Earlier this summer, upon the recommendation of a friend of mine, I downloaded Outer Wilds - a game I’d vaguely heard of but knew next to nothing about. What followed was undoubtedly the most impactful and entertaining experience I have ever had with a video game. It might sound like I’m being too eager to sing this game’s praises, yet I assure you, my enthusiasm is justified. So, before I begin, I implore you to boot up Outer Wilds on whatever console you have and go in blind, just like I did, so you can truly, organically experience all this wonderful little game has to offer.
Major spoilers ahead!
The tutorial of Outer Wilds excels in its simplicity, explaining the fundamental mechanics of the game in a unique way that disguises them as astronaut training. It then goes on explain the lore of this pocket size universe in a concise and understandable way via the Timber Hearth Observatory, setting out nuggets of information that begin your adventure. The game immediately gives you the freedom to play through this minor segment however you want, mirroring what happens as soon as you blast off in your mishmash of a rocket, as hints and murmurings of something bigger form multiple objectives that you can begin at your own leisure.
But before that, there’s the simple concept of time loops. As you’ll soon find out, either by your own doing or by the sun going supernova after exactly 22 minutes, death is not the end for you. Upon dying, you’ll wake back up at the campfire you started from, but your knowledge and progress from your first life safe in your ship’s log. This loop may or may not be to do with the glowing statue of that one extinct race you’re trying to find the whereabouts of that turned to you and replayed your memories back to you as you left the observatory and then again as you died.
And just like that, the game goes from nought to sixty, and an entirely new dimension to your playthrough is unearthed. Now you’re truly ready to explore the bite-size solar system in your glorified tin can of a spaceship.
Each planet is beautifully rendered in a simple and distinctive style that manages to not sacrifice quality graphics, whilst simultaneously not going overboard with them. Each planet is a stark contrast to the previous one, and with an innovative feature for each that gives character to this universe; whether that be the tornados of water planet ‘Giant’s Deep’ that throw chunks of land around a turbulent ocean; the gravity defying spectacle that is the black hole at the centre of ‘Brittle Hollow’; or the ethereal, reality-bending core of ‘Dark Bramble’ complete with terrifying anglerfish lurking in its misty expanse. Despite these grand cosmic spectacles, the game keeps a very grounded tone, as, stationed on each planet in cabins and armchairs akin to something a park ranger would relax in, are people from home. They are other astronauts just like you, maintaining this homely, close-knit feel, and really giving you a sense of attachment to this community of yours.
The progression of Outer Wilds is wonderfully spontaneous, but also relies on player intuition to an extent, so when you do piece together parts of this mystery, it is incredibly rewarding. I also loved the use of music in this game; each fellow astronaut you can find has their own instrument and plays one layer of the game’s title melody, adding a sense of depth to their character and giving them a real personality. Furthermore, music is used to signify specific events in the game, whether that be the mellow guitar every time the sun rises in the track ‘Timber Hearth’, or the iconic reverbing score of ‘End Times’, marking the end of the loop and the terror of an impending supernova.
But what ultimately made Outer Wilds truly special for me was the ending, which brings together everything you’ve learnt in a thrilling, emotional final act featuring an epic, grand score and calls back all the astronauts we’ve met along the way to play their instruments, this time in unison. Yet, despite the prospect that all you’ve come to love in this game will end, Outer Wilds concludes with the creation of a new universe, and with it, an implied message that genuinely changed the way I looked at our own. Despite everything, life goes on.