I’ll never forget the first time Outer Wilds made me say “shit.”
I got the launch keys to my spaceship for the first time. Still confused, still a little unsure. What’s going on here? What is this video game about? How does all this work? Where am i supposed to be going?
Still, I followed the prompts. I approached my spaceship, a ramshackle wooden shack. I pushed a few buttons and was soon afloat, lifting effortlessly into the darkness of space. I am still confused. I’m not sure yet. What the hell is happening here? I do not understand this in everything.
Then in the distance, a planet. A bright green spot stained in the void. “I’ll go there I guess,” I told myself, more out of confusion than anything else.
Fighting the ship’s controls, I made my way towards the green planet, finally hurtling into its dense green atmosphere at top speed. “I can’t see shit,” I whispered, but then emerged from the fog.
I could not believe what I was watching.
I only had a fraction of a second before I dove headfirst into the ocean, but I saw it. This was a water planet, the size of a toy. But that didn’t scare me, it was the whirlwinds. Six of them at least, competing with each other in an otherworldly storm over the waves. As I floated back to the surface, the water ran down the windows, my eyes turned to saucers.
The wind whipped as competing whirlwinds galloped across the surface, so powerful they launched themselves whole islands into the atmosphere, literally into space, before crashing into the planet. I’ve never seen anything like this in a video game. I’ve never seen anything like this before, period. But this was Outer Wilds. In Outer Wilds, the incredibly imaginative is normalized.
Outer Wilds is a video game about space exploration, but it is also a mystery to unravel. Following in the footsteps of the Nomai, an alien race that perished thousands of years ago, Outer Wilds is a game where you play the space detective, investigating the ruins of an extinct civilization in an attempt to find exactly what the hell. it happened? The Twist: Outer Wilds focuses on a Groundhog Day-style time loop. You have exactly 22 minutes to investigate before the sun implodes, taking your entire solar system with it. All that remains: the knowledge you acquired during those precious minutes.
Outer Wilds is a mystery that reveals itself in traditional video game fashion, through audio logs, written notes, etc., but the execution is so inspired that the tropes are hardly noticeable. Through its clever settings and subtle puzzles, Outer Wilds constantly inspires a level of wonder unlike any other video game I’ve ever played.
Outer Wilds takes you back and forth to a handful of different planets, each one stranger than the last. Each one is loaded with a strange advanced technology left behind by the Nomai. A clue found on a planet could lead you to a new place on a planet you previously visited. Slowly, he dives deeper into these dazzling environments and a deeper understanding of the mystery he’s trying to solve. There are no shots or complex platforms. In Outer Wilds the currency is knowledge, the knowledge that players use to discover their next step and consequently solve this strange mystery on a meta level. The result: constant and revealing joy, a series of “holy shit” moments that make Outer Wilds unforgettable.
Outer Wilds is constantly evoking wonder. There’s Giant’s Deep, the aforementioned planet with its competing hurricanes, but there’s also Brittle Hollow, a world collapsing before your eyes. As you descend deep below the surface, watch as entire sections of the planet are swallowed up by a vibrating black hole at its center. One wrong step and you yourself could fall.
And what happens when you fall through a black hole in Outer Wilds? Well, it would be rude to spoil the surprise. But it’s as mind-blowing as you might expect.
Outer Wilds is marked by its sacred moments. A quantum moon that disappears when you stop looking at it. Technology that allows you to instantly deform between two distant points. Twin planets connected by a pillar of sand that flows endlessly back and forth, dramatically reshaping both planets like a complex hourglass.
But unlike the cool, clinical sci-fi of, say, Interstellar or Arrival, Outer Wilds is a homey, almost acoustic invention: a small-scale snow globe of a universe, imagined and executed with precision. As if expanding wholesale from the collapsing atoms in Bon Iver’s beard. That is part of its charm. His most extravagant moments inspire wonder because they are based on a world that is familiar to us, almost anachronistic.
You sail into space in a ship made of wood, wearing a spacesuit that looks like it was built in the 19th century. Your home planet is a hipster’s dream, like a reduced vision of Canadian nature or a Grizzly Bear music video. The unique cast of Outer Wilds characters swing in hammocks on alien planets and play the banjo on campfires as the universe collapses around them.
It all leads to this overwhelming feeling: you are trapped in a universe where your traditional ideas make no sense. Where gigantic science fiction ideas about space travel are felt beyond your primitive brain. All you can do is watch, in amazement, as the sun implodes in a brilliant blue flash, your full-time cycle. Before you wake up once again with a gasp, ready to explore the strange universe of Outer Wilds once again with fresh eyes.