Aimlessly Going Forward

blog by Tomas Sedovic

Outer Wilds

http://outerwilds.com/

Warning: This game is incredibly easy to spoil! I will try to avoid doing that, but I will talk about the main mechanic openly (it's kind of impossible not to). If you want to go into it completely unspoiled, stop here and just go play it. It's amazing.

The first time I heard about Outer Wilds was, wow, six years ago:

http://smthst.blogspot.com/2013/06/space-oddity.html

(a post by Lukáš Grygar, a Czech games journalist)

The game was in an early alpha and I wasn't inclined to play it then. But my goodness did it sound intriguing! A space exploration in a mostly physics-based stellar system where 20 minutes in the star explodes in a supernova and the whole thing resets.

I'd mostly stopped paying attention waiting for the full release. But the name did stick around and when people started talking about it recently, my ears pricked up.

Outer Wilds is an absolutely excellent game.

Wibbley-wobbley Timey-wimey

The premise hadn't changed: you're in a time loop lasting 22 minutes, exploring your stellar system (you're not human, there is neither Earth nor Sol) in your rocket and space suit. At the end (or if you die before that), everything resets. The people in your village are not aware of this. So you fly around, explore the planets and their moons translating notes that an earlier civilisation left there.

There's no direction, nothing holding your hand. It's just you, your spacesuit and your ship. Go see things, learn things.

As you start translating the alien text, stories and mysteries start to unfold. And those will form the bases of your future missions. But you can set up your own. There's nothing (not even death) holding you back, and thanks to the time loop, there are no consequences.

And it is all an utter delight. There's a huge amount to explore, each celestial body has its own feel and the mysteries that start building up gripped me from the start and kept me deeply involved until the end.

I kept thinking about the game's world even when I wasn't playing. Trying to build the full picture in my head. It is a rare book or TV that does that to me. In games? Almost unheard of.

Gorgeous

On top of the genuinely fascinating mysteries (which are a lot more involved than just WTF is up with this time loop -- though that certainly bears investigating), I really enjoyed the visuals and music. The audio design especially.

This kind of visual style isn't generally my cup of tea. I didn't find the screenshots and videos particularly appealing. But when I actually played it, it was wonderful.

More importantly, it really fit with the overall mood of the game (which is quite complex).

As for the music, oh my god.

For the majority of your time playing it, there is none. But the game is very musical. There are places and occasions where it starts and it's always tasteful, unobtrusive and beautiful.

All the other space explorers are musicians and you can find them throughout the system, sitting at a campfire playing a tune. And there are deeper levels there too.

And finally, about two minutes before the end of the loop, a song starts playing. This is a cliché, but it is hauntingly beautiful. It can signify many different things: a panicky mad dash trying to finish your objective on that particular mission. Or a serene walk to find a nice spot, sit down and enjoy the view.

That song has been stuck in my head since I started playing and lasted for days after I'd finished. I heard it every time I go to sleep or just when my mind wanders.

Science or Fiction?

The physics situation was a really pleasant surprise. You play the game and you immediately see that this is a space-themed fantasy rather than a real science fiction. You've got cacti growing in the vacuum, plants warping spacetime, items appearing and disappearing. A launch pad built out of wood. You can hear a song played by someone on another planet through the vacuum of space.

Plus, the entire stellar system could have come out of The Little Prince. The farthest planet is about 30 km from the central star (yes, 30 kilometers), everything moves really fast, you can often see the curvature of the world you're on and if you look up you'll see planets and moons zip around in real time.

This all makes perfect sense in the time-loop setting (you want lots of interesting things to happen during a short period of time) and gameplay considerations. But it meant I was not expecting any actual scientific knowledge to seep through.

So I was thoroughly surprised to find the game is much more scientific than I thought. Moving in the space basically works as it should: a single burst is enough to give you momentum infinitely. Hovering above a planet (or a star) will pull you down (you can't just stay in one place without providing a constant counter push). These things are not necessarily intuitive or gamey but they are very much Newtonian.

And there were a couple of notes there from the resident astronomer about major discoveries mirroring the huge changes in our cosmological understanding of the universe. Plus some other, spoilery stuff.

None of that was necessary at all, but it was a really nice touch for someone who cares deeply about astronomy and cosmology.

Dizzying

On the note of the tiny accelerated scale of the system though: it can be very vertigo-inducing. I've tried to play this with my wife who is prone to motion sickness and she had to stop (even when she was just watching from afar it was too much). I don't generally suffer from motion sickness or vertigo (other than the occasional brief flashes due to my brain damage) and even I felt a bit dizzy playing this game at times.

I think it's because you're standing on a planet so tiny you can see its curvature, the stars above are in a constant motion and every minute a huge planet or a moon zips past. Just a warning for people who might have trouble with these things.

The Feel

Both the Hearthians (your race) and the Nomai (the ancient civilisation whose remains you're exploring) are just wonderful.

The whole game is this lovely mix of delightful brashness, exciting exploration, gentle humour, deep tragedy and utter horror.

And most of that has to do with the sweet characters and their civilisations (past and present). I would have loved to meet the Nomai. They seem like a really nice bunch.

It all seems like a hodge-podge that wouldn't really fit together, being thematically all over the place. But it does do so well. It feels... real somehow. Like these characters have actually lived.

Not many games are able to impart this. I think it's actually because unlike most other games, nothing here is about you. Things happen whether you want them to or not. The time goes on. The Ash Twin will always fill up with sand. The Brittle Hollow will always get shattered. The Nomai did what they did and there's no changing that.

And so it's not all done in service of you the player (or your character). You're just there to explore, to find things out, to find your own meaning and your own path.

Difficulties

There are things in the game I didn't quite enjoy.

Moving the ship as well as floating around in your spacesuit are a little difficult to do (or at least they were for me). It's easy to undershoot and then overcorrect. You'll fling yourself into the star by accident or get hit by a passing moon. And that's okay!

These things spice up your loops and can lead to new discoveries. After crashing into a planet you hadn't seen, you'll laugh and go look around since you're already there. Like in Dark Souls: no death is wasted. Plus you'll get constantly better at controlling your movement.

But. A few (and it's only really like 4-5 out of maybe a hundred) sequences you need to do to get somewhere are both really demanding in terms of precision and mastery over the physics and controller. And, these are often really time sensitive as well.

A couple of these could only happen at a very specific time either right at the beginning or the end of the loop. If you've missed your chance or made a mistake (that's extremely easy to do), that's it, no second chances. You'll have to wait for the next loop.

When that happens at the beginning, oh well. You'll kill yourself and try again or just go exploring elsewhere.

But when this is at the end of the loop, you basically have to park your ship at a certain spot, wait for 20 minutes for the thing to happen, rush like mad (without making any mistakes which equal lost time) to gather all the new info and hope you've managed to do it all in one go. I didn't so I had to repeat this same process two times to close that particular thread off.

And all these super-sensitive one-attempt-per-loop hard-to-do actions are crucial to getting to the endgame. At the end, you have to then string a couple together and somehow finish this on time -- despite the middle section being explicitly designed so you cannot rush it. You have to be extremely precise while also being quick and keeping your head cool. In those times, I felt anger and frustration more than anything else.

These situations felt out of place for the game. Yes it is sometimes difficult, but you pick yourself up and try again. But when you have to literally wait for up to 15 minutes and there's nothing else to do because you've cleared up all the other stuff, it's just really annoying.

I love the idea of having harder sections that you have to try over and over to master. Shit, that's pretty much the Dark Souls formula! And I love the fact that every planet experiences a progression of time, that things change irreversibly and that some things you can only do early in the cycle and others only later.

But combining the two just makes things super frustrating. Trying and trying again is all about short cycles. You learn from your failures and try to be more precise next time. And the next. And next.

On the other hand, working on the time-based puzzles should be all about you understanding the system. You mess up if you go in too early or too late. And that should be your failure mode, not the fact that you also didn't manage to twiddle your sticks just right.

In my opinion they should have either decoupled these two aspects of the challenge or make them a little more welcoming (e.g. by increasing the timespan so if you fail, you can get at least another attempt or two in).

I was also struggling with figuring out the quantum-based puzzles. There weren't many there, but they're things I don't tend to do very well on. They reminded me of Antichamber and they were the main reason I never got far in that game.

I tend to avoid puzzle games in general (all my puzzle-solving brain capacity seems to be spent at work and hobby projects and I've got little left for games, i.e. relaxation time). And puzzles that depend on where you are or aren't looking I just don't get along with at all.

That said, these were the exceptions rather than the rule. The majority of the game is very light on puzzles and it's more about exploring things and putting the knowledge you've learned along the way to good use.

Ending

I have been obsessed with endings lately. In games, books, TV shows. And this one is special.

Hard to discuss the details without spoiling anything, but I was really anxious about how this would all end. There are several obvious ways that would just result in a deep disappointment. Sci-fi games in general and time-travelling stories in particular are quite prone to easy, but unsatisfactory resolutions.

Not Outer Wilds. There is a time when you've learned the outline of everything that had happened and you're like: Fuck. Now what?

And the game just puts it all together, wraps it up and lets you go. Not exactly satisfied, but pensive at the very least, possibly even changed.

For a spoilery discussion of the ending and how it can change a person, go read this fantastic article by Tom Marks at IGN.

Persistence

There is none. For all intents and purposes, every loop is just like any other. You do not carry anything across your lives. No items, no changes in the world, nothing.

Except your knowledge. Anything you've learned stays in your mind (and the ship's computer). This means anything you can can do in a run, you can do in the very first one as well.

Having completed it once, you can start a fresh game, on a fresh computer and get right to the end without dying once (barring any mistakes so in reality, this is not actually possible for yours truly :P). Without experiencing a single reset, as if there were no time loop.

I can't think of any other game I've played that does this. Roguelikes (at least the traditional ones that don't carry anything over across runs) probably come closest though they're different: every playthrough in a roguelike is a different world so you're learning new things and facing new challenges.

I guess another similar thing might be the Dark Souls' no-death challenges and similar. But in all these cases we're still talking a significant amount of time (though DS pros can finish the game in a couple of hours compared to like eighty the first playthrough would take you).

But this still feels very different to me. You're not aided by any items or anything else you pick up on the way. Just your knowledge. You know you've got to go to that place over there at the right time, enter this area, pick up the thing, go to that other planet over there, find that thing inside and bring your thing into that thing. The end.

There is absolutely no way you could discover any of that by accident. Unlike say Her Story which I was reminded of in many ways. There, if you're lucky (or unlucky) and type a crucial word early on, you can unravel the whole thing there and then.

Not here. You do need to explore places and learn things in order to gather the information you need. But once you've got it, there's nothing stopping you from using it again and again.

I remember a talk by Jonathan Blow where he described issues with the traditional inventory systems (particularly around item managements, trying to combine every thing with every other thing) and how that gets in the way of puzzles. And how he designed The Witness to put the inventory inside your head instead. Where you can combine and rearrange your "items" (pieces of knowledge) much more fluidly, without fiddling with any of the clunky in-game interfaces.

It was an intriguing idea back then and I feel Outer Wilds absolutely rocks it here. Yes, for all intents and purposes, the game does have an inventory, but it's in your head. Even if you start completely anew (therefore resetting the entries in your computer), you still know the layout of the stellar system. You know where's what. You know how to get to the quantum moon and how to navigate the Dark Bramble. Nothing (other than time, head trauma or drugs) can take that away from you.

I will probably never attempt the clean no-death run towards the end, but realising it's there, knowing I could... it's really something.

Conclusion

It's always hard to predict how much of a long-term impact any single game will have on you while you're playing it or just after you've finished. And that sort of lasting effect is not even always something one cares about. It's perfectly okay to play a game, have fun and then drop it and be done.

But still, Outer Wilds feels like a game I will be coming back to in my thoughts a lot.

And even if not, the time I've spent in that world has been absolutely wonderful. This is without question one of the best computer games I have ever played.

Yes, there are some frustrating moments in it, but they're vastly outweighed by everything else. The exploration, the passage of time, the Nomai and their very human desires and struggles. The music.

The "can games be art" silliness had been settled ages ago, but if it weren't, Outer Wilds would be a great fucking example.

Tomas Sedovic on 15 October, 2019