(Very) Lost In Space
HIGH Hearing another adventurer’s distant musical instrument.
LOW The Dark Bramble.
WTF An unexpectedly trippy ending.
In literature, the term “epistolary” describes a story communicated through a series of letters, journal entries, and other fictive documents. The contemporary equivalent is the type of narrative adventure game in which the protagonist is someone other than the player character, and we’re just treading in the wake of a story arc that’s already occurred.
Outer Wilds is hindered by its epistolary approach. On the surface, it’s a first-person space exploration title that runs like an impressively intricate machine, with a solar system full of miniature planets that are all host to their own gravity wells and orbital cycles. There are moments of awe-inspiring discovery here, but being a tourist rather than an active participant turns Outer Wilds increasingly cold and distant over the course of what feels like a 30-hour museum visit.
We begin on the woodland planet of Timber Hearth, its inhabitants exhibiting a fondness for folk music and roasted marshmallows. It’s launch day, but we don’t have much in the way of a concrete mission – just get out there and explore, and maybe learn a bit about the Nomai, a precursor race that disappeared after leaving a bunch of mysterious relics all over the place.
There’s no combat in Outer Wilds, but that doesn’t mean there are no threats. In fact, death is unavoidable – while adjusting to the harsh-but-consistent flight controls, I accidentally made a beeline for the sun and sizzled to death. On my next run, I crashed while attempting to land on a moon called the Attlerock. On my subsequent journey, I touched down safely but suffocated upon stupidly exiting my ship without a suit. Oh, and should players survive for more than about 20 minutes, the sun will go supernova, destroying everything in the solar system.
These deaths don’t result in simply reloading a save, though. For whatever reason, our character is trapped in a time loop, doomed to relive the final moments before the sun’s explosion over and over. Our task, then, is to continue jumping back in time until we have the information necessary to prevent the coming apocalypse. It’s just like that one game with the masks.
It’s gutsy how little direction Outer Wilds gives after the stakes have been established. The completely open-ended structure means we can reach any location from the start and complete objectives in whichever order we like. Progress is made not through upgrades or superpowers, but through understanding of the world and its rules. It’s essentially one massive puzzle, and the ‘solution’ is the only thing standing between the player and the credits. Once I knew the trick, I was able to start a new game and finish it in less than a half hour.
I spoil nothing when I say that the key to saving the solar system lies in the remnants of the Nomai, whose exploits shed light on why this disaster is occurring. However, uncovering their secret involves far more than simply translating ancient journal entries (of which there are many). Their ruins are buzzing with bizarre mechanisms of dubious purpose, and the developers even created fictional laws of quantum travel that prove crucial to unravelling the story’s mysteries. Perhaps smarter players than myself will finish more quickly, but it took me roughly 30 hours to wrap my mind around Outer Wilds’ made-up rules and figure out how to reach the endgame.
While I was frequently in awe of the logistics slotting the moving pieces of this miniature solar system together, the sad truth about Outer Wilds is that it’s just kinda boring to play. Character interactions are scant since most of the information is conveyed through text logs, and as much as this’ll make me sound like an easily-distracted simpleton, the lack of traditional action reduces long stretches of Outer Wilds to little more than walking and reading.
Even the time loop mechanic adds next to nothing. I’d think Outer Wilds would run on a rigid schedule, with certain events only occurring at specific points in the cycle – like that other game with the same premise – but aside from one environment that changes in a substantial way over the course of a loop (and discovering it is extremely cool), the gimmick rarely manifests in creative ways. Instead, it’s the source of great frustration since it throws an arbitrary time limit onto everything and makes the wealth of instant-death scenarios all the more infuriating because there are no checkpoints. (The enemies in the Dark Bramble are a particular nuisance due to this.)
I suppose the ultimate test of Outer Wilds is whether the mystery is even worth solving. I’d be lying if I said that none of the answers are satisfying – the question of why our character is trapped in a time loop has a terrific explanation – but for a game that’s all about working out technicalities, the ending leans far too hard on the spiritual and offers an unearned take on the old “it’s the friends we made along the way” cliché. Any emotional payoff is entirely thanks to Andrew Prahlow’s wonderful soundtrack, which somehow sells kinship and togetherness far better than the writing does.
Outer Wilds is rife with breathtaking sights and sounds, and at the very least, no one could accuse it of being unambitious. Mobius Digital may be a small team but, almost paradoxically, they achieve a remarkable sense of scope by keeping things modest. However, their work suffers from the glacial pace of progress and a hands-off approach to storytelling. My biggest issues – a lack of combat, direction, or material rewards – are obviously deliberate, bold choices on the part of the devs, and I commend Mobius for them while also chiding the cold, inscrutable product that resulted. I admire Outer Wilds, but I don’t love it.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Mobius Digital and published by Annapurna Interactive.It is currently available on Xbox One and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 30 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Everyone 10+ and contains Fantasy Violence and Alcohol References. There’s a lot of general peril and a few moments of mild scariness, but the game has a perfectly kid-friendly look and tone to it.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is text-based. There’s a mechanic that revolves around using a device to locate audio signals, but visual cues clearly indicate which direction players should be pointing. Characters who are located in this manner can be identified by the instruments they’re playing, but that information serves no purpose other than adding flavor.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.