From the moment you leave your tiny, oddball planet, it’s impossible to not ponder whether Outer Wilds is going to be one of the overlooked game of the year contenders. It’s a weird, quiet sort of game that trades exclusively in unfettered exploration. But then, as the final credits roll, another notion flits into your brain. This might be one of those once-in-a-generation games.
Developed by Mobius Digital, Outer Wilds follows the interstellar antics of a nameless member of a wily and ambitious alien species from a planet called Timber Hearth. Despite not bearing a full understanding of how or why, they’ve decided to dedicate much of their existence toward launching into various corners of their solar system and just poking around. It is, perhaps, the most relatable premise to any video game ever.
What’s enabled them to do this is the fact that they recovered technology from a precursor race called the Nomai that allows them to do all sorts of wild things like influence gravity and contemplate quantum mechanics and, most importantly, reach the stars. You are just the latest in the string of astronauts that willingly strap themselves into delightfully busted spaceships of wood and string that allow them to visit worlds of swirling hurricanes and shifting sands.
(Spoiler warning: I won’t be going into the nitty-gritty, but there are some details that are both unavoidable and best avoided. Seriously, once you know this, you cannot stop knowing it, and finding it out is one of the most incredible discoveries of an already incredible game.)
Truthfully, even with a fully permitted discourse into spoilers, this is a hard game to talk about. To those that haven’t played it, it begins and ends and saying I consumed it voraciously—greedily—over the course of two largely uninterrupted days. To those that have, it’s a breathless menagerie of half sentences and agreeances and shouts.
Aboard your quirky ship, you’ll find a map of the solar system. It doesn’t do much except chronicle everything you’ve learned during your journey, but in that way, it feels like a Pepe Silvia-level yarn corkboard. One person will tell you that the most recent explorer ended up on Timber Hearth’s moon, so you head there. And then you are led to the location of two other wayward explorers before you, but another has been missing since before your time. But also there are glowing ruins? It seems like they point to something…
For each thread you tug, another half dozen appear before you. And you’ll do your best to wrangle them all together, but it quickly feels impossible before it starts to feel inevitable. The pacing of the exploration is impeccable. You are forever at the edge of being overwhelmed, this sweet spot of feeling like there are parts you’ll never see and parts that you can’t wait to get to.
Part of what makes it manageable is its Groundhog Day-like structure. For some unknown reason, the universe dies after a set amount of time, and for even less known reasons, you are brought back with full memory retention of what happened, even though you appear to be the only one. It is a genius mechanic because it frees you from responsibility.
Whenever you reset, it liberates you from any obligation you had from the previous loop. Were you halfway through a cave when suddenly you awaken staring at the same celestial body as the past dozen times? Feel free to move on. There’s no reason to burden yourself with trudging through those dank corridors so soon again. Or dedicate your entire loop to that cave. You might find a new nook or cranny you didn’t find before.
It is an absolute necessity for how open this game is. There are seemingly no limits to where you can go. Once you learn some basics about jetpacks and ship controls, you can go anywhere. You can even try to escape the solar system. Or you can go deeper into your home planet. There is mystery everywhere, and it seems to all be one singular mystery: why are we here and what do we do while we’re here?
For much of it, the answer is simple: anything. You can do anything. And with each morsel of knowledge you find about the Nomai and yourself and your people and this little set of planets, the why starts to shape up, too. With each violent collision into a philosophical mortality, you can only ever think about the end—about the way things end. About death.
This is especially true as you begin to add planets under your belt. Each of these celestial bodies features unique…components. One may harbor over a surface covered completely by water hurricanes that threaten to shoot you back into space. Another seems to be its own set of interconnected pocket dimensions. Another crumbles and erodes into its own private black hole.
You are experiencing something new almost every minute of this 20-hour game, which, paradoxically, highlights the only things that remain the same. Your trusty jetpack. Your hearty ship. Your demise. It is inescapable. It is familiarity through repetition, and yet we know less and less about it the more we unearth from the Nomai and, most notably, the more we dwell on it.
The best way to put it is maybe the way Austin Walker of Vice Games described his time with the game: “You aren’t only playing as an astronaut or an archeologist. In Outer Wilds, more so than in any other game I’ve ever played, you become an ecologist.”
There are no discrete progression mechanics in this game. The way you progress is by learning. You have to read, you have you study, and you have to think. You do not receive new items and you do not unlock new abilities. Only by connecting yourself to this ticking, thrumming universe can you progress. You have to immerse yourself in this ecosystem.
It encourages this by doing a rare thing in games: removing the heroism. Or, rather, refusing to inject heroism. You are not saving anyone or fighting anything. This exploration is…contemplative. Melancholic. You are never in a race against time because there is always more time, but there also is never enough as the timer ticks down. With each loop’s end, as the music swells and the horizon dims, you naturally stop. You stare. And all you can do is wonder what do we do now.
Which is an important distinction. It never feels like a stop before what’s next. It feels like one continuous meditation on now. Your excavation of a culture long past only brings about darker and dourer sensations about both the past and the future. You were what was next for the Nomai, and no there is no next with each repeat conclusion to life across space and time. This is it.
And for the rest of my days, I’m not sure I’ll experience something like it ever again.
Final score: 10 out of 10
[…] mind the games of the year; Outer Wilds is one of the games of ever. It is a mastery of its form. Everything it wants to achieve, it fully […]