I originally wrote this "review" as part of a games of the year piece I did at the end of 2019. I'm excerpting the segment on Outer Wilds - my favorite game of that year, and at this point, of all time - so that I can tweet it out and pester more of my friends into playing it in the run up to the new expansion. (Available now!!) Enjoy!
When I went to go see Inside Out with Carter Ware a few summers ago, I jokingly told him that if he cried, I would not drive him home. 90 minutes later, the two of us were sobbing, and something inside me broke. Since then, almost anything even slightly emotional will make me cry. Sad banjo music while walking through the tunnel under the Atlanta airport? A single solitary tear rolls down my cheek. A warm starry night sitting next to my friends around a campfire? My eyes are watery and blurry as I hold back tears with a really funny looking frowny face. That one Apple Music commercial with the airpods and the dancing? I am a snotty mess. I say all of that to explain my earlier mentioned reactions to Riven and Sayonara Wild Hearts, and to preface me saying that the ending of Outer Wilds made me weep in an entirely new way. I’ll get to the how and the why of that reaction a little later (because it is kind of spoiler-y), and start with my explanation of why I love this game, my pitch on why you should play it, and my argument that this game is the true successor to Riven.
In Outer Wilds, you play as an alien from the small, woodsy, Pacific Northwest planet of Timber Hearth. You are the newest astronaut of the Outer Wilds, the planet’s Sierras Club-esque team of space explorers - currently spread out throughout the solar system, each equipped with a handmade instrument, all playing different parts of the same song from back on Timber Hearth. You wake up by a campfire, with your friend roasting marshmallows, reminding you that today is finally the day that you’ll make your first trip to space. You make your way around the town as folksy banjo music plays, talking to the 10 or 12 other people who live there - all of them excited for you, all of them rooting for you to make the planet of Timber Hearth proud with whatever it is you discover. As you make your way to the observatory tower to pick up the launch codes for the shuttle, a newly discovered relic from a precursor civilization - a statue - opens its eyes and links itself to you. Everyone is confused, but they wish you a safe trip, and watch as you take off. Minutes later, you die as the sun goes supernova.
And then, you’re back at the campfire, waking up to your friend roasting marshmallows and everyone wishing you a safe trip. Somehow, you’ve been caught in a time loop by that statue, and it’s up to you to take the tools that you’ve been given - a jetpack, a camera drone, a radio, and a brand new translator tool for deciphering writing from those precursors, the Nomai - and explore the completely simulated 5 planet solar system to figure out why.
You fly around in your tiny spaceship, making your way to each of the planets, talking to the astronauts about points of interest, exploring Nomai ruins, and playing around with the natural phenomena and bits of abandoned technology that you find there. A mix of folksy music and synths accompany your journey as you do everything you can to solve the mystery of the time loop and the supernova. Every 22 minutes (or sooner if you die) the sun will explode, and you’ll be back on Timber Hearth, ready to go again. Each time you learn something new, it will be added to your ship’s computer - which functions as a sort of red yarn and thumbtacks rumor board. And honestly, that’s about it - Outer Wilds is kind of weird as a video game, because there’s no powers to unlock, no upgrades to purchase, no additional wrinkles that get added after a couple hours of gameplay. Much like Riven, this is a game of exploring places and their histories. Everything is open to you from the start, and the only thing that changes as you play is what you know - about the solar system, about the Nomai, about the loop, and about the supernova that always ends each 22 minute loop.
Time loops aren’t a new thing in video games, but in every other looping game I’ve played, they come with a sense of dread and urgency - they’re a hassle, and for the most part they don’t add to the experience in any way other than acting as a powerful narrative framing. Not the case in Outer Wilds, where instead of feeling limiting, the time loop feels freeing - giving you a way to experiment without fear of failure. There will always be another loop, so you can try to land on that busted space station, or fly into that black hole, or see what happens if you try to skip your ship around the sun’s powerful fiery orbit. This does mean that the opening of the game can be a bit aimless, but a little poking reveals dozens of threads to pull at and follow, all of them the perfect length to be focused in on and tackled in a single loop. My game of the year in 2018 was Return of the Obra Dinn, because it made me feel like a detective. In much the same way, Outer Wilds made me feel like an explorer. It got its hooks in me in a way that only a few games ever have. And up until I finished it on Saturday night, I thought that was going to be the end of the story for Outer Wilds - just another game on a list of games that I loved and then forgot about. Wow was I wrong.
How do we wrap our heads around the ultimate shape and size and impact of our place in the world? Can we? In either the second or the third Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book, one of the characters, Zaphod, gets put inside something called the “Total Perspective Vortex,” which is designed to zoom out, and give the person inside a true sense of how miniscule their place in the universe actually is, driving them insane. Of course, the thing backfires, and Zaphod instead concludes that this thing has shown him what he always knew - that he is the center of the universe. In a completely un-narcissistic way, I’ve always kind of related to this bit, because try as I might, I can’t grasp that sense of my own spatial or temporal smallness when I look up into the stars, and that has always made me feel bad. Video games feel kind of like the worst version of this thing that to me, feels like a sin, because the worlds of games almost always do just revolve around you in a way that’s rarely acknowledged, and is pretty much never critiqued. I think that’s why it feels so crazy that Outer Wilds decides to just swing for the fences and tell a story that is ultimately about the briefness of human experience in the face of time on the cosmic scale. Even crazier is that it manages to do so without falling into hopelessness or nihilism. The final sequence of Outer Wilds makes it clear that this is a game about coming to terms with inevitability, but not being defeated by it. In some ways, it feels like something that can only come out of the kind of crummy circumstances we’re living in right now, and it begs to be experienced - if Riven posits that the ending might not be written, Outer Wilds instead states that actually, it for sure is written, but at the same time it demands that we continue to write our own stories in the interim.