Brilliantly referred to as a metroidbrainia, it’s entirely possible to beat Outer Wilds on your first attempt. But you won’t, because you won’t have the faintest idea what to do or where to go. If you’ve not played it yet, do yourself a favour and dive into its brilliant solar system before you read this.
Are you back? That was amazing, wasn’t it? Outer Wilds fever gripped me and my two housemates last year, around the time the Echoes of the Eye DLC launched. We played on Game Pass before buying the expansion, and for weeks the only thing we talked about was Outer Wilds.
Every game these days likes to tout how you can choose your playstyle and that no two adventures are the same, but never before have I seen that mission statement so completely realised. It doesn’t matter where you go in the constantly moving solar system, you’ll find some breadcrumbs that lead you to the mysterious Eye of the Universe and unravel the past of the advanced race of Nomai who were wiped out in an instant. All at once, the solar system feels vast and dangerous, yet meticulously crafted and wonderful. There’s the cold, empty expanse of space, with just a few interstellar bodies to ground you.
The natural first stop for everyone is the moon, the Attlerock. At the beginning, you’re still learning how to fly, so either crash into it or burn up in the sun. The moon doesn’t offer any answers though, and it mostly poses the same questions we had on Timber Hearth, your native planet. The solar system is at your feet, and it really is down to you where to go next.
Due to the 22-minute time loop you’re trapped in, when you go matters just as much as where. As a result, even though my housemates and I had all been playing about the same amount of time, there was so much we couldn’t talk about. We were all bursting to discuss every little detail, but had to wait for everyone to finish because truly, no two journeys are the same.
As I explored Giant’s Deep, the island I was on got catapulted into space by a cyclone. I panicked and accidentally ended up in the cave below. My roommate Will exclaimed, “Huh. I just swam in but I guess that works too.” We lost track of how many moments there were like that littered throughout the game. What one of us would puzzle out, someone would discover by accident. Where I followed a path, Tom crashed into an answer. How we unraveled the mysteries were just as much part of the fun as what the mysteries actually were.
Outer Wilds is already a perfect game, but the DLC came along and added more than we could have imagined. Answering a question we didn’t even know we wanted to ask, it inverted the structure of the base game by making us go deeper into The Stranger, rather than further out into the solar system. Again, I discovered a route into one of the secret areas by chance, when a tidal wave inside the space station created the perfect conditions for me. My nerd housemates figured it out with facts and logic, I just got lucky. Go me.
There’s so much in Outer Wilds that feels like it’s down to random chance whether you fail or succeed, and in what you discover, yet the physical world is entirely predictable. Like complex clockwork, everything happens at precisely the moment it’s meant to, with the only difference being where you’re stood in the system at any given time. Somehow, this works perfectly, and the stars aligned so that we all finished within a couple of days of each other. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it is to hint at everything just enough to enlighten your players without giving everything away. It’s a work of genius from narrative designer Kelsey Beachum, and I don’t think another game will ever be able to capture the magic of Outer Wilds.
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