Transcript —Nature’s Harsh Truths in Outer Wilds and Rain World

This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/6fXIEeU4tPg

Outer Wilds is a game so untethered from modern video game conventions it’s hard to think of another game that goes its own way so ambitiously. Each one of its five planets, with the exception of your home planet, is dynamic and changeable and astonishingly chaotic. There’s an hourglass planet made up of two conjoined bodies, one slowly filling with sand and the other slowly emptying, a watery tornado planet that belts its islands up into space and back down again, a monster-infested planet of fog which is way bigger on the inside than the outside, and a brittle, disintegrating planet with a fricking black hole in its centre. What’s more, this fully explorable and tumultuous solar system contains a non-linear narrative scattered across all five planets and several more celestial bodies. And, if that weren’t enough to deal with, the whole thing is framed by a time-loop mechanic in which the sun explodes, kills everything and resets the loop every 22 minutes. Outer Wilds is an absolutely singular game. There’s nothing out there that compares to it. Well, almost nothing.

Have you ever been afraid of rain? You will be when you play Rain World. I wasn’t afraid in my first play session. How ignorant I was then. I stumbled and crawled and slugged around the post-post-apocalypse and I thought I was doing fine. Until the first rain storm hit. The controller gave an ominous rumble and I crawled into the ground thinking I’d be safe; I was wrong. The torrent reached deep into the earth and drowned me in the darkness. The next time the rain struck, I was on the surface. I hid under a small overhang, still foolishly thinking that this rain was a thing that could be endured, sheltered from, survived. But then…

After that downpour, I never again made the mistake of not being afraid of the rain.

I thought there was nothing out there like Outer Wilds, and then I played Rain World. The games differ in many ways, of course. Outer Wilds is a time-loop 3D space exploration game whereas Rain World is a 2D survival platformer set in the ruins of a society long gone. But they have much more in common than meets the eye.

The second time I picked up the controller to play Rain World, I knew to be afraid of the rain, which comes at the end of each in-game day and kills you, unless you’ve found shelter in a bunker. I was so engrossed in exploring the ruins and getting back to shelter before the rain hit that I didn’t notice the dark clouds gathering outside the window. When I heard the rumble of thunder, I literally sat up in panic, thinking it was coming from the game. Then outside, the rain began to patter, then it began to pelt, and my hair stood on end. I usually enjoy a nice summer thunderstorm, but that day the rain felt sinister. When you’re in these lands, there is nothing more heart-stoppingly terrifying than the sound of rain. It’ll make your throat close in dread as you realise you’ve taken too long and you wait for the inevitable to happen. You know what it reminds me of?

[Outer Wilds sun explosion]

It’s stating the obvious to say that these games are about nature. I mean, it’s right there in the title. Nature has such a strong and unrelenting presence in these games, we may as well call it another character. It frequently takes on vicious forms and beats you into submission with hurricanes and volcanic bombardments and precipitous drops and cosmic explosions and deadly storms. But even on a sunny day, or in the quiet moments of a marshmallow roasted over a fire, the destructive potential of nature is never far from your mind. It doesn’t help that both games effectively place a ticking timer over your head counting down to a certain and violent death. In Outer Wilds, you are never more than exactly 22 minutes away from the sun going supernova, and Rain World gives you about 10 minutes to find some food and scurry to a safe spot to hibernate through the next deluge. Both games force you to exist in a constant state of anticipation of your impending demise. That moment when the timer runs out, and all you can do is stand there in awe and wait for the forces of nature to annihilate you.

And my goodness, does nature find every single way to annihilate you that it possibly can.

Outer Wilds makes you feel like a mote in a sandstorm as you try and navigate the dizzying chaos of space with nothing but a tiny spaceship and a small tank of oxygen. It’s no small thing to navigate the tornadoes and shifting sand tunnels and crumbling crusts, but add to that teleporting quantum objects and non-Euclidian fog mazes and, well, it’s absurd. And even though I did slowly become familiar with the rules of each planet, even though I learned to navigate the fog and chart the tunnels and avoid the hurricanes and touch down without crashing (well, not too badly anyway), I never stopped feeling like I was just barely clinging on while being pummeled on all sides by chaos. One time, my ship’s autopilot flew me straight into the sun. Another time, a bit of flying volcanic rock happened to hit the exact bit of ground I was standing on, instantly incinerating me. There’s no safety net in Outer Wilds. The universe won’t catch you when you fall.

Rain World sometimes feels like it straight up hates you. It subjects you to slippery controls and progression-ending enemy placement and cheap, sudden, unfair deaths. You’ll meet your end several times in an evil downpour before you realise it’s un-survivable and happens at the end of each day, you’ll die trying to jump infuriating gaps that seem to have been placed there just to torment you, you’ll be murdered by a carnival of fauna before you learn whether each creature is safe or deadly. Pretty much everything you learn in this game is through mistake and experiment, and there is no help coming to you. You’ll be thrown into dead ends, spots that are impossible to escape from, and an entire area of the game which is completely black. Rain World piffs you into the deep end and then stands there watching you drown.

All of this, from the unpredictable enemies, to the precarious platforms, to the unwieldy movement systems, to the instant deaths, seem deliberately designed to hammer this one ruthless fact into your soul: nature is fickle and unfair and messy and unpredictable. The maddening chaos you’re constantly struggling through is an integral part of creating an environment that feels real and alive and totally apathetic to the player’s existence. The molten rocks that pummel Brittle Hollow’s crust don’t care that you’re presently trying to make your way across a precarious ledge, the predators of the Industrial Complex don’t care that they happen to be blocking your only path forward. Forget player agency, this is player impotence. You’re not in control here; you’re just along for the ride.

Anyone who’s seen my video on death and survival games will not be surprised to hear that I can’t stop watching Alone, a show about people being dropped into a harsh, unforgiving wilderness and trying to hold out as long as they can.

One of the most consistently fascinating things about this show is seeing who survives the longest, and who cracks easiest. It seems like every season, they throw in at least one bozo who thinks he’s going to be the king of the forest and then taps out on the first day. Take Desmond, beautiful Desmond, who bragged to his family and friends about how he was going to be out there fighting bears in hand-to-hand combat…

“You know, I ain’t gonna tap out, that’s for sure. The bear’s gonna have to grab me. And then if the bear grabs me, if somebody sees the bear fight, they need to help the bear.”

…and then tapped out after 6 hours on the island when he saw some bear scat. Watching the overconfident goofballs bail early is almost as satisfying as watching the quiet, unassuming folks display the kind of steely endurance you never would have thought they were capable of.

I mean, how did this by all accounts extremely average family man endure 66 days in the same wilderness that sent career cops and hardened army veterans running for that rescue boat after just a few days? There’s a moment from season one that I keep coming back to:

“You know how you hear the expression all the time: ‘man versus nature’, ‘man battling against nature’…. any man that does that is going to die. You have got learn to work with it, or it will run you over, like a beer truck with no brakes on a downhill slope. Nature doesn’t care if you’re here or not, if you’re well or not. It just is. And you had better understand what it is, and get with the program — or suffer.”

Nature just is. The most successful participants on Alone understand this. They embrace and adapt to nature’s erratic rhythms, and when something goes wrong — as it constantly does — they just go *long sigh*…OK. Every single season, this show demonstrates that the most valuable survival asset you have is not your strength or your confidence or even your practical skills — it’s your patience, your flexibility and your humility. Try and bend nature to your will, and nature will crush you.

This is a truth that not many games embody, but Rain World and Outer Wilds do. They don’t let you forget for a second that nature will obliterate the hell out of you if it feels like it. Leave your firepower and your bravado at the door; these games don’t even really have combat systems, but they do reward patience, flexibility, humility and when everything goes wrong as it constantly does, the ability to say *long sigh*…OK. Success means learning the environment like the back of your hand — its labyrinths and dangers and dead ends — and finding the fastest and safest way through. It means being quick on your feet and getting very good at avoiding and outsmarting predators. And, above all else, never losing respect for the immoveable forces of nature.

Adapt or perish. That is the challenge these games throw down, and for a lot of people, the gruelling nature of the task is too much. And that’s OK, there is no shame in hitting that little escape button and walking away. I admit, there were a thousand different occasions on which both of these games made me want to throw the controller at the wall and never pick it up again, but guess what? I always picked it up again. Because there’s something about these places that calls to me, with the promise of pain and loss and surprise and wonder and cosmic awe and the chance to forge a path that feels uniquely mine. The chance to make my own story about setting out into the exciting, terrifying unknown and all the disasters and mistakes and recoveries and discoveries I found there. There is no shame in giving up, but the people who choose to stay are often changed by the experience. When I play these games, I find a humility and a tenacity that I didn’t even think I had.

I also find genuine adventure, and the thrill of discovery, and a journey that feels deeply personal. The beautiful obtuseness of these worlds means that every player who makes the voyage through them will come away with a slightly different set of wild anecdotes that they’ll be telling their friends about for years. If you’ve played either of these games, I’m sure you have your own. For my part, I’ll never forget the time I literally screamed on my first encounter with an anglerfish, or the time I went looking for an island in Giant’s Deep only to have it crash down on me from above, or the way I panicked when I got caught in the hourglass sands of Ash Twin and was helplessly propelled away from my ship. I’ll never forget my many doomed attempts at navigating the pitch black passages of the Shaded Citadel, until on one particular run, I — amazingly — found a glowing rock just sitting there on the ground, and, without knowing where it had come from or how I could ever get another one, I knew this was my only shot to get through. The elation when I broke through to the surface; the despair when I then misjudged a jump. I later found out the reason I had such a hard time with this area is because I’d unknowingly taken an unnecessarily difficult route through the game.

These anecdotes of glory and woe are a direct result of the fact that Rain World and Outer Wilds share a singular dedication to being hands-off. There’s no steady stream of checkpoints you need to hit, no linear order you need to proceed in, and almost no guidance as to where you should go next. Pick a direction and go. Go find your story, whatever that is.

And because there was no one helping me or telling me what to do, I felt the most incredible sense of achievement whenever I found a new clue or figured something out for myself or finally learned to land my goddamn spaceship without crashing. The same steep difficulty curve that made me want to rage-quit a million times is the same one that turned every discovery into a triumph, every small success into a huge victory, every minute I didn’t die into a cause for celebration. Because somehow, blowing up a hundred faceless goons with a giant robot doesn’t hold a candle to the thrill of realising that you can throw a spear at a wall and then climb up it to reach slightly higher locations. And it’s crazy that something so small could mean so much. But it does. You know what it reminds me of?

Alan (Alone season 1): “It’s dry. Dry wood. DRY!!!!!!”

Outer Wilds and Rain World want you to find your unique story — make no mistake though, they have their own story to tell too, both of which have you uncovering the mysteries of a long-extinct, technologically advanced civilisation.

In Outer Wilds, you explore the solar system for traces of the Nomai — a highly scientifically advanced species who left behind the alien equivalent of text messages that you can translate with a handy tool. In Rain World, you might encounter a few of the mysterious ancient beings that used to live here, although they’re not exactly forthcoming about what happened to the world. But in a couple of pieces of lore that are very easily missed, it’s revealed that they built supercomputers the size of cities to try and find a solution to the ultimate questions of life, death and reincarnation. These machines required massive amounts of water for cooling, which was then emitted back into the atmosphere as vapour. The precursors didn’t deliberately destroy the environment, but their disregard for the ecological consequences of rapid technological advancement is responsible for it.

The Nomai were no less hubristic — right before they were killed off, they were planning to explode the sun just so they could have more energy to play with in their time travel experiments, despite the fact that this would have wiped out all life in that solar system. It’s obvious how exciting these grand pursuits would have seemed at the time, but viewed in retrospect, from thousands of years away, what’s most clear is how arrogant they were, how little regard these societies had for nature or the life forms that would inherit the world after they were gone. And how utterly irrelevant their failed vanity projects were in the greater cycle of civilisational extinction and rebirth.

Take the ending of Outer Wilds. After all that trekking around the solar system for answers, the answer you end up finding is this one — the Nomai died instantly and senselessly, when a stray comet entered the solar system one day and the deadly matter inside reacted to the sun’s heat and exploded, and by the way, your world is about to die just as instantly and senselessly. The sun is going to erupt and wipe out everything you know and love, and there was never anything that was going to stop it — not your own intrepid bravery nor the technological marvels of an advanced ancient civilisation. Sometimes a star reaches the end of its life cycle and that’s it. In one of the messages you translate, a Nomai muses about the mysteries of nature: “As a child, I considered such unknowns sinister. Now I understand they bear no ill will. The universe is, and we are”. Nature just is.

Outer Wilds and Rain World challenge us to accept this fact, to put aside our over-confidence and our self-importance and allow ourselves to feel small in the face of nature and the brutal and beautiful cycle of life. To slow down, enjoy the small pleasures, sing a song and roast a marshmallow with our loved ones, because at any moment nature could decide to swallow us whole and leave our ruins to the slugcats.

Because this world isn’t for us. We just happen to be here. For now.

Patreon: patreon.com/pixeladay

Twitter: @pixel_a_day

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Kat (Pixel a Day)

I make video essays on Youtube (Pixel a Day) where I critically analyse games and how they make me feel. I also write blog posts and articles.