Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds. Its been out for about a month. No, you’re thinking of that other game, Outer Worlds, which isn’t out yet.

From screenshots and video you’d be inclined to think this is something in the vein of a No Man’s Sky. Massive, craft-y, procedural. The sort of game where you accumulate x of this and y of that to eventually unlock a gun or a few more lines of flavor text. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case. Outer Wilds is set in a lovingly crafted, cohesive solar system that consists of a handful of planetoids. Despite a boxy, sparse aesthetic the game is beautiful, and terrifying and it does have an ending. In fact it has many endings, spaced approximately 22 minutes apart.

Awakening on the surface of Timber Hearth (the Earth analogue), you (blue alien with many eyes) prepare for your first foray into the screaming black void of space in your rinky-dink wooden spaceship. But first, you’ll be needing the launch codes from the local observatory. The observatory which is also a museum and shrine to the Nomai: an advanced super-race who inhabited the star system long ago, but aren’t here any longer. On your way out of the observatory a chance encounter with an enigmatic Nomai statue causes you to slip into a time loop from which there is no escape — even death. From this point the game becomes a Groundhog Day-ish adventure in which you have to solve the mystery of the Nomai’s disappearance and save the universe before the sun supernovas, which occurs every 22 minutes or so.

And it’s not just the obliteration of the solar system you need to contend with. Over the ~20 hours you’ll spend in the Outer Wilds your haphazard forays into the star system will see you crushed, eaten, smashed into rocks, sucked into voids and asphyxiating in the cold vacuum of space. Mistakes will be made. You will forget at least once to put your spacesuit on before leaving the ship. That’s not to mention your remedial piloting of a junky spaceship that will cause you to misjudge landing trajectories and autopilot into the sun on the reg. You’ll think you’re getting a handle on navigation and how the various jets and thrusters work, but then you’ll miscalculate stopping distance one time and take a physics lesson to the face. But each time, you reawaken with a gasp next to the crackling campfire on Timber Hearth, and everything is fine.

Death is just another tool in your limited inventory, and initial trepidation at stepping into the unknown will give way to “let’s see what happens” after the first few cringe-inducing misadventures.

Speaking of that limited inventory: save for your ship, a signalscope (for tracking space sounds) a translator and a remote scouting orb, there is no persistent item or key collection. The only item you need is this, he says, tapping his head. There is a ship log that will update over time, leaving you with a chart full of information nodes and rumours webbed together by color-coded lines, like the work of some interstellar conspiracy nut. The log populates automatically as you find notes left by the Nomai in their fractal, non-linear scribblings all over the star system, and slowly the Bigger Picture starts to come together.

And what a big picture it is, for a relatively sparse collection of worlds.

For the duration of each 22 minute cycle, the planets go through violent metamorphosis. See the Hourglass Twins: two planets that orbit the sun in such close proximity to each other that gravitational pull slowly displaces an ocean of sand between the planets, revealing secrets on one twin, and burying them on the other. Or there’s Brittle Hollow, a planet with a fragile crust that is slowly crumbling and being sucked into the black hole at the planet’s core. Observe the typhoons that litter the surface of Giant’s Deep — a water planet — occasionally thrusting a handful of nomadic islands up into the lower atmosphere. Indeed, much like Giant’s Deep, the clockwork diorama that is Outer Wilds often gives way to some unfathomable, spooky, depths.

At times Outer Wilds is lonely, and terrifying. Existentially, cosmically terrifying. Looking down (up?) into a black hole — or worse, falling into the yawning void of darkness — gave me the willies the way no other game has. Plunging through the cold darkness of Giant’s Deep past giant phosphorescent jellyfish set my hair on end. Panic set in as the rising sands of Ash Twin threatened to crush me within the derelict superstructures of an underground city. And what to say about Dark Bramble, a nightmarish void of space-dilation full of impenetrable mist, and thorns, and…

We don’t go to Dark Bramble.

But for all this trauma, there is also the unbridled joy of organic discovery. Short of a tip from a fellow Hearthian at the outset (one of only a handful of characters in the universe), the game is bereft of markers or waypoints or anything to interfere as you follow tidbits of information from one mystery to another. What is the Interloper? What is the Quantum Moon, and where does it go when it disappears? Why does my signalscope pick up banjo music deep within Brittle Hollow?

It’s basically Myst in space, but the reiteration of some info across different planets and locations ensures that you won’t hit a frustrating dead end for overlooking a single vital codex somewhere. In this way, it’s less obtuse than Myst could sometimes be. As restrictive as a 22 minute loop sounds, it’s a generous amount of time to pull at an investigative thread or two, and keeps the tempo of the game bouncing between laid-back exploration and last-minute struggles to wrap up your findings before the sun begins its implosion (foreshadowed by a melancholic synth track).

My one lament is that short of a concussion there is no incentive to revisit this game. Cursed with the knowledge of a hundred previous loops you can find your way from the start of the game to the end in about 20 minutes. It’s not even good for speedrunning thanks to some arbitrary waiting you need to do at certain points. Once the game is over you may reload and eke out a few extra nuggets of lore from a few more liftoffs, but the possibilities are (unlike the vast expanses of space) unfortunately finite.

If you do find yourself in the Outer Wilds, savour it. As the adage goes, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

But also, the ending is pretty good.

Outer Wilds is available on PC via the Epic Store (£19.99) and on Xbox (£20.99 / Game Pass)