situation.
So there’s your goal: investigate your entire star system, all its planets and moons and various other bits that aren’t on your chart, to piece together what’s going on. Every planet, including Timber Hearth itself, holds a lot of points of interest, many of them Nomai ruins that are filled with old messages like the above. These usually take the form of conversations between the Nomai, who were scientifically advanced far beyond the current intelligent civilization in the system and were using their advancement to search through system after system for something called “the Eye of the Universe.” The Nomai’s messing around with black holes, teleportation, and time fuckery also turns out to have something to do with the amazingly rapid death and explosion of the Sun — no doubt, since the process we see over 22 minutes usually takes billions of years.
This knowledge might result in total panic if most anyone else knew what was going on. Thankfully, they don’t, so it’s mainly up to you to fix this problem. And since you effectively have infinite lives, at least for the purposes of this one time loop that’s been created, you have all the time in the universe to try to fix it or at least to understand it.
Outer Wilds was released in 2019 by developer Mobius Digital. I’d never heard of these guys, but whatever else you might say about their game, it’s damn impressive. I went in without knowing anything about this game beyond the fact that it presented the player with some kind of mystery, but though I haven’t finished it by getting an ending, it’s already given me more than enough to make my time with it worth it.
Some time back, I played an environmental narrative (aka “walking simulator”) game called Sagebrush that I didn’t care much for. I’ve wondered whether any game in that category would ever satisfy me at all — I won’t go through all the issues I have with the genre, which I’ve been through already, but I think if any game could be called an environmental narrative that works, it’s Outer Wilds. Its story is told mainly through its environment, but unlike others I’ve played (for example Sagebrush above, and also The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide which I don’t care for either despite some interesting ideas they present) this one is thoughtfully put together, made for players who want to have a good time exploring and puzzling out how to get from one new discovery to the next. It also gets rid of the linearity of the above games* — the player is pretty much encouraged from the beginning to just take off and do whatever. It’s not even necessary to leave Timber Hearth to start exploring: your home planet has plenty of its own mysteries to discover that tie into the others.
Most of the action takes place away from Timber Hearth, however. It’s easy to see why this planet is the only one now inhabited by a civilization: each of the others has some kind of bizarre/terrifying aspect that makes it inhospitable. Like the planetary pair Ash and Ember Twin locked in a tight orbit far too close to the Sun for comfort and covered in sand that’s flowing from one to the other, or Giant’s Deep with its terrible storms and strange floating islands that are lifted all the way above its atmosphere into space and back again by giant tornadoes. Or Brittle Hollow, which is literally being torn apart from inside by a black hole. Or Dark Bramble — the less said about that one the better.
Adding to this effect, your ship as you can see above isn’t the sturdiest in the universe. A more maneuverable version of the lunar lander is great for landing and taking off, but it still isn’t the ideal spacecraft to fly around in tight spaces, much less to brave these kinds of absolute terrors. But complain about it to that engineer sitting next to you at the campfire each time you die and wake up again — as he tells you, this ship is the one you’ve got, and you’d better learn to pilot it as well as possible.
This less forgiving aspect of Outer Wilds is why I’m stalled out on it for now. I do respect that about the game — its more difficult tasks give it a nice level of challenge, and of course you have infinite shots to get them right. But it does get frustrating the fifth time you misjudge a distance on Brittle Hollow and end up falling through that goddamn black hole yet again, being spit out on the other side of the system so far from your parked ship you have no hope of getting back to it before the next loop. Or falling into a sand pit and having your suit punctured by a fucking cactus and choking to death. Or meeting whatever fate might await you in Dark Bramble, and the list of possible ways to horribly die goes on.
This frustration can become taxing after a while, and after running frantically through a series of tunnels trying to avoid being crushed by rising sands and failing for the sixth or seventh time I put the game on pause. Not permanently, I think — I will try to reach the ending at least, because I do want to figure out just what the fuck those Nomai were up to and how I might be able to prevent the Sun from exploding and killing everyone (or not prevent it? No guarantees that this story will have a happy ending, are there? I haven’t been spoiled on that yet either.)
But to its credit, even in the most seemingly hopeless situations, there’s enough to discover in the game that you can be quite literally flung into a new discovery as happened to me a few times. More often you might be flung into a rock and killed, but there’s your chance to start a new exploration if you have the time and patience to spare. And there’s where the thoughtful construction of Outer Wilds comes in again: every point I’ve found so far takes well less than 22 minutes to reach assuming you learn how to clear the obstacles in your path, enough time to get there and explore for a while before going through another reset. Your ship’s computer is also helpfully not affected by these resets, keeping the records of everything you’ve found along with notes that you can study before planning out your next trip off of Timber Hearth, and time also pauses while on the computer so you don’t have to worry about impending death while you prepare. Though you can turn that feature off if you really want. I don’t know why you would, but maybe you’re all about that extra challenge or realism.
Anyway, that’s my general impression of the game so far. I like it, and I’ll likely return to it at some point because it’s compelling enough to get me back; I just need a break for now. Though before going in, it’s important to note what it isn’t: Outer Wilds is not anything close to a realistic space flight/exploration sim, so if you’re looking for that, you’ll be disappointed by it. Scales in the game are pretty weird, with planets and a star that are extremely small in comparison with the inhabitants of Timber Hearth and the few various other beings hanging around the system. But then Outer Wilds obviously wasn’t trying to be a realistic space sim, and despite its miniature-scale star system, each planet and moon I’ve found has a lot to explore on their surfaces and sometimes underneath.
Outer Wilds also isn’t a traditional horror game obviously, but it is still one of the more terrifying games I’ve played. How reasonable that fear is might be hard for me to gauge, since I actually have a fear of looming massive astronomical bodies for some reason — even though I’m also very much into space and astronomy. I guess it’s a phobia, since I have no reason to be afraid of suddenly seeing Jupiter through my window one day. This game tested that fear, and it was interesting enough to get me to set it aside, so that’s a point in its favor too (though the fear has gotten easier to manage over time — I still can’t plunge into the ocean in Google Maps without freaking out and have a hard time with photorealistic full maps of Earth, though I’m fine with traditional maps and even have a few hanging where I live and work. Does anyone else know what I’m talking about, or is it really just me?)
The only real issue I’m anticipating having with Outer Wilds is its ending. As I’ve said, I have no idea what it could involve at this point — it’s entirely possible that I’ll even hate it, though I doubt with all the accolades this game has gotten since its release that its ending sucks (though even then it very well could, I guess, considering some of the stories with dogshit awful ruinous endings people have praised because they thought they were deep or thoughtful when they weren’t.) But I have seen Outer Wilds mentioned alongside existentialist ideas, and also “optimistic nihilism”, an approach that I have serious problems with.
I certainly wouldn’t end up hating the game for having that sort of ending, though. After all, I liked NieR:Automata, and it had that sort of ending, one I thought was a lot more depressing than others apparently did. I recognize that the fact I hate life and need some meaning more than what we can find in the material world to get any value out of it is a personal problem, so I can’t take that bitterness out on Yoko Taro, nor on the people who made this game if that’s the angle they’re taking here.
I’ll save the mad raving over how I think optimistic nihilism is nonsense for another post, anyway. Maybe the next post I write about this game, if that happens and assuming it fits. For now, that’s all on Outer Wilds. I hope I can return to it and get far enough to write a proper review, in which case as stated at the top this non-review post will turn into a sort of part 1 to that part 2. It’s a sloppy way of operating, but it’s the best I can do right now.
The next game I plan to write about thankfully works on a far less intellectual and far more physical level than this one, if you get me. I have to get to this game, finally, after I’ve left it sitting on my to-play list for so long, but it will be a nice break from all these stupid deep thoughts. Until then!
* Arguably Stanley Parable isn’t linear, but it also kind of is — but then I guess that’s the point of the game itself. I’m not fucking reviewing Stanley Parable here though, no way am I bothering with that. More than enough people have argued about it and continue to do so with that new update that just came out. I’m sitting that one out.