Review: Outer Wilds25 February 2021
As I worked on my Engineering degree, I didn’t normally make time to play games. I mean, why bother anyway? I’d grown so cynical after some disappointing games in 2020, and wondered if maybe I’d finally “outgrown” video games. They were fun for a while, but after 2 years of university, I had to prioritise my study. While I’d previously experienced joy with the open world of Skyrim, the puzzles of Portal 2, and the exploration of Subnautica, I’d never feel like that again.
Thank God for Outer Wilds.
Outer Wilds is a first-person adventure game from Mobius Digital. In it, you play an alien that has just gotten access to his first spaceship. Then, roughly 22 minutes after exploring your solar system, the sun goes supernova, exploding to destroy you and the rest of the map. However, that’s not game over. The clock winds back and you have to start all over again. You are now stuck in a Groundhog Day time loop and are free to explore at your own leisure! If this sounds fun to you, go and buy it! It’s available on PlayStation, XBOX, Switch and PC. If you don’t want to read anymore, and wish to go in completely blind (which you should), know that this is an intelligent, creative, beautiful game that you should experience. But if this doesn’t convince you, I’ll try and elaborate on why this game is worth your time:
If there’s one thing that I love about Outer Wilds, it’s the hands-off approach it takes in guiding you. The game never tells you what it is you should be doing, but if you explore, you’ll almost definitely find clues to hidden secrets, and your curiosity (not a map marker) will be what pushes you in the right direction. There may be times that you get stuck on a problem or can’t reach a certain area, but if you investigate elsewhere, chances are you’ll find a scrap of knowledge hinting at what your next step should be. And that’s really what Outer Wilds is about. Knowledge. Like I said, EVERYTHING gets reset when you die, you don’t keep any special keys, talents, gear or experience points, you’ll just know a little bit more about the solar system each time, and that should be enough to get you further than your last attempt. And if your memory is bad, that’s okay! All the significant discoveries are detailed on your ship’s computer. It will even mark areas where you’ve missed vital clues, so you’ll often be revisiting old areas with new ideas of how to traverse it.
As for the map you explore, it’s fantastic. It’s not the biggest map I’ve seen, but each of the environments offer unique challenges that shake up the formula and keep you on your toes. The map subtly reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, in that each world has its own unique set of physically inherent rules and complications that make sense with how they’re presented. For example, near the sun, there are two planets that orbit each other closely. When the time loop starts, one is covered in sand, and the other is made entirely of rock. As the loop progresses, the sand gets pulled onto the rock planet by its gravity, creating an “hourglass system” that blocks off (or opens up) pathways depending on what time you go there!
While exploration is a huge part of the experience, there will also be times you’re expected to think outside the box for creative solutions. There will be points that you’ve found all the knowledge you can, and you just have to connect the dots and come up with a creative solution. Towards the “end” of my playthrough, I was faced with a very unique challenge, and I didn’t think it was impossible, I just remember thinking:
Sure enough, using knowledge of one of the planets, some ace flying, and some intense concentration, I managed to reach my destination, and it was one of my favourite moments in a video game. It felt so rewarding because it wasn’t just an obstacle course or line puzzle like in The Witness, it relied on you learning about the solar system to complete your goal (like in Breath of the Wild). In my opinion, games that encourage you to progress by becoming engrossed in the setting are the best kind. For too long, I’ve completed games by following map markers, GPS routes or linear paths, but very rarely do I have to progress by absorbing all the details and using my brain.
If there was one thing I didn’t like about the game, it’s how easy you can miss important moments. For example, there are opportunities here only present for a few seconds, and even if I had the right idea, I missed it because I assumed I would have more time to confirm my suspicions. If the game made these windows a bit larger, or could make the physics involved a bit easier to understand (just a little) maybe I would’ve progressed sooner.
I would love to write more about this game and how special it is, but doing so would just ruin the fun. Outer Wilds is a game that I can’t just tell you about. It’s something you have to experience for yourself. You have to play this game. You have to figure out how to properly navigate the solar system, how to use your equipment to solve its puzzles. You have to feel the rush of visiting a new area and dropping your jaw at the beauty of its design and how the hidden paths and puzzles fit so neatly together. You have to run a fine-tooth comb over this until all every piece of the mystery starts falling into place, and work towards a bittersweet ending that will stick with you long after you put the controller down.
So, yeah. That’s how Outer Wilds restored my faith in video games.