Thoughts: Outer Wilds

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Outer Wilds is a tricky game to review. It’s all about the thrill of exploring the unknown and the joy of discovery, and in order for the unknown to remain unknown and the discoverable to remain discoverable anyone playing Outer Wilds has to go into it almost completely blind. I knew almost nothing about it going in save that it was a game about exploring set in space, and I ended up being blown away by the scale of its imagination and its capacity to surprise me. If you end up playing Outer Wilds I’d very much like you to have the same experience. And you should play Outer Wilds, I think, as it’s an exceptional game, capable of eliciting feelings of wonder and delight and danger and terror in equal measure. I experienced all of those and more during my time with Outer Wilds; I visited a host of exotic locations and gradually unravelled a mystery and I was utterly enraptured almost until the very end of the game. But I can’t really talk about why without spoiling at least part of what made playing it such an outstanding adventure for me.

So this review will be a sort of a compromise. I found Outer Wilds fascinating on two levels: in the creativity shown when putting together its world and locations, and in the way it plays around with the traditional structure of adventure games. If you want to remain completely unspoiled I suggest you stop reading now. If you continue you should know I’ll be doing a somewhat detailed exploration of Outer Wild’s mechanics and structure, and that this does constitute something of a spoiler because the mechanics are woven into the story and how the locations work. However, I won’t be talking about the story at all, and I really won’t be talking about the locations either except in the broadest possible terms. That’s definitely something that should be experienced totally fresh, and for me to do much more than allude to the sorts of things you’ll see during your time in Outer Wilds would be downright criminal.

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What is Outer Wilds, then? Well, it is a game about exploring set in space, and it’s also true that it has a hell of a lot that’s thematically in common with adventure games and Metroidvanias. It casts you as a nameless astronaut who is about to set out on their first trip exploring the various planets of an alien solar system. You have immediate access to a ship that’s used from getting one planet to another, and a spacesuit with an attached jetpack that’s used for exploring the planets themselves. As is usual with games about exploration that are set in outer space, there is an ancient precursor civilization that mysteriously vanished thousands of years before you arrived, leaving only a collection of ruins and ancient artifacts, and you have a handy gizmo that you can use to translate precursor writing, giving you insights into who they were, how they got there and what they were getting up to before they disappeared. You’ll spend the first twenty-odd minutes of Outer Wilds going through the quick tutorial, learning to pilot your ship and visiting a couple of nearby destinations so that you can point your translation tool at the wall to decipher some ancient secrets. It’s all packaged up very prettily, but otherwise there’s nothing here that particularly distinguishes Outer Wilds from other, similar adventure games such as The Dig and Heaven’s Vault. It’s only when you inevitably end up dying that the difference — and the true genius behind Outer Wilds –  suddenly snaps into focus.

Because this isn’t the kind of adventure game where it’s impossible to die, oh no. In fact I think I managed to die more times, and in more exotic ways, than in any other game I’ve played outside of a shoot ‘em up, and that’s because player death is baked into the very core of Outer Wilds. There’s no checkpointing of any kind, and so when you die you respawn back at the very start of the game1, as you’d expect. However, the twist is that your character is fully aware of the fact that they just died. Nobody else is, but you are. You go through the process of launching, flying, exploring and dying a couple more times, and it gradually becomes apparent that you’re trapped in a time loop. The rules of the loop are those of Groundhog Day2: whenever you die, and however you die, you’ll always wake up back where the loop started with everything in the game reset to the way it was at that point in time.

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This has huge implications for the way Outer Wilds has to structure itself. You can’t take anything from one loop to the next except your memories of the previous loops, so in purely mechanical terms Outer Wilds is a progress-less game with a completely flat structure. There’s no player inventory, and no gradually expanding arsenal of equipment and skills and abilities that can be used to gate access to new areas. You start each loop with everything you need to finish the game: your ship, your space suit, your jetpack, your probe launcher and your signal locator. All you need to do is figure out how.

Outer Wilds is therefore first and foremost a game about collecting and sorting through information. Your knowledge of the world is the only thing that persists from loop to loop, and so your progress is instead measured by each new location visited and each piece of alien text deciphered. When you stumble across a new ruin you painstakingly pore over every inch of the walls, floor and ceiling in your search for clues. Some of the information you find won’t make any sense at first; you’ll find scrolls that talk about facilities you don’t know the location of yet, and about seemingly-inaccessible areas that require further investigation before you can discover the secret required to unlock them. Slowly, slowly, you weave these informational threads together into a rich tapestry that presents you with the full picture — or at least enough of one that you have a solid lead on what you need to do next. Do this enough times, and over enough loops, and you’ll eventually reach the converging point of these multiple logical chains and discover a way to escape the time loop.

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Although it gives you some hints on where to start your search, thanks to its flat structure and the fact that the player can reach anywhere in the solar system on their very first loop Outer Wilds always has to account for the possibility that you can blunder straight into the middle of one of these carefully arranged informational scaffolds without necessarily going through the preceding stages first. This is potentially a little dangerous as it’s much harder to draw the needed logical connections between disparate events if you don’t have the context for how you got there. So, to help you deal with the dizzying number of story strands and the entirely non-linear way in which you can encounter them Outer Wilds breaks the rules of its own core concept just once: your ship’s exploration log is also persistent from loop to loop, even though strictly speaking the rules of the loop mean it should be reset to a blank start-of-the-game state every time you die.

Making an exception for the exploration log like this does feel a little arbitrary, a little game-y, but only because it’s accessed via an in-game computer console; if you called it up via the game’s options menu I wouldn’t have had a problem with it at all. And anyway, it would be silly to object when the exploration log is such a superb tool for keeping track of where you’ve been and where you should be going next. Each new piece of information you come across that’s important to the game’s story is automatically recorded in the log under the relevant entry for that place or thing. If you find a clue that mentions somewhere you haven’t been yet and which you’re reading about for the first time, the log will automatically create a new entry for it and draw a connecting line between the two entries to show you that they’re related to each other. Places that you’ve only seen referred to are represented in the log by question marks; places that you’ve actually been to have their picture filled in and also have a little symbol next to them that indicates whether there’s more to find there or if you’ve totally cleaned it out of all relevant story clues. Even if you find yourself totally lost all it will take is a single glance at the exploration log to identify areas for further investigation: either you’ll have discovered enough information to make finding one of the unknown question mark locations possible, or else you should find a known location that has more to explore and try to find the missing pieces.

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Really, the manner in which Outer Wilds so deftly constructs this web of informational nodes in a way that the player can follow is deceptively elegant. It’s not easy to make a game that leans so heavily on the gathering of information as its sole supporting pillar; Return Of The Obra Dinn is the only recent example I can think of, but even that relied on you encountering each of its scenes in a set order so that it could gradually reveal information to the player. How Outer Wilds lays out the various interconnected breadcrumb trails of knowledge all leading to the heart of its central mystery, how it presents this information in a way that’s easy to understand and trace backwards and forward to its logical ending and beginning, and the way it never, ever leaves the player not understanding what’s going on or knowing what they have to do next is a thing of real beauty from a game design perspective. It doesn’t want you to deal with the stress and hassle of remembering which bits connect to which other bits or having to take notes on where you’ve been and where you’ve yet to discover; it does all of that for you, and so frees up your brain to concentrate on the actual exploration side of the game.

Outer Wilds is set in a Lilliputian solar system consisting of half a dozen tiny, physically-implausible planets. The sun is barely a dozen kilometres in diameter; each planet is a scant few kilometres across and it takes just a few minutes to fly from one side of the solar system to the other. This strange miniaturisation is necessary because of the restrictions imposed by the time loop: it’s only twenty-two minutes long from start to finish (after which point the game will throw you back to the start regardless of what you happen to be doing at the time) and so the locations have to be commensurately small in order for you to discover anything substantial there in such a short timeframe. That’s not to say they’re in any way simple; every single planet has hidden depths, either figuratively or literally, that are absolutely stuffed full of secrets. Exploring one for just a single loop will throw up two or three points of interest that can each be delved into further on subsequent loops — and those will then yield even more — but completely uncovering a planet’s secrets is something that’ll likely take you most of the length of the game. Often you’ll come across some obstacle blocking your progress that can’t be bypassed without knowledge gleaned from some other planet in the solar system, and so when the next loop starts you’ll duly jet off over there to start the process of exploration all over again. None of the planets are self-contained, and you’re constantly flitting back and forth from one to another as you acquire new information on one that unblocks your exploration somewhere else.

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Which I suppose makes this a good time to talk about the not-so-simple process of exploration in Outer Wilds. Your base of operations and secondary mode of transportation is your ship, which is mostly used for getting from planet to planet and which has some extremely convenient UI/autopilot features to help you do this without smacking into the planet’s surface at seven kilometres per second. The ship isn’t all that useful for exploring the planets beyond that surface, though, as most of the interesting stuff is located in places that the ship can’t get to. For that, you’ll have to don your space suit, disembark from the ship and proceed on foot and/or jetpack, and this is where Outer Wilds starts to get slightly scary simply through sheer scale; despite everything in the solar system being miniaturised you are still very small in comparison to a planet, and Outer Wilds goes out of its way to make you feel it. Because everything is so small, orbital periods and distances are much reduced and it is extremely overwhelming to be plodding across the surface of a planet that feels like it’s whizzing through space at a million miles an hour and is only inches away from dropping straight into the sun. Your suit has a limited oxygen supply, and you’re constantly reminded of this fact by your astronaut’s laboured breathing as they stare at some impossibly huge celestial body that’s just hoved into view. I’ve always found proper space environments to be absolutely terrifying3 and despite its cartoon proportions Outer Wilds is very much a proper space environment. It is big, it is beautiful, and it is utterly lethal.

Seriously, it’s a damn good thing that death is a necessary and expected part of the game because you will find yourself dying a lot in Outer Wilds. Sometimes it’s a rather prosaic death, like misjudging a jetpack jump and falling to your death or getting your spacesuit torn and running out of oxygen, but most of the time it’s something far more unusual. I’ve been flicked off of a comet and left to drift helplessly through space thanks to gravity from other nearby bodies pulling me away; had that same comet slam into the sun while I was in the process of exploring it; executed a slight course correction around a planet only for the planet’s moon to suddenly appear in my path moving very quickly in the opposite direction; been blasted into space by a water geyser; and accidentally launched myself into space by getting a little too enthusiastic with the jetpack thrust. And these are the relatively boring deaths, the ones I can talk about without getting too spoilery.  I’ve died far more times than this, and in far more ridiculous ways, and that’s partly because death is so cheap in Outer Wilds. It almost never takes more than a couple of minutes to get back to where you were when you died and you can’t otherwise lose your progress in a game that’s so intentionally progress-less, so you feel free to take more risks than you might do otherwise — and so you end up experiencing first-hand just how many ways Outer Wilds has of killing you. After all, there’s nothing that quite rams home just how dangerous an environment like repeatedly dying in it.

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While I do feel that Outer Wilds takes a perverse pleasure in using the time loop as an excuse to murder you, that’s not all it uses it for. There’s a fair chunk of exploration that’s time-sensitive, with some areas only opening up in the latter half of the loop and others being closed off or destroyed if you dawdle too much and don’t reach them quickly enough. Most of the time it’s the work of a few minutes to figure out how you should be using the time loop to your advantage in a given situation, and it’s quite a pleasing feeling when you solve a puzzle that requires you to take the passage of time into account; it’s nice that it has a set of rules that’s consistent enough for you to eventually be able to predict how an environment will evolve over time. None of the time-based puzzles are particularly complicated as Outer Wilds is not particularly a puzzle game; it’s much more about solving a set of wider mysteries than it is specific mechanical problems.

However, it’s here that we come to the first of my two beefs with the game: while there is a way for you to speed the loop up so that you don’t have to wait around to access a time-locked location, some of the timing required is so precise that you can’t use it. This meant that there were several occasions, particularly towards the end of the game, when I was standing around tapping my foot waiting for a thing to happen so that I could carry on with my exploration. It’s also a problem that there’s no in-game way of ending a loop early short of killing yourself; sometimes you’ll know that the thing you want to do isn’t possible in this loop any more and so you want to get on with the next one, but the only way of doing this is to quit out to the main menu and reload the game. As unusual as it is, Outer Wilds isn’t the first game to incorporate the idea of a time loop, and I feel like it could have learned from its predecessors — for example, Majora’s Mask somewhat avoided this problem by handing you a schedule and letting you warp back and forth between different points in the loop, and it would have been nice if Outer Wilds had let me do the same thing.

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(My other beef has to do with the keyboard controls for flying the spaceship. For 99% of the game’s length these were perfectly fine just so long as I didn’t try to land on anything smaller than a planet. However, the end of the game requires you to do some fairly deft maneuvering through a hazardous environment with very small bursts of thrust, and this is literally impossible to do with the keyboard controls which have no intermediate settings between “zero thrust” and “maximum thrust”. Outer Wilds does open with a big splash screen saying it’s best played with a controller, and I did attempt to use mine; however it would only recognise my controller inputs approximately half of the time. My subsequent messy, violent deaths thanks to the inadequacy of the keyboard controls almost provoked a ragequit.)

A word about the planets themselves before I finish — do you remember the impossible planets from Interstellar? I got quite annoyed about those at the time because Interstellar was trying to pass itself off as scientifically accurate, but I can’t deny that they’re imaginative. The planets of Outer Wilds are cut from the same cloth, but dialled up to eleven; thankfully there’s nothing even remotely realistic about Outer Wilds’ solar system so they’re much easier for me to swallow. Each of them is uniquely different, and much like Outer Wilds itself each of them is based around a single incredibly ambitious concept taken to its logical extremes. Most of them look perfectly normal from space, and it’s only once you land and explore a bit that you realise just how weird — and just how dangerous — they really are. Landing on each of them for the first time is accompanied by a nervous thrill of excitement as you don’t quite know what you’re going to find; I remember jetting down onto the surface of one and repeatedly muttering “Christ. Christ.” under my breath as it slowly dawned on me what I was looking at. That little frisson of danger never quite goes away, even after you’ve thoroughly explored them and have grown wise to their various hazards. The planets of Outer Wilds are possibly its greatest triumph, even more so than the streamlined design around the time loop, and pretty much the whole review would have been about them if I thought I could do it without completely ruining the game for anyone who hadn’t played it yet.

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As it is I’m going to have to wrap things up there. This is usually where I’d put my summary paragraph, but I already used up most of my quota of effusive praise for Outer Wilds in the opening and I’m running out of synonyms for “imaginative”. That was the most shocking thing about it, for me; perhaps I’d been lulled into indolence by a diet of too many designed-by-focus-group AAA titles, but I was completely blindsided by Outer Wilds’ level of ambition in coming up with a collection of incredibly off-the-wall concepts and trying to realise them in a video game. What’s even more astonishing is that it mostly succeeds. Outer Wilds has been a genuinely exhilarating game to play; I was very happy that somebody had attempted this, and even happier that it had come together so well, and despite the slightly-frustrating end run I’m sad that I’ve finished it because it means going back to the relative humdrum of more conventional games.

  1. Although it mercifully lets you skip the tutorial.
  2. Or Edge Of Tomorrow, but I suspect more people have seen Groundhog Day.
  3. I think I mentioned years ago in my Alien: Isolation review that the scariest part of the game wasn’t anything to do with the Alien, but was instead the bit where you’re forced to do an EVA by the light of a bloody great gas giant.
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One thought on “Thoughts: Outer Wilds

  1. Delly says:

    I love your reviews

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