Outer Wilds Analysis
Luke Rapallo '24
*Warning: Mild Spoilers*
Outer Wilds is by far the best video games I have ever played. I might even go as far to say that it is my favorite piece of media that I have ever consumed. Outer Wilds is truly an experience like no other, if you haven’t played it, you haven’t experienced anything like it, I promise you. This is not a review, nor a recommendation, this is an analysis of a modern masterpiece.
Outer Wilds is a 2019 space exploration game developed by an indie studio named Mobius Digital. When you boot up the game for the first time, you wake up next to a campfire, with a comforting face looking back at you. He tells you that today is the day of your inaugural space flight and that you should explore the nearby town and head to the observatory to get some more information about your goal. This leads you to a small town, where you meet several side characters that will teach you a variety of game mechanics that will be necessary to progress in later stages of the game, such as some basic scientific rules that the game follows throughout its duration. Eventually after getting to the observatory, you talk to the director of the space program, and this is the first of many times when Outer Wilds deviates from the conventions of typical video games. Instead of telling you what your goal in space is, the director asks you “what do you want to do?” When this happened to me, I was confused. How was I supposed to know where to go, or what to do? Before I could answer that question, my ship was blasting off. This is where the game truly shows its hand for the first time. There is a whole functioning solar system and you can go anywhere. There are no restrictions to your mobility except your own ability and knowledge. You could go anywhere, but I decided to fly to the closest planet I saw to minimize my time in space. Unfortunately, I was unfamiliar with how to fly a spaceship, and on my journey I barrelled directly into the sun, resulting in my death. Then something groundbreaking happens, you wake up...again. The same campfire, same friendly face looking back at you, seemingly no consequences for your actions. And as you talk with people it slowly becomes clear. You’re in a time loop.
This time loop you’re stuck in is the crux of what makes every aspect of the Outer Wilds superb. The time loop allows you to explore the rich environment, without constantly worrying about potential consequences for failure during such exploration. The Outer Wilds tells a story in a way no other format ever could, it essentially places you in the center of an inter-galactic mystery, spanning thousands of years, and lets you discover clues and puzzles yourself. The closest comparison to the format of the story is a 20-hour escape room, on a much, much, larger scale. Outer Wilds perfects non-linear storytelling, the clues you find will always give context as to what happened to cause the mystery you find yourself entrenched in, as well as pointing to other locations that may help you gain more information crucial to progression. It also does a good job of fostering curiosity in the player. It makes you want to explore these foreign planets, and to uncover this mystery. It does this by making a gripping story, as well as creating separate interesting environments for each major location, all of which make traversal a unique and challenging experience, without making travel a frustrating experience. For example, there is a planet with several tornadoes covering the surface, this makes travelling the surface difficult, however, you have the tools to navigate quickly and efficiently. All of these elements serve to bolster the strength of the environmental storytelling, while also justifying the non-linear format of the story.
There is a reason that I am going into so little detail about the actual plot of the game, and that is because spoilers in Outer Wilds affect the experience more severely than other pieces of media. This is because where in most games, there is a standard progression system, where your character levels up, obtains new skills or materials, in Outer Wilds the only progression system is your own knowledge. If you knew where to go or what to do, you could “win” the game on the first loop, but you would be depriving yourself of the experience of finding that information for yourself. Uncovering the information however, is an extremely freeing feeling. Discovering a critical piece of information and finding out that a location was always available to you makes the game world feel grounded, as it never breaks any rules that it establishes earlier, while also making it impossible to lose progress, unless you forget key information. This abstract system of progression is certainly interesting, as it has its pros and cons, however the positive effect it has on the reality of the universe far outweighs the risk of ruining the game, as spoilers are easy to avoid if you are trying hard enough.
The music and general atmosphere is the cherry on top of a nearly perfect game. Both of these aspects vary wildly from location to location, yet they still feel cohesive. The music uses strings the majority of the time, but usually for wildly different things. For example, a comforting song called “Timber Hearth” plays quite often and it uses an acoustic guitar to make the player reassured and casual, however in more tense situations the music will shift in an instant to high pitched violins to instill panic and fear into the player. However, throughout all these songs, there is a single mysterious flute melody that plays in the background. This flute constantly playing ever so slightly in the background reminds the player that there are mysteries yet to be uncovered, and keeps the player curious. This flute also ends up playing into the story of the game, which ties everything together nicely. The atmosphere and level design also work nicely to reinforce this feeling of mystery and curiosity. Throughout the game, you are exploring ruins of a civilization long extinct, which naturally leaves the players with many questions about how their society functioned and what happened to these people. It was an expert choice of atmosphere as it constantly leaves the player asking questions, which is exactly what the game wants of you.
Outer Wilds is a deeply innovative and interesting experience. It takes full advantage of the interactive nature of it’s medium in order to tell an interactive story. It also knows its limits and how to reign it in when the mystery gets a little abstract. Outer Wilds bucks a trend of handholding in video games, and it is infinitely better for it. Not having someone tell you where to go makes the player feel empowered, like they are in control. Overall, Outer Wilds makes use of the fact that it is a video game to tell a better story, and to be an interactive experience like no other.