Never 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 does. There are several moments of this game that, even standing apart from the whole, are some all-time favorites, including an ending that does something no other game has ever done or even attempted to do.
It doesn’t feel right even now typing out my thoughts about it. There’s too much to say and not enough words to say it all. Multiple times my jaw just dropped wide open, gasping for air at the ice-cold shock of clarity. Visual revelations, intellectual comprehensions, aural triggers. Across the spectrum of possible output, this game finds a way to get at you that plays on the strengths of this interactive medium. It does what only video games can do, and for some reason had yet to do.
I’m not even sure how to convey the sheer audacity required to not only attempt a nonlinear story where any given bit could be completely skipped by the player but then additionally to pull it off. I can’t imagine the reveals happening in another way than how I experienced them, but everyone I’ve talked to that has played this has had a different path to the finish. Yet somehow, every keystone that slots into place in the last act still manages to hit like a wrecking ball made to destroy wrecking balls.
Not only is the construction of its loop meticulous but also its philosophy. This is a game where you are dying over and over again as you slowly unearth the truth as to how an entire precursor race was wiped out, which then leads you to understand that the universe itself is dying. And that means you aren’t just dying but you won’t matter. Close this loop and that’s that. Whatever exists beyond this universe will wipe its hands clean of you.
But! Somehow this is one of the most uplifting games I’ve ever played. It isn’t about avoiding death but rather this strange, hopeful bent on what you do knowing that it’s coming all the same. It’s this cosmic clockwork that reveals this grand and encouraging truth that things happen in the universe all the time, and you are the mechanism through which it reacts to those things. Your role in this framework of churning, ticking gears is not meaningless if it means something to you.
And how could it not? By miraculously dodging every trope known to man regarding aliens and precursor races and time shenanigans (well, maybe knowingly nodding to a few of those chrono goofs), every bit of this feels fresh in a way modern sci-fi rarely does. Space is cold and terrifying but the people and the exploration is cozy like a warm winter cabin. The uncaring well-machined cogs that march forever on stand in the face of a folksy, interstellar jam band.
And rather than an unknowable species of omnipotence and a disdain for whatever follows, the Nomai are just a bunch of science nerds with weird office politics and fun inside jokes and the same lust of adventure that got you to launch off your little rock with a spaceship made of balsa wood and nails. With a deft touch of truly masterful writing, you become enamored with these weird dorks.
Everything they do and say becomes as heartwarming as it is alarming as the mystery begins to unravel. It’s this inescapable moment as the game evolves purely within your own head. First, the exploration and the freedom get you to poke around the solar system. Then you want to know more about these friends you’ll never meet. And then, as this intangible turkey thermometer pops in your brain, you realize what needs to be done, and it feels like a race against yourself.
It does that slow adrenaline rush of Gone Home‘s ending but on a completely new level. Rather than chasing an outcome you’re afraid to be true, it feels like grabbing onto the tail of a launching rocket, scared of where it goes but excited to find out. There is a tipping point of this game at which you simply cannot and will not stop.
I could go on forever about this game. The sheer scale of it all is unreal. The moment you realize what is happening in the sky. The first time you end up at the end of space. When you are greeted with the largest, most awe-inspiring expanse beneath you, right before you are given one of the most intimate moments of the entire game.
I love my dumb little spaceship. I love everything about its backyard aesthetic and the campfire soundscape and my spacefaring friends and this impossible opportunity to get to know them. I love knowing that not a single part of Outer Wilds will ever leave my head or my heart.