In the Reflection of a Dying Star: Wonder and Terror in Outer Wilds
Destination confirmed. Thrusters initiated. Auto-pilot activated — no, deactivated. I lifted off on this first voyage — the first of many, though I didn’t know it yet — from the wooded, Earth-like familiarity of Timber Hearth, and towards the swirling mystery of Giant’s Deep. There are two “great unknowns” that fill me, and I think most people, with an existential dread: the ocean and space. Both invoke terror and wonder simultaneously, and both were part of my maiden voyage in Outer Wilds. Some other members of my alien species recommended I start with the water planet of Giant’s Deep, and the game’s opening shot seems to encourage it, giving it imposing prominence in the night sky. As I propelled my rickety wooden ship through the vacuum of space, I became quite aware of the effects of gravity. I was still 2 kilometers away in the game’s scaled-down version of a solar system, and yet I could not slow my approach to the planet. Panic set in. I suddenly doubted my entire understanding of the games limited controls and began thrusting wildly in every direction. I broke through the planet’s sickly green atmosphere and forced my ship into the heart of the sea.
. . .
The first time I pondered space was when my eighth grade physics teacher told me that the night sky was a window to the past. “Many of the stars you see up there,” she told us “have been dead for millions or even billions of years.” That stuck with me for a long while — a consideration of the fact that the great emptiness above me was both not what it appeared to be and a reflection of where we came from. We are closely observing our past when we look at the stars, even as we drift further from it. That, and the knowledge that our sun would suffer a similar fate long after humanity is gone, settled in my mind the fact that space was something to be feared, and admired.
All this is why Outer Wilds has enamored me this past week. It is a game fundamentally about viewing the past as it happened and as it was experienced. Each planet around this solar system is full of the writings of an ancient race called the Nomai. Their unique writing style is that of a dialogue, where information is conveyed in writing as a conversation between two or more people. Each new text feels like you are standing in a room with lovers, or bickering scientists, or whoever else is centered in the piece you’re reading. And each new discovery is made all the more powerful by seeing the effects of a decision bore out in front of you. When you find a scroll inside a space station detailing two reckless lovers forcing a gravity cannon above it’s recommended power output, you are made painfully aware of the cause of that station’s violent destruction. Outer Wilds excels when it shows while it tells, and it does both with delicacy and depth.
. . .
The ocean just below Giant’s Deep’s clouded atmosphere is blocked at modest depth by a current. The citizen’s back on Timber Hearth told me that nobody had yet learned how to cross it, and sure enough my ship was halted against it with unexpected grace. It was quiet under the water, and I was safe in the confines of my cockpit. The same could not be said for the surface. Giant’s Deep is wracked by a perpetual storm; the tornadoes far outnumber the islands, and when the two collide, the force launches the land masses high into space before bringing them back down with a splash. Your ship is equipped with a sonogram, and a quick scroll through the channels offers a variety of mysteries to explore. A low wind instrument resonated from a nearby island. Music seemed a safe moniker of civilization, and sure enough an inviting campfire and a fellow explorer, Gabbro, were there to welcome me.
Gabbro seemed a bit relaxed, despite his environment, and was eager to answer my questions. As he explained the odd climate we found ourselves in, the howling winds became louder, and again that terror of the unknown struck me. His explanation became a demonstration as the tornado lifted us high into the sky. It was so loud, before it wasn’t. The vacuum of space ceased all noise, and there was Gabbro. Explaining, quite plainly, what was happening around us. The game didn’t directly intend for this conversation to coincide with that effect of the environment, but in that moment of reentry, I noticed the increasing normalcy of this place.
It was normal. It was natural. But it felt so strange.
. . .
It’s hard to talk specifically about Outer Wilds without spoiling it. Every discovery recorded in your ship’s log is a crucial piece of information in unraveling the history of the Nomai and the solar system. Every suggested location yields a story and every story yields an answer. The log system is effective, and even if I do miss something, the game helpfully marks which areas still have more information to offer. The terror of space is in what you don’t know, and thus information is the remedy. Every subsequent visit to Giant’s Deep, for example, felt more exhilarating and less frightening than the last.
Each planet in Outer Wilds world is deeply layered with secrets and puzzles. The small twin planets, named Ash and Ember, manage to feel incredibly intricate in their design and in how they interact with one another. A continuous pillar of sand, eternally transferring between the two of them, forces a time limit on the player. Explore Ember Twin’s caves to your liking, but hurry, because the sand is rising and the planet is becoming inhospitable — but hop on over to Ash Twin, and you’ll find a host of unearthed ruins ready to be researched. The hour glass metaphor here can’t be ignored, as this game is very much about managing time. But the concept of time is not so crucial as what you do with it.
. . .
I left Gabbro to his flute and his island, allowing him the vast space of Giant’s Deep’s sea that he clearly craves. Other islands dot the sea beyond Gabbro’s; I chose one with tall cliffs and dry beaches to dock my ship. The Nomai texts present here quickly informed me that it was a workshop used to make mysterious and important statues. Unfortunately, the door to the workshop was busted. I navigated my way around the island, finding a trail of dark purple crystals that emit a soft hum leading up the cliff face. Immediately, the crystals pull me towards them, shifting the pull of gravity and allowing me to simply walk to the top. Every step felt unsure. Gravity had hardly been my friend on Giant’s Deep; it measured 3.0x the pull of Timber Hearth and greatly inhibited my ability to jump. My space suit would undoubtedly keep out water, should I fall, but there was the terror again. The idea of being in the water without the protective walls of my ship was to dip back into the unknown, and I had had quite enough of that.
The crystals did not fail me. I reached the top of the cliff, hoping to discover an alternate way into the workshop and was gifted a dialogue between two Nomai children. They talked of a secret way into the workshop. It was dangerous, apparently, but my time on Giant’s Deep did not leave me expecting anything different. As I made my way back towards the workshop entrance, a new sound caught my attention. I was used to the howling winds and cracks of thunder, but this was different. A fizzling, growing in intensity, like ice in hot oil. Terror, back with a rage as loud as the sound around me. And then a pitch drop, the same used in any sci-fi film with a massive explosion in space. The effects of the supernova were subsequent and rapid. First the fizzle, then the pitch, then darkness, then the fizzle again accompanied by a blue light. The terror swallowed me; the sun swallowed Giant’s Deep, and then silence.
My journey played in reverse before my eyes. I saw myself walking backwards down a cliff, flying in reverse to Gabbro’s island, and ultimately propelling myself in reverse to the safety of Timber Hearth. Then a gasp, and it began again. Giant’s Deep was suspended in the sky again; a green marble revealing nothing of its tornadoes or islands or oceans. It was then that the wonder set in, as I lifted off again in orbit of this dying star.