When I was five years old I was enamoured by space. I owned countless books which illustrated the wonderment present in our solar system, I could tell you countless facts about every single planet within it, and late at night I would often pretend that my bed was a spaceship and that I was the sole astronaut embarking on my first journey to space. Space captured my imagination at a young age, and for a long time, it was one of only a few interests (alongside dinosaurs and manatees). As the years went by, this passion for space and dinosaurs began to dissipate and did not surface again (my love for manatees, however, never did subside and never will). Well, it would be more accurate to say that my passion for space did not surface again until I picked up a game called Outer Wilds.
In Outer Wilds the potential to discover something is ever present. At one point early on in my playthrough I took great care to safely land my ship on a small island found on Giants Deep. Eager to explore, I paid little attention to the gravity pads that were present on the island, and jumped out of my ship with little concern as to their purpose. Once I was satisfied with my exploration I made my way back to where my ship should have been but it was no longer there. Perplexed, I took a second to look up, and was utterly dumbfounded as to how my ship had ended up over twenty kilometres away from where I was standing. I would later discover that the cyclones present on the planet wander freely, picking up anything in their path and flinging it into space, including the islands themselves. I internalise the need to hunker my ship down using the gravity pads in the future and move on with my journey.
Visiting Brittle Hollow held a similar tale. As I explored the planet for the first time, I suddenly heard a crumbling noise, which was quickly followed by the entire ground beneath me giving way. As I fell into the abyss, waiting for the inevitable crunch that would end my life, I collided with a falling piece of rock and began to spiral out of control. Death, however, did not arrive. Instead I was met with a bright flash and, suddenly, I was floating in space several kilometres away from where my ship was. It was only upon returning to Brittle Hollow in my next life that I discovered the culprit for this phenomenon; a black hole in the centre of the planet that was determined to engulf everything near it. Many of these moments help contribute to the sense of cosmic horror that is ever-present. Looking down into a dark crevasse, deciding whether to go deeper into the depths of the dark water in front of you, or finally being brave enough to go further into Dark Bramble to find what awaits within the mist are moments which bring with it a certain degree of uncertainty of the unknown. This, I believe, is when the game manages to encapsulate the feeling of exploring uncharted territory in a way that no other game has ever managed to accomplish, but perhaps more importantly, it fuels rich player driven storylines which feel unique to each individual.
This sense of discovery is further enhanced by the trust that the developers, Mobius Digital, place within the player themselves. Outer Wilds, arguably, is a detective game. It is only through the player’s discovery of each fragmented portion of the larger narrative that they can begin to put it all together and begin to understand the entire picture. The iterative loop, starting with you waking up next to a campfire and ending with the sun exploding twenty two minutes later, is crucial to how all of these fragments are discovered. Like your favourite roguelite, the end of every run brings incremental improvement, however, in Outer Wilds it is your knowledge of the universe itself that is built upon in each run. The interface of the ship log provides a visualisation of this process – an interconnected web of puzzle pieces that must be assembled – with the player being responsible for figuring out the exact significance of these events. Often throughout my time with Outer Wilds I would find myself floating in space, with no hope of ever finding my way back to hard ground before I suffocated due to a lack of oxygen. Whilst in many games this might come across as frustrating, in Outer Wilds, the minute or two before my inevitable death acted as a brief opportunity to contemplate. During these small respites I would discuss theories with my girlfriend, talk about what we wished to explore next, and make a game plan for what had to be done.
And yet, the most impressive aspect of Outer Wilds is not this sense of discovery that is around every corner, nor is it the way that it promotes the agency of the player to piece these discoveries together on their own, but it is instead how the solar system itself is rather small in scale yet, initially, feels absolutely incomprehensible in its scope. The complexity of each planet dwarfs the player, yet as they acquire more knowledge about each planet and begin to grasp how the key mechanics interact with one another, a level of intimacy with each location is achieved. I came to the realisation towards the end of my time with Outer Wilds that I had committed almost every route I needed to take through almost every planet to memory. This goes a long way in achieving a true sense of place and by the time you reach the end of your journey, these planets become more than simply a canvas for the player to express themselves in, as many game environments end up being. You take your final steps towards the conclusion of the game, knowing that soon you will be leaving these planets for good, and a sense of nostalgia sets in.
When I reflect on my favourite games of all time, I can identify two key components that they all share in common. First, each and every one of them have managed to invoke a strong emotive reaction. The Last of Us: Part 2 managed to put me in a constant state of anxiety as each story beat unfolded, whilst Celeste masterfully told a story of learning to accept one’s own shortcomings and to embrace them as strengths. My emotive reaction towards Outer Wilds did not arise as a result of the narrative itself, nor did it arise as a result of me drawing a parallel between the themes of the game and my own life experience. My emotive reaction was instead sparked by the clashing together of the game’s mechanics to create events that I could not have previously envisioned being within a video game. It not only reinvigorated a childlike wonder for space within me that had been long lost but it also forced me to rethink what my conception of emergent gameplay actually is. The next thing that all of my favourite games share in common is that, after finishing the game, I tend to think of them for months after. They come up in my conversations with friends, I barrage my parents with endless details that they have no context for, and I find myself reminiscing about my favourite moments late at night when I am on my own. Six months on, barely a week goes by without Outer Wilds popping into my head, and for a split second I wish I could be roasting marshmallows over a fire on Timber Hearth.
The inescapable truth is that I will never be able to experience Outer Wilds again in the same way. Outer Wilds is centred around the fantasy of being the first person to venture beyond what is known and, unfortunately, this is only possible when you do not know what is waiting for you beyond the horizon. Yet, I wish I could. A quick look at the subreddit for Outer Wilds suggest that many others feel the same yearning to be able to take their first steps on Timber Hearth, to discover the mysteries of Brittle Hollow, or to embrace the outright frustration of trying to crash land onto the sun station for the umpteenth time. However, more significantly, my time with Outer Wilds demonstrates the power that video games have to reignite a long lost passion. Even if it were only for a brief moment in time, I was able to reconnect with my five year old self, and take a second to contemplate the stars alongside him. All of this results in Outer Wilds being by far the most beautiful experience that I have had with video games in my twenty two years playing them. Outer Wilds is my favourite game of all time.
If you enjoyed the article and would like to join the conversation, meet like-minded gamers or find people to play with then consider joining us in the Jolly Gamers Discord server by following the link: https://discord.gg/Ss5mK3p