Outer Wilds Explores the Pain of Hope in a Clockwork Solar System

Warning: contains plot spoilers for Outer Wilds.

As the technologies that power games become more versatile, and as the backgrounds of the people making them become more diverse (albeit seemingly at a snail’s pace), so our historical genre tags become ever more inadequate. Those tags: beat-em-up, racer, platformer, originally served as shorthand, providing insight as to the verbiage of what players can expect to do in the game. This is what makes playing a game such as Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds, which resolutely defies simple categorisation, such an enticing experience.

The game casts the player as the latest recruit of Outer Wilds Ventures, on the eve of their first trip into space. Preparations are finalised, tutorials are provided and ultimately, we escape the atmosphere of our home planet Timber Hearth, in a spaceship that seems to have primarily been whittled by hand.

22 minutes later, the sun eats the solar system. 

Blinking, we awake once more at the campfire we started at 22 minutes ago. This time, we already know how to launch, pilot and land our ship, having learned the first time around, so off we go. In the Outer Wilds, this is how progress is made, with knowledge acquired through each looping cycle of imminent collapse.

Is it a space exploration sim? Sure, but not in the galaxy traversing, cockpit dwelling manner of Elite Dangerous or No Man’s Sky. The approach to space traversal here lies somewhere between the bobbing physicality of Pilotwings 64, and the orbit defying stunts of Super Mario Galaxy, joyfully and clumsily bumping between celestial bodies of interest.

Is it a narrative game? Sure, it’s narrative is absolutely key to approaching, and ultimately solving, the game’s central mystery. But this is narrative through archaeology, don’t expect story beats metered out in letterboxed cutscenes, or even via the tightly choreographed, funneled level designs of a pure walking simulator. Significant narrative breakthroughs typically come during achingly lonely explorations of remote environments, or drifting at the edge of the solar system and taking in a familiar vista armed with new intelligence.

Is it an open world game? Ahh the poisoned chalice, ‘open world’ – the term once imbued with the potential and responsibility of putting the player into landscapes stretched out not only in acreage but possibility, now more likely to conjure images of map screens dripping in icons, and tedious resource grind. Sure though! It’s an open world in the sense that after a brief tutorial, you’re free to head in any direction within the solar system, but those prior caveats just do not apply: there isn’t even a map screen to hang any icons on, it is liberating. The first place you’ll head, incidentally, is straight into the sun – consider yourself warned.

What Outer Wilds actually is, above all these things, is a puzzle. Not a video game puzzle, in video game puzzles our protagonist idles by an inert device, camera off to one side as we rotate and slide its mechanisms until we successfully align the parts of the fresco/mainframe/statue, the device springs to life, and the way forward is revealed. In contrast, Outer Wilds is an actual puzzle, closer to a sudoku or magic box, in that once solved you will always possess the solution, and the enjoyment of interaction is in the discernment of that solution.

Speedrunners have done their thing and completed the game incredibly quickly, but the truth is that on comprehending and completing Outer Wilds we are all speedrunners, because the knowledge of how to perform the novel physical and mechanical interactions required to finish the game belong to you, in a way quite unlike any other game. Even games with well known die/try loops at their core such as the Dark Souls series offer some persistence: upgraded gear and narrative allegiances – Outer Wilds has no such thing, it is powered by epiphany. Oft quoted developer wisdom tells us that one of the hardest things games can do is make us feel smart – anyone coming to this solar system with an open heart is guaranteed to feel like a genius at least three times while playing Outer Wilds.

Riebeck takes it home.

This is at the core of why the game defies easy labelling. What the player is doing at any one time – piloting a spaceship, taking photographs, launching satellites, traversing hostile environments etc. is always key yet secondary to solving the puzzle. Consequently, trying to nail a video game category to it (think-em-up? Galaxy brain-er?) feels reductive, even cheap.

This may lead players to conclude that Outer Wilds is an impressive but dryly mechanical exercise, yet the story here is not only core to understanding the events that loop and unfold around us, but teaching us the scientific principles that this solar system runs on, which are then used to create solutions to problems within the game. Having played the early tutorial and familiarised oneself with the game’s translation tools, it can initially seem like the game has opted for a bog standard text and audio log crate-digging approach to narrative, but ultimately narrative and play merge in a way that is wholly more satisfying and could only be achieved in a game

The story of Outer Wilds broadly concerns the legacy of a race of beings called the Nomai. The game allows the player to trace the impact they had on a solar system they no longer inhabit. Because the Nomai are gone, and because of the non-linearity afforded to the player in how/to what extent they wish to piece together the story of the Nomai outside of a few key discoveries; each player’s narrative takes on a different shape – character fates, scientific milestones, interpersonal relationships – all served up in the order we discover them. Freed of the expectation to actively show us the history of the Nomai, their story takes on a plaintive, somber tone. These great scientists were not beyond the sentient desires of social status, success or love, and these desires form as much a part of their fingerprint on the solar system as any of their experiments or discoveries. In addition to its upcoming release on Switch, Annapurna Interactive have recently announced an expansion for Outer Wilds, named Echoes Of The Eye. The idea of adding more narrative to this perfectly formed object must have presented a huge challenge to the developers, and it will be fascinating to see if and how the new content sits alongside the base game.

With the Nomai nowhere to be found, we’re left to piece together the stated aims in their recorded history, and the actual consequences – intended or otherwise – of their actions on the solar system and its inhabitants. The two do not always align, expectations exceeding reality as so often in life, and there is playful richness in braiding these disparate narrative threads together, to the extent that finding optional snippets of history quickly becomes as compelling a driver of play as the completion of the game itself.

If this sounds lonely, it can be, poring through the sands of a lost civilisation was always destined to be. But it only takes a sliver of light to cut through the darkness, and aside from the player character, there are five further Travellers from Timber Hearth scattered throughout the solar system waiting to be found, five slivers traceable from any location in the game by using your signalscope to listen across space for the music they play on their individual instruments. It is superbly fitting that in a game dealing with communication both between different species and across eras, music was chosen as the universal beacon the Hearthians would broadcast into the stars in hope of forging connections. It is also practical that no matter where we are in the game we can cast an antenna to the sky and hear a reminder of our humanity.

The Hearthians can sometimes seem like a footnote in the story of Outer Wilds’ solar system, in thrall of the work of the Nomai, and destined to face radical change at their hands in spite of their disappearance long ago, but on looking to the stars and hearing Traveller Riebeck’s banjo refrain pierce through the static, we’re reminded that their scrappy, practical minds have enabled them to achieve extraordinary things, and create great beauty. Beauty that will go on to set the vistas of the new when the puzzle is solved.

The Outer Wilds from Mobius Digital is published by Annapurna Interactive on PC, PlayStation and Xbox platforms. It will be released on Nintendo Switch in Q3 2021. Its expansion Echoes of the Eye is released on all platforms on September 28 2021.

Words: Luke Jackson

Liked it? Take a second to support Astral Noize on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!