Outer Wilds (2019)

It’s rare that I get to play a game that is like nothing I’ve ever played before. Some games use innovative or unique ideas, but usually follow a previously established formula. Outer Wilds is a game that I can say is genuinely a special experience. It is the best candidate in the argument video games as an art form, and I hope that everybody gets to play and enjoy it as much as I did. Outer Wilds is a sci-fi tale filled with mystery, discovery, existential-dread, and hope. There is no violence or conflict, just a lone alien exploring their solar system. If you want to play this game, and I highly recommend you do, please do not read any further and go play it for yourself. I avoid discussing spoilers, but this truly is a game that should be experienced with no prior knowledge.

The premise of Outer Wilds is similar to that of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the world as you know it is destroyed in some unstoppable cosmic calamity. In Outer Wilds, this equates to a 22-minute loop that resets whenever the player dies. At the end of the loop, the star in center of the solar system collapses and goes supernova. For some mysterious reason, the player character retains all their knowledge of the previous loops, but everyone around them seems blissfully unaware of the impending doom.

You play as a young alien, destined to explore the planets of the solar system. You fly a rinky-dink spacecraft around the void of space, examining and gathering knowledge of an ancient alien race that once inhabited the solar system. Perhaps, by piecing together any clues and text that you find, you may be able to uncover the secrets of the solar system. This is no ordinary solar system after all. It’s filled with incredibly interesting planets and other… things. The Hourglass Twins for instance are two tiny planets that orbit around each other. The gravity between the two shifts sand back and forth, revealing structures as time passes. Brittle Hollow on the other hand is a shell of a planet held together by a black hole in its core. Every location in the game has some intriguing feature about it, which all become essential to unveiling the cosmic mystery ahead of you.

As I mentioned previously, there is no combat or violence in Outer Wilds. You simply travel around the solar system, gathering information left by the alien race which came before you. The scale of the game is tiny, making it easy to get around quickly within the 22-minute time limit. Knowledge is progress. There are no levels or experience or any tangible form of progression. Instead, the knowledge gained is used to unlock and explore new areas. It is almost a sort of puzzle game in this sense. The alien texts that you read will give you hints and subtly guide you on where to go next. It’s reminiscent of a treasure hunt where one clue leads to the next.

Part of the brilliance of Outer Wilds lies in how smooth this treasure hunt of knowledge was. You could start on any planet, gather some information, and that would lead you to another planet or location. Combining some clues may lead to another important site. Luckily the game keeps track of all the information you find in the ship log. It outlines everything you find in a concise manner, and links together certain components. It even lets you know if you have missed information in an area that you explored. I never got the feeling of not knowing where to go, there was always something obvious to explore and discover.

The idea of cosmic horror is poorly represented in most media. It is the existential anxiety that accompanies the knowledge that life itself is exceedingly fragile when faced with the uncontrollable, unknowable, and unfathomable dangers of the universe. We don’t know what’s out in space. We barely even know what’s on our own planet. I am far more terrified when learning about false vacuums, gamma ray bursts, or black holes then I am of traditional horror monsters. Humanity doesn’t know much about these phenomena, but we know enough that space is ruthless and there is nothing we can do about it. Humanity could blink out of existence in an instant, and we wouldn’t know it was coming and there would be no way to prevent it. No piece of media captures this feeling better than Outer Wilds.

I was genuinely terrified when facing down the blackhole in the center of Brittle Hollow. What would happen if I fell in? Equally as anxiety inducing was the hopelessness when I crashed my ship and was launched into the void of space. The feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness pervades Outer Wilds. No matter what you do, the star explodes every 22 minutes, but you continue on anyway. Hoping to somehow defeat inevitability. Despite Outer Wilds triggering my existential dread, I came away from the game uplifted and hopeful. I won’t spoil the ending, but I was satisfied by the conclusion. All the secrets and knowledge you learn throughout the game culminates in one final loop, in which the fate of the universe becomes apparent. It may be melancholic, but it was equally peaceful and reassuring.

My solitary issue with Outer Wilds was with its controls. Getting used to the controls, flying the spacecraft in particular, has a bit of a learning curve. There were countless times that I flung myself into the star while trying to land on the innermost planets. Not to mention that the various celestial bodies have their own gravitational pull. Getting used to different gravity on each planet can be jarring. Luckily Outer Wilds is not a platformer, so it’s not like you need to make precise jumps or maneuvers very often. Nevertheless, there were a few instances where I was mildly irritated by how difficult it was to safely land my spacecraft.

Outer Wilds has quickly become one of my favorite games of all time. Exploration is underutilized in most games, and this game does it better than anything I’ve played before. This is a game like no other, and it captures feelings that are rarely explored in media. I wish I could hop back into my tiny wooden spaceship and experience Outer Wilds for the first time again. It is for these reasons that I give Outer Wilds a 10/10. It may not be like any game that you’ve played before, but Outer Wilds is a quintessential work of science-fiction and gaming.  

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