I don’t normally play enough newly released games to declare something my “game of the year,” but I don’t need to have played a single other thing to know that Outer Wilds more than deserves the title for 2019. Wow, this game.
Outer Wilds is one of those games that makes you want to keep all its secrets secret, so that others can discover them for themselves, but also makes you want to shout its praises from the rooftops, leading to a lot of going “you must play it! Go play it!” without being able to fully tell people why. It’s a bit of a problem for a game recommendation/review. But here are the basics.
Outer Wilds is a space exploration game. You have no weapons and no monsters to fight. It’s just you and your spaceship, and that seems to be held together by little more than hope and sticky tape. You are the latest recruit in your planet’s space exploration program, and your first launch is today. At first, you’ll get very little in the way of direction, beyond “go out there, kid, and explore the solar system.” You are carrying a new piece of technology that allows you to translate writings left by an ancient civilisation known as the Nomai, so maybe you could find some of the things they left behind? Maybe learn something interesting? Otherwise, it’s just pick a direction and see what you find there.
What you’ll find, almost inevitably, is death. Calling the solar system in Outer Wilds “deadly” would be an understatement. Maybe for your first death, you’ll just crash your ship. Maybe you’ll fall. Maybe you’ll find yourself floating in the abyss of space. Every planet and moon in this solar system is exciting and dangerous in its own unique way, and you probably won’t get 20 minutes into your first adventure before something kills you.
Except then you wake up, just before you first blasted into space. You retain all your memories from those past twenty minutes, you know that you died, but here you are again, with everyone acting as though you still haven’t departed.
You’re stuck in a time loop, and now you have another quest — find out what the hell is going on.
So you continue to explore. And if the game was just this, it’d still be fantastic. Outer Wilds is visually stunning, and every planet introduces new dangers and new puzzles to solve. Everything you discovered in previous time loops is recorded in your ship’s log, guiding you to new locations, helping to solve problems and puzzles, and slowly building your picture of the solar system and of what is happening.
Although there are several characters you can chat to, most of Outer Wilds is built through environmental storytelling, and particuarly through the writings left by the ancient Nomai race. Slowly, you become emotionally connected to this long-gone civilisation and its people who were so full of jokes and schemes and dreams. The Nomai people have been dead for 200,000 years, and yet, as you uncover what exactly happened to them all those millennia ago, you can’t help feeling deep sadness that they are gone. The game contains many puzzles and mysteries, but the most compelling element, to me, was the questions it raised through the remnants of the Nomai, about death, memory and legacy. It is, in places, as heartbreaking as it is stunning, and all about people who died long, long ago.
It’s hard to say how long the game takes to finish, because of its random exploration element. There are lots of things you can potentially uncover, but it’s partly up to chance how quickly you piece together the key elements to find “the true ending.” I think I spent about 20 hours exploring every corner of the solar system and turning pretty much every stone before I followed the information I found to the game’s conclusion.
The game isn’t flawless. There are some first person platforming elements that can be tricky at times, and exploration is designed to be hard, even frustrating. As addictive as the game is, sometimes you have to step away because you fell into that black hole for the fifth goddamn time in a row and dammit you just need to get to the abandoned observatory without dying, please. But there are plenty of other puzzles and planets to explore if one of them is driving you crazy, and the narrative reward, when you finally succeed, is worth it. You will also find yourself waiting around sometimes for things to happen. The solar system changes as time progresses, and sometimes you can only access something after some time has passed, or even, in some particular cases, at an exact moment in the loop.
And again, although exploring is fun and rewarding, getting the true ending to the game is very difficult. You have to perform a few difficult tasks on different planets within the same loop, and rushing will kill you. It takes patience and practice and more than a little frustrated yelling when you mess up again.
But god, is it a beautiful game. Visually stunning, absorbing, heartbreaking, and addictive. It’s free on Xbox Game Pass, which is how I played it, and also available on PC on the Epic Store for a very reasonable full price of $24.99. If you get chance, definitely give it a try.