Finally, finally. After writing that initial thoughts on Outer Wilds post ten months ago, I set the game aside. I didn’t drop it — as I wrote then, I intended to revisit it someday, but its challenges at the time proved too much for me to take on. Looking back, I might have been approaching Outer Wilds in the wrong way, trying to swallow up the entire thing at once instead of taking it a piece at a time. I knew even then that that was the approach I needed to take with it, but my patience just ran out. Having read various takes on the game around both from people who have finished it and those who haven’t, I’ve seen a lot of that same sentiment, so maybe that’s no surprise.
But I’ve also seen others say that the game’s mysteries were powerful enough to pull them back in. That’s just what happened to me: every time I started up my PS4 when I had a break from work, I’d see Outer Wilds sitting there in my list, and I’d pass it by but remember that promise I made to myself, to figure the damn thing out. And I guess it’s obvious from the fact that I’m writing this post, but I finally did, albeit with a little help from my friends because I’m also a cheat (but then what do you expect from a lawyer? Really now.)
I hope you like my extremely overlongform posts, because this is going to be one of those; I already know it — I have too much to say this time. I’ll start as I did in my first post on the game, with a summarized tour of my travels through the solar system since I picked the game back up, and then with more general thoughts on the themes, the ending(s), all that. If you haven’t read that first post, it’s basically now part one of this two-part review, so if you don’t know anything about the game, what follows will be meaningless unless you’re read up. However, a serious spoiler warning: I’ll be going in depth here and will be spoiling the entire game in its vanilla form (i.e. without the Echoes of the Eye DLC, which I haven’t played.) It’s often said that Outer Wilds is one of those games it’s best to go into as completely blind as possible, and having finished it, I agree. It’s up to you, of course, but fair warning.
When I returned to the game, back at that familiar campfire, I went straight to my ship’s computer to figure out where I hadn’t been and where I needed to go. The list I made was pretty long: the dangerously Sun-adjacent Sun Station, the statue workshop on Giant’s Deep, the core of Giant’s Deep (which I’d tried to penetrate before without luck), the various Quantum Towers (which I somehow hadn’t even found on Giant’s Deep — I know), the Quantum Moon (again, tried and failed), the Southern Observatory on Brittle Hollow, and the entirety of Dark Bramble (tried and swallowed up once, then put that planet on the backburner permanently.)
I started with Sun Station. I’d read so much about the place at this point in Nomai writings that I felt it was a natural first stop. After working out how to get through the warp on Ash Twin through some trial and error (and holy hell was this trek annoying — more using falling/rising sand to avoid deadly cacti) I made it to the solar station, then tried to make the leap across the gap you see above as the bridge was out (because of course it was.) So I jumped, but without using nearly enough thrust, and so I ended up floating helplessly into space.
I shut the game down, remembering why I’d set it aside in the first place. I had to consciously keep myself from grinding my teeth, and while it was tempting, throwing my controller was out of the question, since I’d already had one break on me all on its own and replacement PS4 controllers are obscenely expensive.
But there was no turning back. I was determined to actually finish this god damn game, so I returned to the Sun Station after waiting for that stupid sand flow between the Twin planets to do its work once again, and I made the leap properly this time. And having made it across, I then remembered why I returned to Outer Wilds despite all this frustration: it rewards effort and exploration, most of all with knowledge. I don’t think the Sun Station is technically a vital step on your path to the end of the game, but the Nomai as usual leave their written conversations everywhere, and here I learned that their efforts to use the station to cause a supernova and use the energy collected to time-warp had failed. I also learned that this all happened around 280,000 years ago, unless the Nomai clock on the station had the wrong reading, and there was no reason to assume it did.
My explorations next took me to the core of Ash Twin. I’d figured out that most every planet and at least one station had warp pads here, making Ash Twin into a kind of hub planet for travel, and after even more trial and error I made it entirely by accident to the planet’s core and the heart of the Nomai’s time loop operation, discovering the memory-importing/exporting masks I’d seen through various projection stones and even at the end of every loop when time reset. I also found what you see above: the “advanced warp core” powering the Nomai time-warp fuckery, with a miniature black and white hole contained inside a device. I knew more than I ever wanted to know about this game’s black hole in -> white hole out mechanic from falling into the much larger black hole at the center of Brittle Hollow countless times last year, and the same sorts of miniature black/white hole combinations showed up in the Nomai’s warp pad mechanisms. So this device being at the center, I figured it was monumentally important — a fact that was confirmed when I removed it and a more dramatic, lengthened version of the end-of-loop music started playing.
Clearly I’d made a breakthrough. I supposed I had to do something with this device other than simply remove it from the core, but I had no idea what to do with it. At least one suspicion I had was confirmed at the end of this run: instead of getting the typical end-of-loop memory-mask sequence, I got a “You Are Dead” message, just like the one I’d gotten when I accidentally killed myself by stepping on a geyser on Timber Hearth ten minutes into my first run of the game. The mask hadn’t yet activated then to throw me into that loop and I had to reload my save — this time, I’d turned the entire system off with the same result.
The next stop was Giant’s Deep. I’d finally worked out that I had to land above and inside the massive tornado at the planet’s north pole, and of course there was one of those Quantum Towers, where I finally figured out the trick to landing on the Quantum Moon. Why it kept disappearing when I previously flew headlong into it in frustration, I’m still not sure — maybe it’s the cloud layer shrouding the moon in darkness that did it, which would be an effective clue for how to get to that fucking sixth location if only I’d drawn those dots.
After finding a fully suited Nomai corpse on the moon’s surface and remembering, then discovering her ship there, the one I’d recalled on Brittle Hollow, I stumbled on this giant shrine where I found markers for six moon orbit locations as I’d read elsewhere. I would eventually figure out how to quantumly (?) travel between planets’ orbits using this shrine, again through brute force trial and error, but not yet. I knew I had one planet left to visit that I’d been putting off. I’d read that the chief Nomai craft had been wrecked there, and I knew my fellow astronaut Feldspar was in there somewhere too.
So I had no choice but to brave the interior of the broken, twisted Dark Bramble. I put it off as long as possible, checking everything else off my list that I could: finding the horribly confusing path to the Southern Observatory, getting into the statue workshop hidden in a practically underwater cave, finally managing to dock with the broken orbital cannon I kept seeing at the start of every loop around Giant’s Deep. Only that planet’s core evaded me, but I rightly guessed that I’d find the key to that inside this final “planet.”
Listen: fuck Dark Bramble. I hated this place. Not because it was especially scary — I got used to drifting by the deadly anglerfish pretty quickly, as terrifying as they look, and I actually found having to navigate under the ocean of Giant’s Deep far more terrifying (thalassophobes take note; you’ll have to deal with that too.) But navigating through this place is a massive pain in the ass: not only can you not even use a touch of your main thruster to propel yourself if you so much as hear an anglerfish nearby since they hunt using their sharp sense of hearing, but the main “seed” in the core of the planet contains many more seeds inside it, all of equal or even greater size on the inside. Dark Bramble is a nesting doll of timespace bullshit, and while it’s actually cool and impressive how the developer strung together this internally looping maze, it sure isn’t much fun to get through when you’re worried about that 22-minute time limit yet you can only move at a crawl.
I ended quite a few cycles in Dark Bramble: getting lost, getting eaten, wishing I could kill every fucking fish inside this hellhole and bring their skeletons home as trophies (if only I had the ability and the time.) After much more trial and error, I finally found Feldspar, our legendary pilot and the first Hearthian to venture into Dark Bramble only to lose their ship after being chased by a god damn anglerfish. Feldspar complimented my resolve (nice to hear after all the bullshit I’d just gone through) and gave me the key to getting into the core of Giant’s Deep, pointing me to a dead electric jellyfish mysteriously frozen in the ice at the “south pole” of this broken planet just like the jellyfish swimming around Giant’s Deep’s core, with a note that they’re good insulators and a hint that they can be entered and comfortably ridden like a vessel through their bottom holes (the less I think about it the better.)
After a few more runs at Dark Bramble, I found the other thing I knew I was looking for: the remains of the Nomai, their escape pod and the corpses of the stranded around another seed only big enough for a scout to travel through. Using that signal, I found their primary ship, preserved after nearly 300,000 years albeit in a pretty wrecked state, invaded by giant vines.
Inside, I found the bridge and the answer to my question about what to do with that warp drive I’d taken from Ash Twin many cycles ago: in the center was an identical mechanism to hold the drive with a shattered, dead drive floating nearby. But I suspected it wouldn’t be enough to just fly to Ash Twin on a new cycle, fly back, and then jam the fresh drive in here, especially as I also found a three-panel input device that looked like it needed a particular code to activate. Everything was pointing me to the Giant’s Deep core, which I finally knew how to get to anyway, and after enduring a lot more deep sea bullshit and an extremely unpleasant jellyfish ride, sure enough, I was rewarded with a pattern that a Nomai computer referred to as the coordinates of the Eye of the Universe.
After finally figuring out the sixth location (which I’m still not clear on logic-wise — couldn’t have I just blinked or looked into a corner of my ship and changed the moon’s location while it was entirely out of view? Did I have to be in the shrine with the lights off?) and having a surprise meeting and discussion with an alive version of the Nomai Solanum, or at least some kind of quantum version of her that got trapped in this bizarre timespace, I decided it was time to shove that core in that whatever it was in the Nomai ship. Amazingly, my planned trip to Ash Twin and then the vessel on Dark Bramble went well enough (it helped that I could now highlight its location on my computer and track it, a nice hint there) and I shoved that core into the ship’s bridge, powering it up, and then I entered the three-part code into the rotating panel doing my best to control that irritating light ball the Nomai loved to use for their locks and switches. And after activating one more switch, I reached the end of the game.
I won’t get into the specifics of how all that plays out, but it ends with you joining your fellow astronauts from around the solar system at a fire. Or quantum versions of all of you around a quantum fire, I guess, together with Solanum, who I assume wouldn’t show up if I hadn’t met her considering the whole sixth location thing turned out to be interesting but not a requirement for the ending. Talking to each of your friends prompts them to start playing their old song all in unison, triggering the creation of a sky-colored sphere. And jumping into that sphere breaks the time loop, ending all life in your system and the game as a whole.
Why did I write out all of the above? Was it really necessary? Maybe not, but I did go through all this bullshit after all, and maybe you found it entertaining and/or informative to read about my suffering. Of course, if it had just been suffering, I wouldn’t have continued playing all the way to the end: Outer Wilds never once held my hand, requiring me to meet every challenge head-on, taking all the hints and clues I’d gathered throughout the solar system and piecing them together in a way that made some kind of sense. If you’ve played it yourself, you already know that this is the furthest thing possible from a simple “go to place A to get item B to unlock door C” sort of standard video game task. In the end, you do have to go to place A to get item B and shove it into item C, and I believe it might even be possible to reach the game’s ending on the very first loop if you know exactly how to do it, but that’s not a task you’ll even know you have to carry out without exploring the entire solar system and gathering all its knowledge together.
Exploration is one of the main strengths of Outer Wilds anyway. You don’t play a game like this simply to figure out how to beat it, or at least not at first: though I did eventually get determined to figure its final puzzle out, whatever that happened to be, most of my flying around and searching just sent me to places that were interesting and that contained knowledge through the Nomai’s notes and recordings that I’d be able to use to make more discoveries, or that would explain why or how they operated as they did. Very often the importance of such a piece of lore would only become obvious much later, when I was at the ship’s computer trying to piece together what I had gathered.
Even the environment itself provided clues as to how to proceed. When I found the Dark Bramble seed in a crater on Timber Hearth, for instance, it seemed natural to point my scope at it and to try to shoot my scout into it when I picked up a signal. Using the rising and falling sands between the Twin planets to reach otherwise inaccessible areas, purposely (or more usually accidentally) falling through the black hole at the center of Brittle Hollow to reach locations also pulled in that you wouldn’t be able to find on the planet itself, even simply figuring out that your ship doubles as a shitty makeshift submarine when you plunge into the ocean of Giant’s Deep — these are all clues as well, and the game damn well expects you to use them in creative ways to progress. And if these creative ways happen to involve a high risk of bodily harm or even of death, well, the universe is a harsh place, isn’t it? And it’s a good thing you’re stuck in a time loop, if an extremely painful and frustrating one.
The visuals certainly help. Outer Wilds doesn’t exactly look realistic, especially given its extremely small solar system by scale and its entirely alien cast, but you may know how I feel about the triple-A obsession with constant realism. No, this game’s style suits it perfectly. The Hearthians have their rough wood and metal constructions and technology that work but are a little janky as you might expect from a small civilization still in its early stages of spaceflight. While the Nomai technology left over is clearly far more advanced, the product of a perhaps galaxy-spanning species, they also have a unique style, incorporating color and artistic patterns into many of their crafts and stations. And of course, you may already know that the game’s soundtrack is not just excellent but essential to the story in ways you can only understand if you’ve played it.
That style extends from the game’s art to its many conversations, some you hold with your fellow Hearthians and many more you’ll find in written form among the long-dead Nomai. Each of their written lines are identifiable to particular Nomai, and far from the stoic, ultra-serious advanced alien race some creators might go for, these beings are clearly just as varied in personality as the Hearthians, with their own needs, concerns, and personal relationships expressed in their writings. I can’t use the term “humanized” here, since there isn’t a single human in this game, but it does make them feel much more real than they might feel if they’d simply been writing no-nonsense reports about their project to explode a star for scientific purposes.
That leads me to the game’s endings, of which I’ve only gotten two (though technically three if you count my very first pre-loop death.) I’m pretty sure there are more than that available that I haven’t found, but since one of them was the true ending described above, I feel I’ve more or less finished Outer Wilds. While the ending was very well done, and probably the most fitting sort of ending for this game, I had a different reaction to it than many others apparently did, or at least than others who write about the game or make YouTube videos about it.
When I learned that the Sun Station had failed to cause a supernova, I figured it was likely that I wouldn’t get an exactly happy ending to this story. Deactivating some mechanism placed here by the Nomai that prevented the Sun’s explosion would have been too easy a solution anyway, and there were other clues that this station wasn’t the actual cause of the Sun being 22 minutes away from explosive death, like the fact that it starts expanding into a red giant pretty soon after the loop begins. I thought Giant’s Deep’s orbital cannon firing off might have something to do with it, but that cannon clearly shoots in a different direction at the beginning of each loop, and you learn when you explore the cannon and its control room that it’s just shooting off a probe to find the Eye of the Universe, the object the Nomai came here seeking in the first place.
During my first run through the game last year, I don’t remember visiting Chert on Ember Twin more than once, early on in the loop. They’re pretty upbeat at that point, just relaxing in their very near solar orbit (way too near for my taste, but maybe that’s what their reflective helmet is for, to keep off the sunlight and the heat.) This run, however, I visited Chert late in the cycle while I was flying around the planet aimlessly during one of my “fuck this, I don’t know what to do” spells. Throughout the game, I was wondering if anyone would react to the clearly extremely fucked about-to-explode Sun, and finally I found one: at this point, depending on when you get to them, Chert is either extremely concerned, actively having a freakout, or resigned to their death and everyone else’s, asking you to sit and join them by the fire as all life dies everywhere.
And yes, they do mean everywhere. Chert, who was sent out to make observations of the sky, comments around the middle of the cycle about how many supernovae they’ve been seeing just today, wondering if the universe is a lot older and closer to its end than they’ve projected. Talking to Chert confirms and lines up with writing from other Nomai craft found in the Dark Bramble-bound vessel: we’re not the only ones about to die. Whether it’s just our galaxy being snuffed out or the entire universe, assuming this universe extends beyond one galaxy, hardly matters if we’re effectively cut off from the rest of it anyway.
I’ll tell you, at the risk of seeming more neurotic than usual (is that possible?) that Chert’s existential freakout on Ember Twin is maybe the most relatable moment to me in Outer Wilds. That dread, then utter denial in the face of the truth, then sad resignation, that’s probably what I’d go through myself. That’s all keeping in mind that Chert doesn’t know about the time loop, but that’s hardly a comfort to the player either if there’s not much hope that ending the loop will avert disaster.
The true ending left me feeling a bit empty initially. Even if, as the very final screen of the ending suggests, a new universe was born from the old, dying one, one that creates new worlds similar to ours 14.3 billion years later — that’s well and good, and I’m happy for them, but what does that have to do with us? We’re all dead, wiped clean away from history forever.
You might say that may just be how it is, and that’s fair. However, I want to raise a point I brought up back in my first post, that the message of Outer Wilds supports the outlook of optimistic nihilism. I don’t know whether that’s the message that writer Kelsey Beachum intended to express, but it’s the message a lot of people seem to have taken from her story, and I agree that it’s a reasonable reading of the true ending. Especially when I take the other ending I got into consideration.
Having gotten the true ending, I wondered what would happen if I took the advanced warp core from Ash Twin and just fucked off with it. Not simply to get caught in the supernova and die permanently, but to get far enough from the star that its explosion wouldn’t reach me. I’d done this once very early on in my playthrough, and while I escaped the supernova itself, the time loop still resets since the whole point of the Ash Twin Project is the preservation of memories when a being is linked with a mask from loop to loop (also the reason that lazy fuck Gabbro on Giant’s Deep also experiences the loops — they just happened to also be hanging out near one of those statutes at the relevant time.)
Something different happened when I’d powered down the Ash Twin core. Since the loop could no longer be powered by the supernova’s energy, the entire star system was swallowed up and I was left in my lander speeding away into the void, getting text a minute later that I’d escaped the supernova but would drift in space until I ran out of resources.
That certainly seemed like a profoundly shitty ending. Quite a lonely one, and perhaps deservedly so, as I’d abandoned my home and all my friends to their deaths like an asshole. But another point struck me: I didn’t get any sort of message about a new universe spawning from the dying old one. My reading is that the visit to the Eye wasn’t simply one last get-together before certain death but was absolutely necessary somehow to the creation of the new universe. Since the old universe was on the brink of death, then, this seemed in retrospect like as happy an ending I could hope for.
I’m no philosopher. All my studies beyond my early college years have to do with far too practical and worldly matters, though often taught in overly theoretical ways to suit their actual contents. But I do have feelings about matters like this. Some years back I went through my own sort of existential crisis, one that I’m not sure I’ve truly gotten past or ever will. After starting to seriously doubt a faith that I was raised in and never held too strongly anyway, I explored some of the atheistic philosophies and found them utterly empty, outright rejecting the question of “why” with the answer “there is no why.” I know some of these approaches are practical and workable for others, and I’m happy that they are, but I could never and still can’t accept a universe that simply wipes us out of being without a trace and without purpose.
I know very well that my feelings on the fate of the universe and the beings in it doesn’t affect our actual fate. The materialists and/or the nihilists may well be correct. But even if they are, I can’t accept this concept of optimistic nihilism that seems to be rising in popularity. I’ve read and heard many times now that “we can create our own meaning.” I understand, but my problem — and I grant that it’s an entirely personal problem — is that I don’t see how meaning survives death in this sort of universe. And if death destroys meaning, then how can it really be meaning? Is it possible to have temporary meaning, or even just to accept a meaningless universe with joy? Certainly some people can do that, but I can’t. I’ll admit, I almost envy you if you can.
Again, personal problem, but it does affect how I take the ending of Outer Wilds for whatever that’s worth. Though if our actions leading to the true ending did give birth to a new universe, I guess you can’t say our actions didn’t have lasting meaning, so at least in that sense, in this game, our meaning survived our deaths. This ending reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s story The Last Question for that reason — maybe that was an influence?
Well, sorry for all the bad philosophizing. To give you an idea of my mood right now, I’ve had Casiopea’s cover of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess on loop for the last half-hour as I write this. But Outer Wilds put me into this heavy mindset as it apparently has many other players. It was an excellent game, a special experience, and it will certainly stick with me. I stand by what I wrote last year: this is the only “environmental narrative” I’ve played that actually lives up to that name. If I had any issues with Outer Wilds, they were personal ones that I can’t really hold against it — again, the same goes for other games with similar philosophical angles I’ve played like NieR:Automata, and I’m only too happy to praise that one as well, even if neither of these games moved me to change my own outlook on life. But then maybe they don’t need to do that for me to enjoy them.
That said, I’m not sure I’ll be playing the Echoes of the Eye DLC. It’s not necessarily off the table, but the ending of Outer Wilds as I played it felt satisfying enough (minus my personal issues, of course.) But please feel free to push it in the comments if you think I might find it worth a try.
Now I’ve written enough. Next post won’t be quite as heavy as this one, either in terms of subject or length. See you then.