Outer Wilds (2019)
Mobius | Reviewed on PS4
Intergalactic investigation at its finest
The indie title, Outer Wilds, despite its planetary exploration, quantum anomalies, and repeating solar supernovas, manages to tell a surprisingly grounded story. Being able to foil the spiraling story of an ancient, alien civilization with one that sees you sitting around a campfire with your friends is no easy feat, and yet, this title does so in a genuinely heartfelt fashion. Outer Wilds involves a Groundhog Day-style timeloop, 22 minutes long, that inevitably ends in the sun going supernova, and destroying the universe and all who inhabit it. It’s up to you to pick up the trail of the Nomai (a precursor race) on a handful of neighbouring planets, and unravel their secrets; you’ll have to uncover the nature of the never-ending loop, and find out if there is a way to change the fate of your own people. It’s heavy stuff – nothing to do with gravity – but you might want to take a breather, and roast a marshmallow or two along the way.
You start on the planet of Timber Hearth, in a quaint, forested village inhabited by the four-eyed Hearthians. This area has multiple tutorial options, from teaching you the basics of zero-gravity travel with your jetpack, to a quick rundown of the dangers of ghost matter. Once you’ve visited the observatory – which offers a quick snapshot of many of the creatures and curiosities that you’ll encounter during your travels – and obtained your launch codes, you’re free to explore the galaxy at your leisure. This title follows in the footsteps of puzzle games like Myst, offering no a linear pathways, or explanation of what the game requires of you. It’s completely up to you where and when you choose to explore – which can be both refreshing, and perplexing. While all of your discoveries will be permanently stored in your ship’s log for you to review when you choose, there is no way of knowing when (or if) you’ve discovered all a planet has to offer. Exploration is truly the core of this title, and you’ll get out of it what you put into it. Because the heart of both the gameplay and the narrative lie in this intergalactic sleuthing, Outer Wilds requires you to be patient and thorough.
Exploring the varying landscapes of the planets in this game was absolutely wild – the dangers lurking in Dark Bramble, and the volatile environment of Giant’s Deep had me constantly on edge, and very much in awe. I died. A lot. But the constant promise of new discoveries, and getting just a little bit father than I had the last time had me dutifully punching in those launch codes, and resuming my search after every mishap. Each new piece of Nomai text, building left unsearched, and unidentified signal to follow drove me forward. The endless time loop always felt too fast; just as I had dug into exploring a new area, or found a revelatory piece of information, the strangely somber, peaceful musical track that signalled the beginning of the supernova would kick in. I would constantly be telling myself: just one more go; just one more sweep of this area before moving on. And then I would find something else. And repeat. I spent hours faithfully combing each area, and I don’t doubt that I still managed to miss a lot.
Finding the messages left behind by the Nomai were a key element to keeping this story of galactic proportions grounded and relatable. Though in many ways, the Nomai feel as far away and foreign to the Hearthians, as say, the people of the medieval ages do to us, translating their texts and exploring their settlements created a unique sense of connection to their ancient civilization. In the same way that learning monks used to doodle in the margins of hand-copied manuscripts, learning about the Nomai, and reading their personal messages made them feel much closer. It’s a brilliant way that Outer Wilds gets its audience invested in characters that we will never meet or know. One in particular, left behind by a student questioning their ability to live up to their mentor, and missing them terribly, really struck me. These intensely human moments, between dodging satellites, and launching scout probes, made the story of this title something truly unique. It’s a narrative that works on both a grand and small scale, a feat that is not easy to pull off. As this review is spoiler free, I won’t get into its intricacies, but it’s a story worth experiencing. Indie gems are often known for their storytelling, and Outer Wilds is no exception.
It’s also going to be worth your while to seek out your fellow intergalactic travellers, once you’re cruising your way around the solar system. They’ll give you advice, and swap information which will come in handy as you try to piece the narrative together. Each one of the Hearthians that have set out before you play a unique instrument, and you’ll be able to locate them on each of the planets by following your Signalscope, attuned to their sounds. I loved seeking out these travellers (Riebeck on the banjo being my favourite) simply because it was nice to know that in the vast, soul-sucking blackness of space, you weren’t alone. I also appreciated the nod to the universality of music – it is, after all, a constant that has bound humanity through the ages. The music in Outer Wilds was actually one of its strongest aspects, as the somewhat understated tracks, while sporadic, were impactful when they did appear.
Despite the engaging way that Outer Wilds presents its exploration, and effortlessly encourages the player to keep seeking, to keep finding, I often found the controls holding me back from wholly enjoying the experience. Both the ship controls, and the jetpack (which serves as your main mode of transportation while on-surface) are unwieldy to handle. While my time with the game eventually made me better at piloting both of them, I still found them to be frustratingly fiddly, even after hours of play. Some of the platforming sections, and in particular, a certain area of Brittle Hollow that required some precise navigation, felt nearly impossible. I was sucked into the black hole, and spat out at White Hole Station more times than I care to admit. It was frustrating to have to repeat the same process, 3, 4, even 5 times simply to reach a certain area after making a mistake. Instead of feeling rewarded by the end, I was only feeling relived at the prospect of never having to repeat that particular sequence again. In some ways, while novel, the 22-minute repeating cycle of gameplay undermines the thrill of exploration. The inevitable annoyance of playing through the same areas, or dying 3 minutes into a loop, and having to restart again, really pulled me out of the experience. I also found the save system to be annoying initially, as you’re unable to save manually, and the game only does so at the end of the time loop. It’s best to have an hour or two carved out to enjoy this title, as it’s not easy to make significant progress in small chunks. The game does, however, save when you die (as you’re forced to restart the time loop) so if you’re looking to quit before your time is up, you can always just yeet yourself into the sun and call it a day. Or, you can use Gabbro’s meditation method, which automatically takes you to the next loop, but that’s not nearly as fun.
Though occasionally frustrating, Outer Wilds presents a unique experience to explore a world with few limitations. If you’ve the patience to persevere through the cycles of trial and error that its structure demands, it’s rewarding in a way that few other games are. Because its story is so ambiguous, it’s the main driving force behind the game’s exploration. While initially feeling like a collection of dissonant pieces, its satisfying to see them all come together to form the bigger picture as you follow the trail of intergalactic breadcrumbs. Its narrative draws attention to the threads that unite us – whether it’s unbridled ambition, or the innate joys of playing music – and remains heartfelt throughout. It’s equal parts hope and melancholy, where the death of a civilization comes with the promise that life begins again. In many ways, Outer Wilds is about eventualities, or inevitabilities, but between these hyper important narrative beats, there also exists a simple expression about the joy of being alive. It’s in the thrill of discovery, the kinships that transcend time and space, and most importantly, the insatiable curiosity that drives us to look outward, beyond ourselves.