Outer Wilds — Reflections from the Edge of the Solar System
This article contains many, many spoilers for Outer Wilds.
When I think of Outer Wilds, when I run my mind over the sheer mind-blowing achievement of it, I’m struck all over again by amazement and wonder. There’s a sun that explodes, conjoined planets filling and emptying each other, a watery tornado planet that belts islands up into space, a crumbling planet with a fricking black hole in its centre. Most games don’t have a single idea this good; Outer Wilds has a dozen. The physics, from the space flight to the planets’ trajectories and gravity, are all astoundingly well realised. The scope of its story is impressive — a non-linear narrative tracing the mysterious death of a species across the solar system. Oh and it’s all about death in the end. I love me a good story about death.
Ultimately what Outer Wilds does best is create stories, memories. Everyone that plays the game will have their own special stories, the ones that happened only to them (or so it feels like). But even if a thousand other travellers out there had that same experience, it really doesn’t matter — all these moments feel like your moments, arising totally spontaneously from the absurd and unpredictable situations you find yourself in.
Moments like having the ship’s autopilot smash me into the sun (“the autopilot betrayed me!” I yell to my boyfriend in disbelief).
Moments like losing your ship in hilarious ways. Like the time I parked my craft a little too close to the equator on Ash Twin, went to explore and suddenly saw the “SHIP” icon on my HUD shoot upwards. I turned around, and there was my baby, caught in the moving funnel of sand, tumbling away from me as I watched it go. I was laughing at the farcical situation even as I panicked about what to do next.
Moments like flying down to the waterline of Giant’s Deep, wondering “where is that island I’m looking for?” and having it promptly crash down on me from above.
Exploring the universe is a chaotic thing. It’s a laughable thing. It’s a terrifying thing. It’s a tragic thing. And in the end it is, largely and overwhelmingly, a mundane thing.
I swim my way into the belly of a big red jellyfish, which will protect me from the deadly electricity surrounding the core at the centre of this watery planet. We descend through it and I emerge, finding myself floating in the middle of a black, watery chasm, alien blue electricity crackling all around me. It’s so dark. I don’t know what else is in here with me. I’m so tense and awestruck I can’t breathe.
It’s taken a lot of trekking just to get to this precarious point, on the inner edge of Brittle Hollow’s crust, inching my way along the roof, suspended upside down over a black hole at the planet’s core. I am right next to an anti-gravity crystal but for some reason, it doesn’t anchor me and I start to tumble. I flail and resist all the way down but it’s no use. As I fall into the black hole and am spat out at the edge of the solar system (not for the first time, not even close), I let out a groan and let my head sink, resting my forehead on the cool plastic of my desk as I try and work up the patience to do it all again.
I’m lost in the underground caves of Ember Twin, again, and they are filling up with sand, again. Like every other time, my throat closes in terror. It’s just a game, I keep telling myself. But it’s real. It’s my very real dreams, the ones where I’m being crushed to death and I wake up screaming. I start running through the caves in a blind panic. I always make it out alive — just barely.
I wake up, get in my ship, fly to Ember Twin, park at the distress beacon, descend into the caves, follow the labyrinth of clues to the central chamber, descend to the bottom of that chamber, try and follow the glowing cable through another set of caves to the next area and get lost in the dark. It’s taken nearly ten minutes. The sand consumes me. Now I have to do it all again. I sigh and look up a walkthrough.
The first time you follow the clues through the treacherous sandy caves of Ember Twin, it’s thrilling. The tenth time you do it, it’s like pulling teeth.
I look again — the sun definitely wasn’t this big before. Or this red. Or this close. It swells, my field of view completely filled with nothing but angry, red fire. Then, BOOM. An explosion of magnificent energy. Mesmerised, I watch the shockwave grow until it hits me.
I’m in the middle of solving a puzzle and the fateful music plays, proclaiming an imminent reset. I groan aloud thinking about how much time I’ll have to waste flying and running and climbing back to this spot just so I can continue.
I’m drifting through the dense fog of a planet that is way bigger on the inside than the outside. I fly through the fog towards one of the glowing lights, and as I approach, it reveals itself as another warp gate. I emerge in another foggy cave, cruise serenely towards another sphere of light. For the briefest moment, I see the rod it’s attached to, the huge teeth attached to that. Then it awakens and roars. A bloodcurdling scream rips out of me.
Fly, fly, fly, crash, crash, crash, fall, fall, fall, die, die, die, repeat, repeat, repeat.
In space, no one can hear you scream — in joy, in terror, or in frustration.
Outer Wilds has so much complexity, so many ideas smashing into each other it’s dizzying. It makes you feel like a mote in a sandstorm, one little spacefarer trying to navigate the blinding chaos that is outer space. You become so easily lost, confused, clueless. Never before has a game let you plummet like this, headfirst into this insane flurry of cosmic bodies whizzing by you, all of them either breaking or shrinking or melting. And it’s wonderful, and it’s infuriating. Because at some point (for me it was about a dozen hours in), the chaos ceases to become revelatory and starts to simply become annoying.
The constantly changing nature of each planet means that certain routes will only become accessible if you get there at a specific time — a concept that is much cooler in theory than it is in practice. At one point, I find myself already having navigated the caves of Ember Twin for what feels like a million times, and my ship’s log is still telling me “There is more to explore here”. It may be that I haven’t arrived here at the right time in the 22-minute cycle to open the path I need, but I haven’t kept track of exactly when in the cycle I’ve arrived each time so far, and I have only the fuzziest idea of what paths I’ve accessed already. Brittle Hollow, with its constantly crumbling surface, is even more impossible to navigate sanely. You can never be sure if you’ve seen all there is to see or if you missed a path that used to be there but had already fallen away before you arrived.
I find it so hard to explore these areas in a systematic way that will let me be sure of where I have and haven’t been. The locations are too dark, too labyrinthine, too changeable, too easy to get completely turned around in. A couple of times, I’ve bounced around or been flipped this way and that by gravity-bending crystals so many times in the space of a few seconds, I’ve felt nauseous. This game wants the wildness of space to toss you around like wet lettuce and make you feel tiny and helpless, and it does. But it also wants to tell you an intricate story with dozens and dozens of clues hidden in hard to reach places, the finding of which requires you to be completely comfortable and well-oriented in the environment. And, unfortunately, these two goals occasionally undermine each other.
It’s so easy to miss a little opening above you in the dark where you need to proceed. It’s so easy to take one wrong turn and get hopelessly lost. It’s so easy to misjudge the small amount of boost you have in your fuel tank, miss a platform by an inch and wipe out your hard-earned progress in an instant. None of this would be an issue if travel were easy and fast. Falling from the ceiling would not be a bother if I could get back up onto the ceiling fairly quickly. Being obliterated in the middle of a cave puzzle would be OK if it were a simple matter to get back into the cave to try again. All of this only becomes infuriating when combined with the copious amounts of trekking that it takes to get anywhere in this game. This is where Outer Wilds goes from being challenging to crushingly unforgiving and even tedious, not helped by the fact that there are useful mechanics the game never tells you about (oh I could have saved a ton of time by marking previously visited locations on my HUD? That would have been great to learn during the in-game tutorial rather than from a post-game Google search).
But still, I can’t muster up the audacity to suggest that any of these things (except the secret mechanics and the fickle anti-gravity crystals, those can go explode in a sun) should have been changed. I fully understand that the story is not meant to be easy to uncover, that the obscure nature of the mystery makes your hard-won discoveries all the more magical, and that the time loop is an important mechanic that ties into the story in a way that becomes clear eventually. The decision to tell a non-linear story within a fully explorable and chaotic solar system framed by a time-loop mechanic is nothing if not insanely brave, and it demonstrates a singular commitment by Mobius to making a game that lets go of the reins completely and leaves the player free to fail catastrophically or succeed epically. Any move to make it more easily “accessible” would mean sacrificing the kind of story the developers wanted to tell—one that many players have found life-changing.
I know people who didn’t find the setbacks or the travel-time maddening at all. I also know others who found the steep cliff that is this game’s learning curve impossible to climb. Everyone has stories of their time in the outer wilds, and not all of them are stories of success — many are stories of frustration and the feeling of smashing into an impenetrable wall before giving up. Heck, my first hour as an astronaut was spent crashing into planets while trying to land on them, and I nearly gave up then and there. These experiences are all natural consequences of this game’s “sink or swim” (or is it “fly or crash”?) design philosophy, and that’s what makes it so difficult to critique. Is Outer Wilds an unparalleled cosmic gem or an obscure celestial nightmare? Yes.
It is with no shame at all that I make this confession: my last couple of hours with this game were spent with the aid of a walkthrough. Don’t worry — I’d already discovered pretty much all the locations myself, I’d just reached a point where the magic was gone and all that was left was the prospect of trudging around blindly to different planets at different times hoping I’d stumble upon whatever I’d missed, all the while falling, crashing, dying, and repeating. I couldn’t do it anymore. Did I mention I suck at space flight? (To be fair I got pretty good at it eventually, but it never became fun for me.)
I haven’t even discussed the incredible story or themes of the game, the mystery of the Nomai and how they lived and died, but anything I could say has already been said: it’s a poignant reflection on the inevitability of death and the tragic beauty of existence. The ending is such a perfectly cruel reversal of expectations — after countless hours scouring the solar system and the remains of the technologically advanced Nomai, you realise there is nothing that can stop the sun’s demise, and there never was. Sometimes the universe erupts and a civilisation is extinguished. All you can do is be glad that you got the chance to roast a marshmallow and play a song while you, and everyone you love, die.
Outer Wilds is a truly great game—tremendously ambitious, rule-breaking and brilliant. This will always be true, despite its idiosyncrasies and maddening moments. It’s also, ultimately, a much better game in my memory than it was on my computer screen.
When I remember it, I get to only remember the good bits — the moments of exhilarating discovery and cosmic terror. I can let myself forget how many times it made me want to swear, scream, or throw the controller at the wall. How much of my time with it felt like wasted time recovering from tumbles, dead ends, and restarts. But maybe one day I’ll be able to roast a marshmallow and reflect gladly on my time in the wilds and the stories I found there. I think that day might come quite soon.
Youtube: Pixel a Day (www.youtube.com/pixeladay)
Other published work: https://intothespine.com/2020/10/12/in-search-of-the-blue/