About 8 hours in to Outer Wilds, I had this feeling - like what I was experiencing here was something special, and that I should treasure every moment spent exploring this clockwork solar system. Another 15 hours and some truly wild discoveries later, I can confidently say that feeling hadn’t led me astray.
We have come to understand “good" game design as rewarding a player with an upward progression of power, namely through new gear or numerical stat increases. This progression is nearly always paired with an increasing intensity of conflict, where the player avatar is, again nearly always, destroying an ungodly amount of some form of life. Be it demons or draugr, bandits or robots, monsters or men - death follows in the wake of the interactivity.
There is, of course, death in Outer Wilds. A lot of it, in fact. The game is very much entirely about the ending of life - it just goes about that discussion in a very different manner.
Outer Wilds is a space adventure game set within a contained solar system. You begin your journey by heading in to the village, chatting with the locals and picking up the launch codes for your ship. A strange ancient statue catches your eye as you leave the observatory - literally, as it turns to face you with it’s eyes glowing - before taking off from the launch pad to explore in any direction you desire.
That is until 22 minutes later, when the sun explodes, destroying everything in existence.
That’s OK though. For some reason, you re-awaken back at your camp site, ready to set out on your voyage for the first time. This time, however, you already know the launch codes. And so you set off again, for another 22 minutes, to see what you can discover.
That opening segment sets the gameplay loop perfectly, not only in giving you a clear window with a beginning, middle and end for each loop you experience, but for explaining to you what this game is.
There are no levels to gain, no stats to increase. There are no upgrades to your space ship, and no new gear to obtain - everything you will ever have and need is with you from the very beginning. No, what you are collecting as you make your way through are not numbers or “things" - instead, what you are gaining is knowledge. That’s all.
Technically, you could finish Outer Wilds in less than 30 minutes if you looked up a guide on the internet and followed the instructions. But just as it is in reality, Outer Wilds is not necessarily about the destination - though that is important in and of itself - but more about how you get to where you are going.
Because in Outer Wilds, you have all the (22 minute) time (loops) in the world to explore, discover, or simply enjoy the sun.
The solar system available for your perusal in Outer Wilds is less concerned with lining up realistically with science, and instead builds a universe around the idea of realistic science. There are many fantastical sci-fi ideas hidden throughout the many breathtaking locales here, but to describe any would be to spoil it. Discovering what’s out there isn’t even half the charm; it’s all of it.
Many of the greatest moments in Outer Wilds aren’t found in some grand quest arc or overcoming of monumental difficulty; rather, they are the quiet ones. They will be the moments when you’re standing in front of some translated text on a wall, have had a realization of a narrative through line after connecting the dots in your mind, or when you finally work out why something happens the way it does. Or, it might simply be as you drift out in space, alone, as the musical key winds down and you witness the beauty of an exploding star.
To say any more would be to spoil this wonderful experience, so I will leave you with this: play Outer Wilds. It’s that simple. Give it your time, your thoughts and your curiosity; it will reward you with questions, emotions and profound discovery.