Games of 2020: Outer Wilds

I asked a friend if they had played outer wilds and they responded they tried it and weren’t too fussed about it – but they said, ‘I know it’s the game all the intellectuals like’. I was kind of surprised by this. I thought the game was clever but to me, it was just a really good version of the things that you do in lots of video games, exploring a world, finding hidden locations, trying to solve puzzles. Outer Wilds does so many things that are just extremely my shit and from talking to people who didn’t like it, some of these are the things that caused people to fall off of the game. Chiefly, these are the lack of clearly defined goals at the start and the difficulty curve of piloting your ship.

Personally, I found myself carried into the narrative by the sense of mystery and awe of lifting off your quaint home planet for the first time and the nuggets of info parcelled out by the game’s intro – plus the mystery of what the hell is up with that creepy statue – then I found some mysterious ruins on the moon, heard some cool music and translated some alien text and I was hooked. But I know some people felt disoriented or not motivated by the lack of a clearer sequence of events to follow or the general lack of capital-A action in the game.

Piloting the ship was extremely awkward and perilous at first but after a few expeditions I came to enjoy the feeling of gradual mastery that emerged. By the time I reached the game’s final objective I no longer had to think about how to get where I wanted and there was a real sense that I had been trained for this moment by the game and I felt really ready for the challenge. The experience was hard won after all the many times I forgot to slow down and smashed my ship to bits, or left it parked on a piece of planet that was a lot less stable than I thought.

Sorry old girl

The sense of peril never really goes away as your little ship comes face to face with massive forces like planet-wide hurricanes and a hollow world whose crust gradually peels away into a black hole at its centre. Not to mention all the terrible ways you can personally die, crushed in a rising tide of sand, thrown into the sun, punctured and suffocated by cacti or sapped of your life by “ghost matter”. This is to say nothing of the inhabitants of Dark Bramble. If you know, you know.

Outer wilds is one of those rare games that does not talk down to the player, it puts you in this weird, compelling situation, trusts you to figure it out yourself piece by piece and to scurry all over the place, nibbling on tidbits of knowledge, a structure that is perfect for someone like myself who cannot focus on one thing for long. This knowledge is key as there are no mechanical upgrades to pursue to get you through the game, just a greater understanding of how this world works, who lived here and what they created. Everything you need to finish the game is there the very first time you play it, you are just blissfully ignorant. Then 20 mins or so into your maiden voyage you hear the urgent music fade in and you are bathed in blue light as your solar system perishes for the first of many times.

Music plays a big role in this game. The central theme of the titular space program the Outer Wilds Ventures still echoes in my head and my shower and the sad, pulsing synths of the “times up” music never failed to strike fear into my heart about my inescapable fate. You are not the first explorer to leave your home planet and your predecessors are scattered all around the solar system, each taking some time out to play a little banjo or bongos or whistle a melody. If you scan the solar system with your extremely cool gadget called a signal scope, you will catch snippets of their music as astral bodies drift by, and occasionally the signals overlap, creating an ensemble. I honestly found it moving that these disparate travellers carried this piece of home with them and kept a tune for each other despite their various degrees of peril and distance.

This is a good example of one of the big things I love about outer wilds’ design. The UI and navigation tools are entirely (apart from optional button prompts) diegetic. There is no mini map of the area you are exploring, you have to follow landmarks and directions written in ancient alien language, or scan for a signal to follow, or light up a dark cave by cleverly placing your little camera drone. You don’t even have a HUD on screen to tell you your health or oxygen unless you put on your space suit which has a gauge built in.

There’s something really pleasingly concrete and common sense-y about the way things are put together, it’s not realistic but it has a physical logic. If you’re low on oxygen, you occasionally can refill from a tank another traveller has but if not, go stand near a tree and you’ll fill right up! Your space ship seems to be mainly made of wood and held together with rope and once you learn more about the nature of this solar system, the mechanism by which it flies will become apparent to you even if this is never directly explained.

(It’s a weird inversion of the diegesis that the solar system map you have access to is in fact a real-time zoomed-out rendering of the planets you can see in the distance ((you can even watch the supernova on it)) but it’s uncertain whether your character is meant to be seeing this or if it is an abstraction for the player’s point of view. One which just happens to be generated internally within the ‘physical’ world of the game, if not it’s fiction.)

I think this design choice subtly really helps underpin the central goal that an understanding of your situation can be achieved by getting to grips with the materiality of this solar system. There’s a great character in the game who understands some of the quantum nonsense that goes on in this world and uses it to make a kind of cool poetic art that reminds me so much of myself at uni that I felt jealous on behalf of my 23 year old self for not coming up with it. (This also puts Outer Wilds in the sub-category of indie games that feature art, something I need to remember to get in to at some point).

Blah. This game kind of fucked me up because I want every game to do what this game did but I know that they can’t, and this experience can in some ways never be repeated because it was the first thing like this that I have ever played. I honestly enjoyed everything about it, even if I think it’s not perfect, I just love everything that it does and everything that it is trying to do. Also, the ending was super memorable and satisfying and felt like a really worthy pay-off for the work it took to get there – as well as being the kind of bitter-sweet bullshit that I enjoy. Some of the more interesting themes come to a head in the end section of the game so there’s a lot to talk about. I might do a spoiler post discussing the ending at some point but I’m currently flattering myself that someone might read this and want to go play the game so I won’t get in to it here.

Hey, if you’ve read all this and you’re an intellectual like me and the people that like this game, thank you for your time and maybe go and play Outer Wilds.

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