I’ve been here before: Outer Wilds

Sam Long

I’ve been here before: Outer Wilds
August 18, 2020 Sam Long

I have fallen into a wormhole and been spat out at the very edge of a solar system. The debris of an alien space station lies scattered around me; lost to time, it drifts further into the void. My spacecraft is 15 kilometres away, with no means of recovery. I am entirely alone. My oxygen tank is depleted. I can hear my character gasp for air with each passing second, watching the steam form on the glass of my helmet. All I can do now is stare out into the empty void of space, watching the sun expand in a brilliant blue flame… getting closer…

I wake up at my campsite, on my home planet. It was all a dream.

There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who consider Outer Wilds the best game of 2019, and those who haven’t played it yet. I have played it, and can say with certainty that it is the best game of last year. This game is a masterpiece of the action adventure genre. Let us talk about why you should play Outer Wilds.

Outer Wilds is an action adventure game developed by Mobius Digital and was originally released in 2019 on the Epic Games platform. If you’re unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding the Epic Store, I won’t go into it here; but to summarise: Outer Wilds was the second game to sign an exclusivity deal with Epic Games, who promised them a larger cut of the profits if they only sold their game on Epic’s platform for a year. A lot of people didn’t like this and boycotted the game, doing it the greatest disservice in not giving it a chance. However, that year is almost up; and on June 18th, Outer Wilds will be available on the much larger platform Steam. If this article can get even one person to give it a second glance, then I can safely say I have done my job.

I am put in a precarious position because I must explain to you why this game is worth your time without spoiling it for so many others. Mobius Digital took a novel concept — Groundhog Day in space — and crafted an amazing game in the 22-minute gameplay cycle. So much of what makes Outer Wilds great is the thrill of discovering its world (in this case, worlds), as you navigate a breathtaking space sandbox before the sun goes supernova and you are thrust back to square one.

And where is square one? The player starts out on their home planet of Timber Hearth, on the night of your first voyage as Outer Wild Ventures’ newest astronaut. You awaken from your pre-launch night camping under the stars and the game begins. The very first thing you see upon opening your eyes is an explosion above your planet, followed by something racing across the star-pinned night. Was it a shooting star? A satellite? The remnants of an ancient alien race?

It is your job to go out and investigate the mysteries of your solar system, armed with nothing but your omni-directional jetpack and ship that is surprisingly fire-resistant considering it is mostly made out of wood. Outer Wilds does an excellent job in hooking you with a piece of a much larger puzzle and letting you play detective. As you find the clues spread out across the five planets that build to a much larger narrative, you’ll learn of the Nomi, the race of aliens that occupied the solar system before you who have seemingly gone extinct. However, remnants of their civilisation remain for you to explore and, though which, learn the secrets of the universe.

There are no objective markers and no grand quest in Outer Wilds. There are no invisible walls, no roadblocks to progression, nothing. Do you want to find out what happened to the Nomi? You can. Want to chase after that unidentified flying object? Hop in your spaceship and set sail. Want to get viciously eaten by giant fish monsters? I don’t know why you would, but knock yourself out. You can finish this game in twenty minutes or twenty hours; it’s up to you.

In Outer Wilds, you are driven by your own curiosity to consume volumes of lore about the universe, the Nomi, and the events that took place. This is done by reading the stone tablets that have recorded the Nomi’s conversations across the system. You quickly get an understanding of what the Nomi were like; not so much omnipotent creators a la the Engineers from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and more just a group of quirky scientists who decided one day to throw a bunch of chemicals in a vat to see what happened. Like you, they share a passion for uncovering the truths of the universe. You’ll learn about the different Nomi stationed on each planet; their names, their personalities and their hobbies. You’ll gain an insight into the state of the solar system. Two Nomi in particular are like that one unbearable lovey-dovey couple who put everything on display for their peers to groan at. It’s moments like these that not only make reading more enjoyable, but also help the Nomi feel like real characters that lived centuries ago. Exploring through the now-crumbling ruins of their once-great civilisation feels even more harrowing. I was left with one burning question: what happened to the Nomi and where are they now?

The game is heavily focused on these kinds of questions, that can only be answered by reading and learning through environmental storytelling. Along with the lack of direction, your curiosity can quickly turn to frustration when you can’t find the answers you’re looking for. If all this doesn’t sound enjoyable to you then Outer Wilds might not be your type of game. However, as you slug through the few lows, you will be elevated by many satisfying highs as you reach the end point of one mystery, only for it to reveal the missing piece you’ve been searching for in another. 

This is not all Outer Wilds has to offer, though, and it does go to some lengths to change its formula; such as having various puzzles on each planet for you to solve. Some require you to make full use of all you’ve learnt and others rely on your skill with the jetpack and skill with the movement mechanics and physics engine. In one instance, you must pilot your ship and land it on an orbiting comet without breaking your ship or accidently being pulled into the sun. It requires careful, precise movements, and you’ll find yourself practicing them the more you play the game.

This change in formula is also extended to each of the game’s five planets you’ll be exploring throughout the game. Each one is beautifully crafted, visually stunning and distinct. Giant’s Deep is a fierce and foaming ocean that covers the entire world, with only a few islands for you to land your ship upon. The skies are filled with violent hurricanes that can throw those islands into the vacuum of space, only for the planet’s gravity to pull them back down. This affects your character, too, as I unfortunately learned when I attempted a seemingly-survivable jump off a ledge and promptly died — not realising I was twice as heavy here as I was on Timber Hearth.

On the other hand, Brittle Hollow’s surface is a cragged wasteland that is slowly being cannibalised by its own core which has turned into a black hole. The more time passes, the more the planet consumes itself; but you can enter the sprawling underground city made of hanging stalagmites. This is where the Nomi lived and researched, and is filled with useful information you’ll need if you want to properly explore the universe. However, the longer you spend on Brittle Hollow, the more you risk falling into that black hole, as the planet’s structure begins to fail and it collapses in on itself.

If you remember anything from Hello Games’ No Man Sky, it’s that it is arguably crushed under the weight of its own ambition; preaching the immense endlessness of its universe, yet offering nothing to do when your boots hit the ground. Outer Wilds is the opposite; taking place on a smaller stage, but one brimming with so much content that you can sink hours into filling every log entry, traversing every planet, and uncovering every mystery. In this aspect, Outer Wilds is worth the £20 asking price.

This is a good time to talk about death in Outer Wilds and its impact on gameplay. Your character is stuck in an endless time loop; if you die, you wake back up at the beginning of the game. All your progress is stored via your ship’s computer, saving you from having to memorise everything. It displays each log in a sort of spider’s web, helping you visualise which pieces of information relate to each other and hinting at which planet you need to visit to find the next clue. Death is inconsequential as a result, as you don’t lose anything because of it. While at first glance it might sound tedious having everything reset, the game’s clockwork universe is actually one of its greatest strengths.

I was amazed the first time I came across the Hourglass Twins; two planets that orbit each other so closely that you can use your jetpack to hop between them. The Ash Twin is a barren desert made entirely of sand and the Ember Twin is a husk planet of red rock with canyons carved along its surface. At first, I only explored the Ember Twin, thinking there might be something hidden in the depths of its canyons. When I reached the bottom, I noticed a layer of sand steadily rising, lifting me out of the canyon. I looked up and noticed the Ash Twin orbiting overhead and a cascade of sand was being pulled by the Ember Twin’s gravity. As it drained more sand, I realised that not only would I have limited time to explore the Ember Twin’s secrets, but the longer I waited, the more would be revealed on the Ash Twin as it emptied itself. This not only highlighted some of the feats the game’s physics could achieve, but also the extent the developers have gone to make this a dynamic, active world. 

Things like this occur on every planet. Some might not happen until moments before the sun explodes, while others can happen the second you wake up, prompting you to race there before it is too late. If you miss it, you will need to restart the loop. Death isn’t an inconvenience; it’s another tool at the player’s disposal to learn these timings — and it’s something you’ll be familiar with after a few dozen resets.

It might seem like I have given everything away, but honestly, I’ve only scratched the surface on what this game has to offer. To say any more would be doing you the greatest disservice; not letting you experience Outer Wilds for yourself. There is so much waiting for you beyond the main menu: your first death, the first time you watch the sun explode, all of it.

Its only drawback is that you will only get to experience it once.