Outer Wilds: A Reflection

I almost always have one or two major problems with the games I call my favorites. I think the Dishonored games have dull voice acting, dialogue writing, and character animation. I think the gunplay in Prey is pretty clumsy and not fun, and that the endings are pretty brief and weak. I think most of the airship section of Batman: Arkham Knight is tedious and boring. (Then there’s The Witness, a game I might call my favorite ever if not for the dozens of things that enrage me about it.) For these games, what I love about them more than makes up for the qualities that frustrate me. This is also the case for Outer Wilds, which I just finished. But there’s something about Outer Wilds that’s different – it does so many incredible things right that it feels unfair, even petty, to levy my criticisms against it.

I first heard about Outer Wilds what must’ve been several years ago, whenever they first showed off gameplay or an early trailer. I remember seeing it and not thinking much of anything about it – it simply didn’t pique my interest. The second time I heard about Outer Wilds was a week before its release. I went, “oh yeah, I remember this game.” Then I watched the trailer. I thought it looked neat. Then the music lingered in my head, so I watched it again. And a third time. The more I watched, the more it sunk in just how much this game fit my particular interests, despite the outdoorsy, folksy aesthetic that initially made me find it uninteresting. At its core, Outer Wilds is a “walking simulator” – a combat-less first-person game with a focus on discovering narrative through exploration. Something about that initial trailer I saw gave me the impression it was something different – a survival game, or a heady physics simulator like Kerbal Space Program. And it does have bits and pieces of these – danger lurks everywhere and death is easy, and things move about in space with pretty realistic simulations of gravity and momentum. But these things aren’t really at the core of Outer Wilds. Rather, they give its world weight and moment-to-moment stakes.

Outer Wilds has the best elements of both hard and soft science fiction. Space is unforgiving, but still beautiful. Scientists do research and take copious notes about their observations, have realistic conversations about theories and next steps – yet their space ships are made of plywood and dented bits of metal, looking more like a child’s treehouse than something flightworthy. All the characters are literally aliens, yet act more relatably human than most actual video game humans.

Outer Wilds’ puzzles are brilliant. Mechanics require experimentation and creative thinking to properly understand, and some of them rival Portal in their elegance and the abundance of “whoa!” and “ah-ha!” moments that follow. It also mirrors games like The Witness, where character progression and ability is never tried to an in-game skill tree or upgrade mechanic, but rather is wholly dependent on your level of knowledge and understanding. The whole solar system is open to you from nearly the very beginning, and someone coming back for a second playthrough could easily zoom right to the game’s ending without doing any of the legwork required the first time around.

But oh, what legwork it is. Rarely tedious and often thrilling, exploring these planets leads to secret after secret, and a fascinating new revelation is never far away. Piecing together the story bit-by-bit feels a little like Return of the Obra Dinn, where information found earlier takes on new meaning later when juxtaposed with new knowledge. The level of care and polish that went into making this game feel like a cohesive world is astounding, especially for a small indie developer – there are abundant, womderful details that don’t affect gameplay or main story but serve to enrich the experience nonetheless, and it’s likely that many of them will never even be noticed by some players. It’s a mark of love and passion – this game feels hand-crafted, in more ways than one.

Outer Wilds has a beautiful soundtrack, one that plays into the experience and its narrative incredibly effectively and uniquely. There were times when I would let the game idle without pausing it, just so I could listen to its soundscape. If Outer Wilds doesn’t end up being my game of the year, it will still almost certainly be my album of the year.

You’ll notice I haven’t said much about the actual premise of the game, and that’s intentional. This is a game that is designed to be discovered, and deserves to be experienced with as little knowledge going in as possible. There’s always the risk that you won’t like it or get as much out of it as I have – but if you’re a fan of any of the games I’ve compared it to, I guarantee you’ll find something of great value in Outer Wilds.

There’s a point – really, a few points – in Outer Wilds when the well of new things to do and explore dries up, and it can be very easy to get stuck and frustrated for long periods of time. More than once I had to resort to asking for direction online, and luckily the folks at the r/outerwilds subreddit were very kind and considerate in their hint-giving – providing just enough to nudge me in the right direction, while preserving as much of the experience as possible to be discovered first-hand. Now that the game’s been out a while, however, it might be more difficult to seek help without getting spoiled. Even if you know what to do, actually doing it can occasionally be difficult as well. The game’s central mechanic, while mostly brilliant, can make things more frustrating and tedious than they needed to be, especially towards the end of the game. There were a few times when I would have killed for a simple save system, just to speed up the process of trying and retrying a difficult task. I don’t know whether that would’ve compromised the vision of the game’s designers, considering how carefully gameplay mechanics and narrative reasoning are tied together, but I can tell you I would have sacrificed some design elegance to prevent a few ragequits.

With the game 95% done, and already possessing all the knowledge I needed to beat the game, I took a break from Outer Wilds for nearly two months. It was too frustrating, and it had lost most of the mystery it once possessed now that I understood nearly everything. My desire to see the ending was outweighed by my need to preserve my sanity. But once I finally did come back and pushed through the last hurdles with a lot of patience and deep breaths, I found my way to the endgame. And ultimately, I’m glad I did. The ending was beautiful. It gave me goosebumps, and I definitely teared up. This is what I mean when I say it feels unfair and petty to criticize the weaker points of Outer Wilds – how can I, when it has given me so much?

I think that’s the greatest praise I can give this game – it feels like a relationship. Though it sometimes feels like it’s pushing me away, I ultimately feel like Outer Wilds is like a dear friend. Its existence is a gift. Rare is the game that comes along feeling timeless. Breath of the Wild was maybe the last one for me, and before that Undertale. Interestingly, those are also some of the few games I’d call near-perfect. I would not call Outer Wilds perfect. Yet it accomplishes so much so well that it earns a spot among the games I’d call timeless – among the greatest games I’ve ever played.

Writer, game designer, filmmaker. UT Austin RTF ’18. Indecisive. He/him. jack-ford.com

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