Outer Wilds: A UX Critique
In part one, I explore the UX of the menu screens and discuss opportunities for improvement
This UX critique will explore one of the most underrated games in recent memory: Outer Wilds by Mobius Digital. Released in 2019, Outer Wilds is a mysterious sci-fi adventure built around mind-bending puzzles. If you’re a sci-fi fan and you prefer emphasis on story rather than action, then Outer Wilds might be for you. If No Man’s Sky met Interstellar and had a baby, said baby might look something like Outer Wilds.
I’ll be dividing my UX critique into multiple parts. The main focus of this first story is to critique the starting screens. I’m going to sequentially describe each aspect of the interface, and then add my own personal thoughts and opinions.
Full Disclaimer: I am trying to understand the UX of video games and how UI is constructed to provide specific nuances to make up the entire game experience. All of the perspective below reflects my personal experience and opinions.
I played the game on PC using an Xbox controller.
Splash Screens and Main Menu
Splash Screen — 1
Let’s start with the first key touchpoint in the game: the splash screen. This screen answers the question “What is the best way to play this game?” (it’s a controller, by the way). It’s a well-done screen that pauses for long enough for the player to read the text.
However, I do feel that the design would benefit from some minor animation to better convey the game’s themes. This is also true for the screens that follow.
Splash Screen — 2
The name of developers and publishers appears in a constellation, with stars glittering in the background.
It’s lovely, and feels just right. It provides context and hints at what I’ll be doing — exploring the stars. It’s more representative of the game’s theme especially when compared to the previous screen.
The main menu is actually a direct continuation of the second splash screen (as the constellation from the previous screen has now dispersed). The camera rotates to the bottom to reveal the actual screen, which takes 4–5 seconds and is also interactive.
There are two main components here:
1. On the Left
We have the logo and the buttons to navigate. One of the hidden features that I accidentally discovered about the logo itself was the word “Wilds” in Outer Wilds breaks apart slowly, so as to depict the instability of the vast wilderness of the Universe, which I feel another way of contextualising the story to the player even before the game actually starts.
2. On the Right
We see the black circle at the bottom.
After 2 seconds, a campfire bursts to life, revealing that the circle is actually a small planet with lush pines or spruces — and the planet itself is rotating. Afterwards, the menu on the left begins to appear option by option.
3. On the Bottom Left
We see the game version/build— which is simultaneously insignificant and essential in terms of its inclusion in the main UI.
The main menu is well-designed. It’s soothing, calming, and attempts to convey something of the experience the player is about to embark on.
And the addition of its excellent score by Andrew Prahlow is just phenomenal.
One of the main issues I encountered with the main menu is that I have to wait for the menu to load entirely as it reveals itself via a fade-in animation. This animation takes around 3 seconds to render completely and the screen isn’t interactive during this animation sequence. This means there’s around 5–6 seconds of delay in total before I can dive back into my spaceship.
All of the screens prior to this can be skipped by spamming the A button on your controller. But here, I have to wait and then make my selection. I always chose “Resume Expedition” because there’s nothing else much to do in the main menu itself.
This brief wait period is also more noticeable perhaps because the game itself is so tightly wrapped in a fantastic narrative. Players like me — who have already spent 10–12 hours in this world — want to start the game as soon as possible without any interruption.
The solutions here are pretty simple, too. Either the duration of the animation could be reduced, or the menu could become active/interactive much earlier. Still, I’d love to get the developer’s perspective around why this decision was made in the first place.
There were some other misses here too, although these are even more in the realm of personal preference.
For example, I wanted to see Mobius Digital mentioned explicitly on the main screen. I personally like mentions of the developer, especially when I get a direct link to actually visit and explore the developer’s website. This is especially true for indie developers who are releasing their first game.
Perhaps more objectively, one other omission here is that I can’t actually see which game profile is currently active. I have to jump into the switch profile section to see what the currently active profile is. Games that handle profile management of any kind should prioritise clear, up-front communication to players about which profile is currently active.
Main Menu: Exploring the Actions
One thing I was eager to look at when starting the game was the loading screen. Every game has its own unique approach to loading screens (from the “free roam” in Assassin’s Creed to the wind whooshing and text-help in The Witcher 3).
To my surprise, Outer Wilds has one of the simplest-yet-effective loading screens. As you can see in the image above, the Resume text is replaced with the “Loading…0%” text, which is a simple and elegant solution (and is therefore very much in keeping with the game’s overall aesthetic).
One minor UX issue I did notice was that as the game starts loading, all the other buttons appear active. I thought maybe I could still navigate to different options, but I can’t. In this scenario, it’s essential to change the state of the other buttons to render them “disabled” so as to avoid visual confusion.
The options menu is beautifully designed. It’s also pretty accessible from both controller and keyboard.
One feature I really like — and it’s seen in some big AAA games too — is the performance cost of each setting in the Graphics tab with the help of subtext description at the bottom.
The tabs themselves are easily navigable using the left and right buttons on controllers or clicking around with a mouse.
There’s even a “Swap Tab” option for folks who really don’t want to use either of the aforementioned controls, which adds a further layer of accessibility to the experience.
The ability to instantly see the effect of your graphics settings is pretty standard now, having been implemented in almost all AAA games. But it’s missing here. If you want to see how your graphics settings actually look in the game, you’ll need to close the menu and view the planet in the main menu (which itself isn’t fully representative of the in-game experience). At any rate, this just means there’s quite a lot of to-and-fro between the settings menu and the main menu.
I feel that players should always be able to instantaneously see the result of their graphics settings.
I discussed profile management earlier in the context of the main menu, but there are UX opportunities within the switch profile section itself.
For example, the text size for the name of the currently-active profile is actually pretty small and not emphasized enough. All the emphasis is directed to the Create New Profile selection.
Of course, both options are essential here. However, I’d suggest that the emphasis should be on the current profile (as this information isn’t available anywhere else on the main menu), with secondary focus on the Create New Profile button.
The credits screen here is a pretty standard implementation. But one feature I rarely see in games is the ability to increase the scrolling speed of the credits text. This can be frustrating, partly because many players (myself included) are actively looking for some hidden post-credit content (thanks, MCU). So, we’re left with two choices:
- Sit back and wait for it, or
- Skip it entirely.
I would love to see developers implement the ability to increase the scrolling speed on credits going forward.
Outer Wilds has a single-click quit action. This is understandable, because during gameplay players will see a confirmation prompt when they select the quit action. But having multiple prompts stemming from the main menu doesn’t make sense — you’re not in the middle of gameplay, after all.
Outer Wilds is a really great game. I’m currently 15 hours in and there’s still a lot left to explore. From a UX analysis perspective, I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of this awesome game. In the next edition, I’ll deep dive into the actual interface and HUD elements and share my thoughts.