Please Note: Outer Wilds is a game that is best experienced through a blind playthrough. I will try my best to avoid major spoilers, but there are some “spoilery” details below.
Outer Wilds is a game about death, rebirth, discovery, and the value of the journey over the destination. It manages to be a profound meditation on the nature of life and death and a sincere demonstration of why video games are fun. It is a deceptively simple game with layers of meaning, both in its gameplay design and its story. And all of it started as an assignment for a master’s thesis.
In 2019, a year that saw the release of titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2, Death Stranding, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Outer Wilds flew under the radar in a small Hearthian spaceship. Despite winning Best Game at the year’s British Academy Game Awards and being a contender for several other Game of the Year awards, many gamers still think you’re talking about The Outer Worlds when you mention it.
To be fair, it’s easy to understand the confusion. Both of these titles are sci-fi games featuring planet exploration with detailed world-building. But I can confidently say that Outer Wilds is the most unique sci-fi gaming experience I have ever had.
Curiosity Killed the Hearthian
The creative director, Alex Beachum, and his collaborators were students at USC’s Interactive Media program when they conceived a thesis project based on player curiosity. While most triple-A open-world titles use upgrades and collectibles as an incentive for exploration, the Outer Wilds dev team wanted the act of discovery to be the player’s reward. There are no feathers, loot, or extra skill points waiting around the next corner. There are only mysteries, questions, and the promise of answers if you look hard enough.
But in the worlds of Outer Wilds, questions often lead to more questions, and before long, you’re sucked into a web of mysteries about an ancient, advanced civilisation. The brilliance of Outer Wilds‘ open-ended mission design is that there’s always a reason to follow up on a clue. The game doesn’t hold your hand or tell you what to do. However, every discovery leads to a helpful tidbit of information. You’ll soon realise that all of these enigmas are connected. Even the smallest bit of information might help you save the universe.
But before you get there, you’ll die.
Like most other sci-fi games, death is an imminent possibility in Outer Wilds. Unlike most other sci-fi games, the planets of Outer Wilds are some of the most incredible, kaleidoscopic locations I have experienced in a game. Contrasting the tired tropes present in sci-fi metropolises, the lands of Outer Wilds are untamed, mystifying, and savagely beautiful.
There Is No Planet B
The intentionality of Outer Wilds’ world design is what makes the game’s exploration so rewarding. The game’s premise may sound like No Man’s Sky, but it is a perfect demonstration of the intricate worlds that procedural generation can’t create. The game’s solar system may not be a massive procedurally generated universe, but its smaller planets are packed with lovingly crafted detail. And none of these locations overstay their welcome.
The Dark Bramble is a nightmarish unfolding maze that, like a TARDIS, is bigger on the inside. It is one of the most terrifying locations you’ll ever visit in a G-rated game. With its towering cyclones, the planet Giant’s Deep is ominous, atmospheric, and imposing. Brilliant planets like the Hourglass Twins and Brittle Hollow transform before your eyes within the span of 22 minutes.
And 22 minutes is all you have to explore these planets before you inevitably perish in a universe-wide blaze of glory. Unless one of the planets’ hazards kills you first.
Loop and Loop
Early in the story, you’ll learn that the game is centred on a time loop. At first, you won’t know why the universe keeps ending after 22 minutes or why your consciousness keeps time-travelling to the same moment whenever you die. As you slowly spacewalk your way through each cycle, you’ll grow to accept the inescapability of in-game death.
The first time you witness the death of the universe is tense, alarming, and unforgettable. But as you continually hear the telltale musical cue near the end of each loop, you develop a strange sense of calmness and acceptance in the face of certain destruction. The life you’ve lived is over; it’s time to move on to the next life.
This mechanic is a major reason why the game is so fascinating and engaging. After an afternoon of open-world exploration in other titles, it’s easy to run out of activities quickly. In Outer Wilds, you’ll find many clues leading to new discoveries on a planet, but you won’t have time to discover everything before the end of a cycle. Backtracking may be a dirty word to some gamers, but Outer Wilds succeeds in making backtracking uncannily rewarding.
Within the span of each loop, time passes, subtly changing the gameplay mechanics on each planet. Certain areas open and close, making it a race against time to explore them. Events on different planets even interact with each other, adding another layer of interconnectedness. Beachum and his team confidently capitalise on the time loop concept, rather than treating it as a one-off gimmick.
The Journey is the Destination
”I tell you what, this has been really fun. And I got to help make something really cool, so I’ve got no complaints… …It’s the kind of thing that makes you glad you stopped and smelled the pine trees along the way, you know?”Gabbro in Outer Wilds
When I reached the end of Outer Wilds, I was struck by the message it conveyed to the player. Whether you’re Hearthian, Nomai, or human, we’re all on a journey called life. Part of that journey is the end. No matter how fast we run, we can’t avoid it. But it’s the meaningful moments we experience along the way that make life beautiful. And those moments always pave the way for new beginnings.
Over the course of the game, you’ll die a lot. But in between your many deaths, you’ll experience moments of great wonder, meet some delightful travelers, and witness the birth and death of characters’ stories. And this process of discovery is what makes your many in-game lives memorable and worthwhile.
Every player who has wandered around a vast, immersive game environment can relate to this question: “What’s that over there?” Alex Beachum and his team have created one of the most effective meditations on this sensation through the imaginative worlds of Outer Wilds. The planets of Outer Wilds will tempt you with their mysteries, feeding the joy of exploring for the sake of the journey, and not just for the sake of completion.
You can pick up Outer Wilds on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC via the Epic Games Store.
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