It’s A Tragedy That I Won’t Be Able To Relive The Wonder Of Outer Wilds
You wake up next to a campfire and look up at the stars to see a flash, followed by a UFO zooming away. What was that? Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds has you asking questions within the first few seconds of the game. Questions are the running theme throughout; there’s not a moment that goes by where you’re not wondering why, how, where, or who.
Looking up at the stars has always been considered one of the things that makes us human. We gaze up at the abyss and wonder if we’re alone. We wonder if we’ll meet anyone who can give us the answers we’re looking for. We wonder why we’re here. And it’s this wonderment that Outer Wilds plays on so well.
The game’s starting planet, Timber Heath, acts as a tutorial area, after which you’re launched into space with some vague directions. It’s only then that you discover that it’s a vast expanse of chaos that nothing could have prepared you for; if that isn’t a metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. As soon as you’re out of the atmosphere you’re bombarded with more questions than Brittle Hollow is with volcanic rocks.
The planets in Outer Wild’s mini-galaxy aren’t like the ones we’re used to seeing in other games or in similar sci-fi content. You’ll likely start the game asking yourself the one question, but the story continues to pile them on before you can even make sense of just one of them Why is there a twin pair of planets with loose soil constantly falling between them? How are floating land masses thrown into the stratosphere of Giant’s Deep? Or perhaps, most importantly, why am I waking up next to the same campfire each time I die?
Each planet you visit helps you answer some questions, whilst also adding more to the pile. At times you’ll find yourself scavenging through your logs like Charlie Kelly from that meme-d episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and sometimes you’ll find yourself sitting in your spaceship, pondering upon your insignificance as the galaxy continues to spin with or without you.
Your journey across the system leads you to discover that you aren’t the centre of it. You’re a mere Hearthian trapped in the machinations of an advanced precursor race known as the Nomai. This race harnessed an entire solar system to try and stop the heat death of the universe. That’s why meeting the last surviving member of the race was such a humbling experience. Who are you, compared to such an advanced and noble species? Who are you in the larger scheme of things? The universe cares not for your little trifles and problems. The sense of smallness the game makes you feel is terrifying and liberating at the same time.
This is only complimented by Andrew Prahlow’s brilliant OST. The Timber Hearth track reminds you of home; what you’re trying to save. But it’s the End Times track that really strikes a chord with me. It picks up as the solar system’s sun reaches critical mass and is about to explode, ending your 22 minute run. As the score picks up, it makes you think back upon your run. Did you do enough? Did you accomplish what you set out to? It’s the end times, and you’re sitting on a distant planet wondering if your life meant something. Even to this day, that two-minute track makes me look back upon my life and wonder if it’s been worth it.
You do save the universe in the end; in a way. Rebooting is better than annihilation I guess. But Outer Wilds is a game that gives you the big picture only a few minutes before you finish the game. Yes, it answers all the questions you have, but the sense of wonderment stays with you even two years after completing the game. In one last existential fuck-you, the game reveals that the final step in the mystery was right there.
There’s no level-gating or blocking; if you know it, you could finish the game in the first loop itself. And that’s the most heartbreaking thing about Outer Wilds, once you know, you know; you can’t really replay it. All you’re left with is that sense of wonder, from first flight to final destination.
Outer Wilds teaches you that there will always be things to make us wonder. There will be an infinite number of questions you’ll want answers to, but chances are that very few of them will be answered. You might as well make music with your friends, roast marshmallows, and watch the stars.
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