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Outer Wilds, Finally

Posted on May 9 2021

Outer Wilds Promo Image

Needless to say, this post is going to spoil everything about Outer Wilds, but don't worry all of you nerds have played it anyway or, like, watched a Let's Play on YouTube. Unlike other posts, I'm going to be talking about it with the knowledge that you've actually played it, so if you don't care about spoilers, I'd recommend you sit this one out, or go and play it. Takes a few days.

I bought Outer Wilds about six days after release. I played it for a bit, saw Giant's Deep, thought it looked cool, 'landed' on it and then proceeded to have absolutely no idea what I was meant to be doing or what was going on. I don't even think I got to the part where the sun exploded, I got bored before then.

Second try, I decided to take it a bit more seriously. I got to Brittle Hollow and played the game the way God intended by actually trying to solve the mysteries and all that. Still didn't get to the end. Got to Giant's Deep once more and stopped. I think I tried to solve the mystery of the Quantum Moon way too early.

There were a few other attempts here and there that I can't remember.

But last week I decided enough was enough. I can't have people going around, with their opinions about a video game when those opinions might not be very good or correct. As we all know, I am the sole arbiter of opinions about video games on the internet, so it was time to suck it up, get my hands dirty and finally put this mystery to rest. Is Outer Wilds good?

Well, much like trying to land on the Quantum Moon, the answer is very difficult, obtuse and spread across different places. I can safely look at Outer Wilds and say that it's a good game, or at the very least that it does a lot of interesting things that should be commended. But I don't think that's a satisfying answer, because, while a lot of people are eager to eat this game up and praise it as the Game That Changed Their Life, I think there are a few small problems. Just a few. It's still pretty good though.

Outer Wilds is the story of an astronaut caught in a time loop. You have 22 minutes before the Sun goes boom and you start over. It's your job to find out as much as you can about what's going on by uncovering the legacy of those who came before - the Nomai - an ancient, long-extinct race of aliens following a mysterious signal and generally going around Jurassic Parking everything up with supernova cannons and time travelling statue... head... things. I absolutely love how all the characters in this game are massive nerds. There are no jocks. They are constantly going on about scientific discoveries, being enthusiastic about quantum mechanics and being incredibly, incredibly bad at asking each other out on dates. It's so good. There's something special about reading the words of someone 200,000 years before you. I wonder what it's going to be like for people of the future when they have to read my tweets.

The ruins of the Nomai are simply a joy to explore. As levels, they are well designed and as places they Poke (heh) your curiosity in the exact way that the game needs to. It's a perfect balance of exploration, danger and serenity. The solar system is a puzzle box with intricate gears, all working around the 22 minute clock, each gear offering its own unique challenge or threat or maybe it's just a great place to sit down, toast a few marshmallows and wait for the world to end.

A traveller on a planet playing a banjo. Stuck on a puzzle? Why not pull up a seat and toast a few marshmallows to pass the time?

So why is the premise of the game at such odds with this idea? 22 minutes is an annoyingly small amount of time to get a good grasp of what's happening on each planet and the trips to and fro' are uneventful and frustrating. Despite having these wonderous, hand-crafted worlds, the game jolts you back to the beaten path with each loop, with the stick of "come on, you should probably find out what's going on here" rather than the carrot of letting me explore these worlds on my own terms. There's no solution to this of course; I'm not saying they should throw the entire concept of the game into the bin, but it does much to ruin the mood. And the central mystery itself is, unfortunately, quite boring.

It's not good. Sorry! Don't get me wrong, the pieces themselves are fascinating, but the puzzle that results feels a little disappointing. The baseline revelations are easy to find, and spread across multiple planets which means it's easy to run in to them. The Nomai found a way to teleport. They're trying to find the Eye of the Universe. The Statues are at the Centre of Ash Twin. Meanwhile the big picture solutions are hidden in small nooks and crannies, cryptic hints and all. I'm guessing this was intentional, but it doesn't do a great service to the player. They're so keen on finding any new scraps of information that they don't realise this cave in Timber Hearth contains the same clue they discovered two hours ago. Meanwhile, they're banging their head against the wall because the answer to this one thread they're trying to unravel lies on another place entirely. It's a big disappointment.

When it comes down to it, Outer Wilds is a good exploration game marred by a bad mystery and a bad detective game that can easily be solved through the use of heavy exploration. I hope I'm not just speaking for myself, but when I got stuck, it was usually because I didn't have the information I needed rather than any inability to actually solve the puzzle. It's not having a Big Think about what happened, because the information is easily presented to you: you just have to travel to each edge of the solar system to find it all.

When you come to terms with this fact, the game is much more bearable. When you realise that sitting down at your conspiracy wall for five hours is not the ideal solution and, you actually need to go and talk to Feldspar to find out how to get to the core of Giant's Deep, it becomes a lot better. I feel like the game tries to push itself as something where you constantly have to think about the big picture when it's really about exploring and finding out as much as possible and then trying to put everything together.

Anyway, let's talk about how terrifying this game is.

In Outer Wilds, you are alone. The developers know this. There is nothing on any of the planets, but the bones of those long gone. When you go to Attlerock, there is nothing there - a rudimentary scanner for the Eye of the Universe and an old man whistling a never-forgotten tune. The only sounds you hear is yourself, inhaling your limited supply of oxygen. You stare at Giant's Deep in the distance, knowing that there could be something out there... maybe?

Space is terrifying. It's huge, empty and can kill you in seconds if you're not prepared. Outer Wilds taps into this primal fear beautifully. It's quiet. Too quiet. Each planet just... exists? You're not a part of it, you're just visiting. You shouldn't really be here. Best not disturb anything. The music plays when it needs to and doesn't when it doesn't. The sound design is top notch, from the foreboding tornados of Giant's Deep to the shifting sands of the hourglass twins. To me, it's scary in a way that no game is. There's no threat per se. It's just implied.

That is, until you reach Dark Bramble.

Fuck Dark Bramble.

It hovers ominously in the background. You've read the posts. You've seen the Twitch Clips. Dark Bramble is bad news. I didn't even want to get close to the cursed shell of a planet, corrupted by some unknown entity. Each planet in the game looks inviting. You want to find out what's on there. You can either see the rather plain looking surface or know that whatever lies in the interior is manageable. Dark Bramble? Haha.


Why would you? Look at it.

A forboding screenshot of Dark Bramble. It's a broken planet with thorns growing out of it. NOPE.

But your conspiracy wall is getting smaller as you get closer to the central mystery. You realise that you can't put it off any longer. You know the final key to all of this lies on that planet. Oh fine. Time to make preparations: scout launched into Feldspar's camp and the knowledge that the anglers only hunt by sound, not by sight. Here we go.

It only took me a few minutes to find Feldspar, but deep down I think it was one of the most tense, enjoyable moments of the game. It spends hours upon hours tapping into your primordial fears, hinting at the cosmic horror that lies ahead. Then it actually goes through with it. You know it's going to happen. You know that, eventually, you're going to have to make the voyage. It's like taking a relaxing nap on the conveyer belt to your own doom.

I'm not really a huge fan of horror games (hope you're all having fun with Resident Evil right now) because being scared isn't something that I specifically set out to do when I play video games. But horror elements in non-horror games? That's fine, you can sign me up for that I suppose.

It's the perfect moment. Five minutes of pure terror.

But you have to go back.

As you (hopefully) know, the final Trench Run of Outer Wilds involves you stealing the warp core from Ash Twin (the very thing that's keeping you alive in the time loop) and taking it on a pilgrimage through the bramble maze, sneaking your way past those giant, foreboding predators and finally reaching the Nomai vessel trapped within to warp yourself to the Eye of the Universe. It's a great moment on its own. A new, urgent version of the "end of loop" song plays throughout the whole thing, reminding you that this is your shot. This is it. If you fail on this journey, you are going to die. Permanently. It's terrifying in a completely new way and to top it all off, you have to go through Dark Bramble.

You have to go through Dark Bramble.

Oh no.

The idea is fine, but the execution is slightly off because this run is the hardest run that you have to make. There are times in the past where you have to jump over deadly Cactus or find stable ground on a crumbling planet, but that's about it. Mechanically, the game isn't that difficult - it's more about mastering each planet than about mastering your jetpack.

It's a close line to walk; I can easily see disagreement here, but I think the game shows you too much of Dark Bramble. You're not meant to master Dark Bramble in the way you master other planets. It's unknowable. True cosmic horror. Best left unexplored. Reaching the vessel is the only mechanically challenging thing in the game, as you creep past the angler fish, using as little thrust as possible, hoping to God you don't drift into their jaws, headphones on the desk because you're a massive coward. It's not easy, but you're allowed to die as many times as you like. Once you take the core out, you only have one shot, so why not go for a few practice runs?

By the end of the game I was relatively comfortable with Dark Bramble, because I had made the final run so many times. Not only does it turn one of the most interesting planets in the entire game into a mechanical box check, but it cheapens the final run too. Just the fact that you are transporting the one thing that can both save and doom you should be enough. Sure, you could argue that going through most dangerous part of the game with that thing adds to the tension but I'm not really sure if the game should be about that. Why not have the warp station on the Quantum Moon or something? You know, one of the main mysteries that you have to solve that amounts to absolutely nothing in the end?

Of course, then we start getting into questions about what a video game is and whether putting something in your game that has no direct bearing on the final result of the game, yet does have a direct bearing on the game's world at large is a good thing and so on and so on. Let's stop here.

By the way, the game doesn't end if you die with the warp core out. It keeps your progress. I can see why, but deep down I think it would have been funny to reset the whole thing because otherwise, meaning is only implied. From a gameplay perspective, there is no difference between dying in a time loop and dying in a not time loop. I think games are too scared of making the player face the consequences of their actions and giving any kind of significant weight to the situation. This is strange when Outer Wilds already does quite a bit to break down a lot of the conventions of video games. Why not go all the way?

Really though, none of this matters because the developers somehow knew they could completely break me down with their ending.

The thing I like about it most is the decisiveness. Throughout the game, there is some kind of hope you carry around that there is a way to reverse this, to stop all of it from happening. You're not quite sure how it's going to end, you feel like there could be a possibility that everything is going to work out fine.

It doesn't. In the end of Outer Wilds, everyone dies.

You are small and insignificant. The industrious Nomai pulled off what is essentially Time Travel, but even they couldn't tame a living, breathing sun. Even they got wiped out by something as simple as a wandering comet. The chance of the events of Outer Wilds happening itself is so miniscule - a true reflection of the apathy of the universe.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. The one thing I liked about the Hearthian's technology was the scout launcher - a mini probe one can launch that has a variety of uses: you can take pictures, detect hazards and send it through small spaces to see what's on the other side. There is no record of the Nomai having this technology. Despite being capable of doing so - despite their own technology being used to refine the Hearthian design... they just... didn't think of it. Your journey has you standing on the shoulders of the Nomai, sure, but you are still standing on your own two feet. And it's you that makes it to the end, against the odds. In the same way the universe can wipe out an entire system of life without a care in the world, it can also set up a series of events that are so unlikely, so chaotic but still happens! You find the co-ordinates; find the core of the Ash Twin project; find the vessel that takes you to the destination that a race of people spent their entire existence looking for - a full generation of setup. All for the final 22 minutes.

A lot of people wonder why we're here. What is all of this for. I really like the answer that Outer Wilds gives. Throughout the game you can hear the signals of your fellow explorers scattered about the solar system, each one playing the part of a song, miles away from each other. Never together. Sometimes a few of them line up, but never all of them. In your last moments, long after the stars have faded, you gather them together in the Eye of the Universe and they start to play.

That's the answer that Outer Wilds gives. It's about us. It's about being together, even if we're physically miles apart, even if we're separated through 200,000 years of time. We're still connected. It's about reading the life of the Nomai, their infectious enthusiasm towards progress; their arguments; their struggles against the apathy of the universe. And yep, you can probably tell, it absolutely broke me. It went full Interstellar. That's right music is the one thing that can transcend spacetime and all that jazz. I love the theory that the player had no impact on the story - that the Eye of the Universe was going to create a new one no matter what. It was never about that. It was never about having control over cosmic events, but about the answer Outer Wilds gives.

It was about playing one last song.