Outer Wilds: an exploration game to be surprised by
Some games are made to be experienced from a place of total ignorance. They drop you into their world with almost no knowledge of what’s happening and just say “Off you go!” If they’re successful, every step on your journey offers a revelation that expands your understanding and reveals new avenues to explore.
Outer Wilds is a success from this perspective in that even the most basic description of the game spoils vital story points that are best discovered for yourself.
So, if you know literally nothing about the game, this review is as spolier-free as is humanly possible. I provide some backstory that you can learn or easily deduce in the first minute of the game, but that’s about it. I then talk about the pros and cons of gameplay without revealing the key mechanics. If you think it sounds like your sort of game, don’t read anything else – not even the two lines of blurb on the Steam or Epic Games stores. Just buy it blind and play it for yourself.
In Outer Wilds, you are one of a community of ardent explorers living on a tiny forest planet. Several others have already set off to different planets and moons in your solar system. You are the next pilot to be granted a spaceship and the complete freedom to explore where you want.
From a first-person perpsective, you master the controls of your personal jetpack and ramshackle spaceship to explore the beautiful and varied landscapes this miniature solar system has to offer. You meet up with your fellow pilots, and gradually discover a mind-bending narrative of cutting-edge science-fiction ideas. Over around 30 hours of play, there are many “wow” and “a-ha” moments as you learn about your world and uncover its secrets.
The graphics are wonderfully stylised and each destination has its unique selling points and challenges. Music is also used to great effect and presents competing themes of the urge to explore against the longing for home and family.
It’s not all smooth sailing. Mastery of the controls is tricky, and a gamepad highly recommended. Also, though the game helps you keep track of the hints and new areas you uncover during your journey, it’s often not straightforward. It’s easy to get stuck or frustrated if you miss something or don’t work out exactly the right approach.
There were three times where I had to go looking for outside help. Though everything makes sense with hindsight, I honestly don’t think I would have figured them out on my own. For example, I found myself repeatedly dying in one area and it took several minutes of repetitive play to get back to that area to try again. In frustration I assumed (wrongly) that I needed to learn something else before I could progress. It turned out I had all the information available, but was just approaching it in the wrong way. The game didn’t tell me that I was on the right track and that the only solution was to keep at it until I succeeded.
Solving two of those three challenges unlocked vital areas. The third, though not essential to finishing the game, contained the biggest narrative secret in the entire story and it would have been tragic if I’d missed it. I think these challenges were made deliberately hard so that you only work them out late in the game, but I didn’t feel the rest of the game offered much guidance towards solving them. If you can’t work them out for yourself, you’ve no option but to go looking for the answer on the Internet.
It’s a shame, because the game already has the necessary mechanics to prevent such frustrations. A Rumour (or Rumor) Screen tracks your journey, and is updated every time you learn something new. It even flags up if you’ve missed certain clues in a particular area, so you know to go back and keep on looking. Overall, it’s an excellent feature. With just a little more precision in implementing it, the game could have helped me understand where persistence in one location was necessary, or where my problem was missing a clue elsewhere.
Depending on your patience, persistence, attention to detail and ability to piece together disparate hints, you may hit more or fewer brick walls than me. But these are the qualities that Outer Wilds requires.
The good news is that the rewards for beating the game’s challenges are hugely satisfying. I’ve already mentioned the varied graphics in new locations, and these are a big reward for progressing. The story as well is worth the journey. Perhaps the written notes and messages you find are a bit long-winded, and perhaps the conversation system is a bit clunky, but the overall package is top notch.
I was reminded of the The Witness (read my review here). That’s another game where you’re left to your own devices to learn and discover. The problem with The Witness is that it’s a hollow experience. It makes you think there’s a deeper story to uncover, but offers nothing but pretentious metanarrative disappointment.
Then there’s What Remains of Edith Finch, which has many similarities to Outer Wilds and has the same publisher. In that game, you’re rewarded for progressing with varying gameplay and graphical styles. But I found the slow reveal of the story in Edith Finch to be very “meh”. I enjoyed it while I played, but quickly forgot about it once it was over. I’ve never reviewed the game because it didn’t inspire either particularly good or particularly bad feelings.
The story in Outer Wilds is science-fiction, which appeals to me, but there’s more to it than that. In playing the game, you learn the history of the world, and discover how that history is affecting the present, and then you get to take charge and move the story into the future. By the end of the game, you have achieved something.
Outer Wilds ultimately rewards you by making the time you invest in it worthwhile, at least within its own miniature cosmos. I think that’s lacking in other narrative-focused games and it makes Outer Wilds something special. It deserves to be experienced, and it’s best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible.
Off you go!