Electron Dance
22Aug/2014

The Sun Always Rises

Hello. If you are fortunate enough not to have played Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019), then here is everything you need to know right now:

  1. You should play Outer Wilds.
  2. When you start Outer Wilds, you will struggle to understand why people say “you should play Outer Wilds”.
  3. When you finish Outer Wilds, you will tell others “you should play Outer Wilds”.
  4. You should not read the rest of this spoiler-rich post.

* * *

After blasting away from my home planet of Timber Hearth for the first time, I was attracted to the dark shape orbiting the sun like a moth to a flame. But the autopilot wouldn’t lock onto it, so my journey to a station mere millimetres above the sun’s corona would make my moth simile somewhat more literal. So the next best thing was a creamy planet called Ash Twin.

I noted the column connecting Ash Twin to its neighbour Ember Twin, a knobbly ball of clay, but I found the idea of a solid structure linking two planets ridiculous - the physical stresses would rip it apart in no time. But I was young and naive: everything is ridiculous in Outer Wilds and that’s what makes it so interesting. After all, I was flying around in a ship made of wood. (A cardboard ship would have made the source material too obvious.)

I set down on a path then followed it to a few apparently inert structures. Ash Twin seemed a little dull - was this to be the entire game? Huge planets with a smattering of largely empty locations?

Then I saw it.

Sand column on Ash Twin

Over the top of the next structure, a white, shimmering column of milk was advancing towards me at speed - the pillar connecting the planets wasn’t solid at all. I was trapped on an elevated section of the path; if I jumped off sideways I would probably fall to my doom and I had forgotten all about the jet pack. I doubted I could outrun it and the structure in front of me had a closed door.

I ran to the door... and it did not open. I pushed myself hard against its surface - and when I mean hard, I mean I held down the S key and recited a quiet prayer to the videogame gods. The column passed above and, miraculously, the thin door frame provided enough protection. Phew.

Then I noticed the word “SHIP” tumbling upwards through the column.

* * *

Outer Wilds hadn’t prodded me towards Dark Bramble but as my exploration options narrowed I decided to find out why I could hear Feldspar’s harmonica coming from the planet - as well as from a Bramble seed on Timber Hearth.

But as soon as I penetrated Dark Bramble's interior, I was enveloped in a filthy, impenetrable fog. A Nomai escape pod signal appeared to be closer than Feldspar so I followed that trail instead of the harmonica for this run but, of course, nothing is what it seems inside the corrupted space of Dark Bramble.

Dark Bramble

The fog exerted drag on my spacecraft, so I kept having to boost the ship’s forward inertia every few seconds. Silhouettes of barbed vines seemed to reach out of the fog towards me, and the unbroken, eerie whine of the distress signal meant Outer Wilds was unexpectedly treading sci-fi horror territory. I waited for the other shoe to drop. This journey probably only lasted around a couple of minutes, but I felt every terrifying second of it.

The children and I jolted as a guttural growl heralded two rows of sharp teeth clamping shut over the cockpit windscreen.

Inside the maw of a predator, the only colour left is black.

* * *

What isn’t clear at first is that progress in Outer Wilds is dependent on becoming not just familiar with each planet but establishing landing sites you can return to quickly. I was still unfamiliar with Brittle Hollow during my mid-game explorations, particularly as it disintegrates over time which makes cartography a nightmare. I chose to land on something that looked like a landing pad surrounded by a conical metal lattice, even though it was difficult to get through the narrow mouth of it.

After setting down the ship slapbang in the middle of the pad, I wondered if this should become my regular Brittle Hollow landing spot, I took a closer look at the wishbone-shaped controls of the structure which was called a “Gravity Cannon”.

It had an option to “recall the shuttle” which was at the “Quantum Moon”. I dragged the little orb of light up the shorter side of the wishbone to recall the shuttle and there was a loud explosion: the shuttle had appeared on the landing pad and blown my poor ship to pieces.

With a 22-minute Groundhog Day cycle and no quick save, your urge is to maintain unfailing forward momentum and uncover what you can before time runs out. One of those 22-minute cycles would unearth the biggest of secrets: why the sun is exploding and how you can stop it. But there are banana peels everywhere and careless rushing will send you zooming into a premature end. There’s plenty of frustrating jank like drawing coordinates to plot the Vessel’s course or the whoops-I-slipped-into-a-black-hole journey to the Southern Observatory, but often these aren’t traps but jokes. Outer Wilds wants you to slow the fuck down. Stop and appreciate the absurdity.

I then attempted to board the Nomai shuttle but it was tilted off its axis due to its explosive arrival. The blue transport tube fired me like a cannonball across the vessel’s interior and smack into a wall which, I presume, broke every bone in my Hearthian body.

* * *

I landed on The Interloper, a ball of ice that whizzes around the solar system, just to see if it was possible. It was actually the second time I attempted a landing: the first attempt was at the end of the game’s very first 22-minute cycle. That time, the screen shimmered blue then exploded to white as my descent spiralled out of control. I was dead. My children had warned me to be careful about crazy comet radiation and considered it an entirely self-inflicted death. No one suspected that I had actually been vaporised by a supernova.

Second time, it was a small joy to discover that landing on the comet was possible. There was the briefest moment where I assumed this was a rare achievement, that few players would even bother. Considering that Outer Wilds fires a few narrative arrows towards the comet, it’s likely most players will undertake the voyage to The Interloper at some point... and discover the awful secret buried within.

But right now, this first time, I was gleeful being the first cometnaut. I was mindful not to do any gleeful jumping to celebrate this moment because the comet’s gravity was so weak. The surface seemed larger than I expected but that was down to disorientation as it lacked notable landmarks to navigate by. Then I came across something which looked like mountains.

The Interloper

Confused about the direction of gravity, I began to climb them - but soon reversed course sharpish. It was the back of the comet. YOU’RE ABOUT TO FALL INTO SPACE, YOU FOOL.

Banana peels, banana peels.

* * *

Your character has little ability to interact with the universe. Outer Wilds is about observation, making the player a witness to what has gone before. And so Outer Wilds is a forest of answers for questions you haven’t even conceived of yet. Sometimes context is needed to grasp those questions, other times you need a nudge to stop looking and start seeing.

Like when Chert told me that he had seen many supernovae in space. I hadn’t realised the little sparkling puffs of space light weren’t just videogame window dressing. Each one was a supernova. God. They were everywhere.

I watched them for a few minutes, not quite able to absorb what I was seeing. The penny refused to drop. That grim penny.

Jesus Christ, I thought. How the hell did the Nomai do this?

* * *

Supernova over Ash Twin

Every time the sun explodes, I have an urge to take photos. There’s not much else you can do when the world ends other than observe. You can’t outrun a shockwave that will obliterate planets.

Actually, not strictly true. You can get ahead of the shockwave in your trusty Hearthian ship, if you put the pedal to the metal.

Not that there’s a happy ending for you in the void of interstellar space. Inside the maw of entropy, the only colour left is black.

* * *

Outer Wilds’ graphics felt serviceable rather than beautiful, although they were far more evocative and fitting than those on show in the various prototypes (hey, go look up Spaceworthy). I am not here to gripe about graphical choices - Outer Wilds is a game steeped in technological trade-offs. For example, you can slow down Outer Wilds by putting your character, the scout and the ship on three different planets, forcing the game to model three planets simultaneously.

But graphics are not just eye candy. Outer Wilds is a masterclass of mindblowing visual ideas that punch well above its graphical weight. Who doesn’t remember the moment they discovered Brittle Hollow is actually hollow?

I experienced perhaps the best reveal. Descending just a few steps from the surface at the Tower of Quantum Knowledge reveals what at first looks like a vast, blue cavern… but it’s no cavern.

Brittle Hollow

I climbed back up the steps, called my family over, and repeated the descent.

I waited for their gasps.

* * *

So many times I took off from a planet thinking I’ll go and visit the planet’s moon - only to find no moon when I could have sworn I’d seen one before. I always shrugged it off as my unfamiliarity with the scale of Outer Wilds’ spatial distances, not realising it was yet another one of those answers hiding in plain sight.

When it was time to track down the planet-hopping Quantum Moon for real, I figured I was supposed to use the Nomai shuttle I retrieved from the moon to do it. This led to a sequence of frustrated fiddling with the shuttle controls trying to keep my eyes on the moon which vanished each time I looked away.

In the end, I was so fed up that when the rear end of the shuttle was pointed directly at the Quantum Moon far away, I threw myself out of the shuttle towards it.

I knew in my bones this wasn’t the correct way to reach the Quantum Moon but I was excited - just this once - to reach the moon after all the shuttle shenanigans. Except I wasn’t heading towards the Quantum Moon, but Disappointment Planet. You see, I wasn’t looking closely enough: I had not thrown myself across the depths of space towards the Quantum Moon… but Giant’s Deep.

Its gravity ensnared me as my jetpack ran out of fuel. I bounced on the water planet’s black vortices like space trampolines while awaiting the inevitable supernova. I planned to take a few more cool snaps of the sun exploding.

Except I ran out of oxygen instead. Just one of those 22-minute days, I guess.

* * *

In Subnautica, the depths are terrifying. Sometimes you want to submit yourself to them, even if it means doom, because once you touch the sea bed, the unknown is dispelled. In certainty there is comfort.

Outer Wilds conjures the same terror in many guises. The most obvious parallel is the black, electric-riddled core of the water planet Giant’s Deep. But then there’s the black hole at the centre of Brittle Hollow. Teetering on the edge of a comet. The infinite descent into the monster-infested mists of Dark Bramble. Looking up from the surface of Ember Twin to see an engorged, hungry sun blotting out the sky, looking below into the dark rifts of its underground caverns.

The whole teeters on the edge of an abyss in which the ultimate truth lurks. Once the player submits to this abyss, the certainty at its bottom will destroy everything.

* * *

I was unable to make sense of talk of “The Vessel” the first time I heard about it, but reading multiple takes gradually clarified the details. The Nomai had been searching for a new star system to call home but chasing a signal to the “Eye of the Universe” lead them to the heart of Dark Bramble where they almost perished.

We all reach enlightenment in Outer Wilds at different speeds. Every player is like a little probe, surging out into the Outer Wilds universe in a unique direction, crafting their own story of slow but inexorable discovery.

The Nomai Probe

Now I had never figured out how to breach the Tower of Quantum Enlightenment on Brittle Hollow and, in theory, without the information found there, you will not be able to unlock the Quantum Moon’s great secret. Except, I did unlock it.

Despite what I thought were thorough explorations of the Quantum Moon, the Ship Log told me there was more to discover there. I returned and made a complete search of the surface and, watching the mini-map, I realised an important fact: I could never reach the north pole.

Using the shrine on the Quantum Moon, you could give the moon an opportunity to hop to the orbit of another planet. Even though the Quantum Moon’s terrain was different in each instance, the north pole was often inaccessible. In its Giant’s Deep incarnation, a tornado surrounded it. In its Dark Bramble incarnation, knotted vines encased it. I tried climbing over the moon’s mountains in one incarnation to the pole but only succeeded in jumping beyond the atmosphere - freeing the moon to hop to another location and abandon me to drift in space alone. Banana peel.

The memory is now hazy but I believe I reached the north pole from its Brittle Hollow incarnation and, from there, was able to access the sixth incarnation when the Quantum Moon orbits the enigmatic Eye of the Universe.

Reaching a brand new location is always a prize for an explorer-player. But the real treasure was being able to interact with a living, breathing Nomai after spending hours exploring their dead cities, littered with broken Nomai skeletons.

Solanum on the Quantum Moon

* * *

What killed the Nomai?

There was absolutely nothing in the historical record to indicate cause. A number of Nomai skeletons indicated they died in completely ordinary situations - such as the skeletons of Nomai children sleeping in bed. Whatever happened was sudden and unexpected.

I reckoned they obviously did it to themselves with their Sun Station. Outer Wilds: another tragic tale of an advanced culture being undone by scientific hubris. Yeah, I know this story. And if I could just figure out how to reach the Sun Station, I’d have it confirmed.

But I hadn’t given much thought to all that lethal ghost matter scattered across every planet... another dark answer biding its time, waiting for its question to surface. What killed the Nomai?

The revelation inside the comet was not the most haunting moment of Outer Wilds, but it was close. Two Nomai scientists, Poke and Pye, had discovered “exotic matter” at the heart of the comet which was likely to explode at any time and wipe out life throughout the star system. Poke was meant to leave and warn the rest of the Nomai before it was too late - but their dead bodies float inside the comet, shattered by crystalline fragments of ghost matter. It exploded, there and then.

That was all the warning the Nomai had. I was worried that 22 minutes might not be long enough to save the galaxy. The Nomai did not even have 22 seconds.

The body of Pye inside The Interloper

* * *

While nosing around the structures that dotted the equator of Ash Twin, I stepped onto a warp core embedded in the floor at exactly the right time - and was instantly whooshed to Brittle Hollow.

If I was a cartoon character, I would have rubbed my eyes then pinched myself to verify I really was where I thought I was: under the Black Hole Forge.

The Forge had been a thorn in the side of my Brittle Hollow explorations because it seemed to be “important” but I couldn’t actually get there. No matter how much I trapised all over The Hanging City, I couldn’t rustle up a path to take me there. Yet here I was without even bloody trying.

Unfortunately, the Forge itself was not in position: you have to flip a switch elsewhere in The Hanging City to make it accessible. I would need to start again and follow this sequence: head to Brittle Hollow first, travel into The Hanging City, flip the switch, exit the Hanging City, fly to Ash Twin, find the right structure and let the warp core do its biz.

What a nice plan.

But I didn’t know what a warp core was or how they functioned. Neither did I know how to distinguish the Ash Twin structures. In other words, I’d have to try the “purple floor panels” in every building on the planet and figure out how to trigger the warp. Also recall that Brittle Hollow made "cartography a nightmare" which meant I was perpetually lost.

So, yeah, it took a few attempts, during which I killed myself through more than one aggressive landing. Slow the fuck down. But, eventually, I made it.

My son watched as I stepped from Ash Twin to Brittle Hollow via warp core and headed towards the Forge, straight off the artificial gravity walkway, forgetting that I was LITERALLY HANGING OFF THE INSIDE OF THE PLANETARY CRUST, and we both screamed in unison as I tumbled into the black hole core of Brittle Hollow. I hit the jetpack in futile desperation but the black hole always ALWAYS gets its man.

* * *

Existential dread would often ambush me in my teens when I’d think too much about the death of stars and the end of the universe. I probably found comfort in H. P. Lovecraft because fictional powerlessness is a lot easier to deal with than scientific powerlessness. Nowadays, these feelings rarely surface. But Outer Wilds, shovel in hand, dug them all up.

Sun Station.

That’s where I put it all together. When bad things happen in a videogame story, you're supposed to put things right. Not here. My faith was just another banana peel.

That stunning moment where you fall from one part of Sun Station to the other, close enough to caress a dying sun, put me in just the right mood. This was it. This was the enlightenment I was promised. I was here for truth. I was here to fix the universe.

Sun Station

But the worst thing about the place was how little there was to see or to learn. Sun Station tells you something which is not, rather than something which is.

And the shock revelation is this: the Sun Station was supposed to blow up the sun but it didn’t work. At that point, I couldn’t even fathom why the Nomai would want to blow up their own sun. But it didn’t work.

The grim penny finally dropped. There’s no murderer, no murder weapon, no wacky science to undo. Your sun is dying like the rest because Outer Wilds takes place during the end of the cosmos. There is nothing that can fix that.

And that was the ultimate truth waiting for me all along. These short 22 minutes are not to stop the supernova but to accept that everyone is going to die. Death is inevitable. A certainty that destroys everything.

* * *

After accepting there was nothing I could do to save Timber Hearth, Outer Wilds left me with one goal, which was to finish the grand project the Nomai started. I had to use those 22 minutes to reach the Eye of the Universe.

The intentions of the Eye are left vague - whether it even possesses sentience is unclear. I suspect the impending heat death of the universe triggers the Eye to send a signal to attract an observer. I wonder whether Dark Bramble, with its space-twisting vines, created an echo of the Eye’s supersignal which the Nomai followed instead and almost perished. If it wasn’t for the Nomai’s Ash Twin project, it is likely the Eye would never have been found and eternal darkness would be the fate of the universe.

The alternative Eye-as-God theory is that the Eye knew that the single intervention of transmitting the signal would be enough to set everything in motion, beginning with the Nomai being lost to Dark Bramble and culminating with the player's arrival at the Eye. I prefer my theory.

Reaching the Eye completes the conception of the player as an observer: the Eye, a place of seeing, linked to quantum objects that only exist when observed. The Eye is where the ultimate observation can be made, an observation of a brand new universe. You, your Outer Wilds pals and a Nomai stranded in time get to reboot the universe.

I admit I never felt much kinship with any of the Outer Wilds characters. Each character was afforded a single conversation tree which was more a mine of information than an actual conversation. This is unavoidable to some extent as conversations must reset at the start of each loop. The Nomai were also represented as a selection of text fragments which I rarely found engaging on a human level. However, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts: it created a convincing sense of place.

Nomai ruins on Hollow's Lantern

The final musical performance at the Eye was bittersweet not because I loved those characters - but I was going to miss what they represented. After becoming familiar with every nook and cranny of the solar system, the long history of the Nomai and the shorter history of the Hearthians… Outer Wilds tells you all of it must end.

I spent all my time learning everything I could about the Nomai and their culture and my observation ensured their species - though long gone - remained alive in some sense. Even though they faced a sudden and cruel extinction that could not be averted, they were remembered. Death is never quite the end because memories of our lives survive in others, embers of a life burned bright.

Outer Wilds’ take on death is somewhat more... total. Outer Wilds focuses the player on observing the past, remembering what went before - only to delete time at its climax and say everything must be forgotten, that this is law. I found the final message a little mixed: remember the past but accept you will be forgotten.

The trail of every Nomai probe

I imagine Outer Wilds would prefer I considered the importance of what we leave behind for others: the Hearthians leave behind the most wonderful gift, a whole new universe. The pursuit for immortality is not the pursuit for immortality.

That’s not the only message of Outer Wilds, of course. From the exhibits of the Hearthian Observatory to the Nomai’s grand projects, scientific curiosity is treated as an essential component of a thriving species. It also suggests that space is where we must go in the end, despite the great dangers that lay beyond our atmosphere.

There is just one more thought I want to leave with you. Perhaps you have recognised some of the hints I have been dropping and this conclusion will be no surprise to you.

Outer Wilds is a game where you can go anywhere and will let you flounder if you approach problems in the wrong order. It is a game that expects you to work everything out by yourself. A game of clever and distinct puzzles, many of them making use of the environment. A game that pushes you to the edge then lets you fall. A game of secrets, some of which can be skipped entirely on your journey to the end. A game that muses on the meaning of life, the universe and everything. A game with no villains, only positive intentions.

If there is one game that could claim to be a spiritual sequel to The Witness, it would be Outer Wilds.

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  1. Outer wilds is one of those games you want to be able to forget so that you can replay it. It doesn’t really have much replay value once you’ve learned all its secrets. Reading this article was a great way to re-experience some of the magic through your re-telling. Thanks for writing

  2. Thanks Nate. I thought the best way to write this is to allow the veteran Outer Wildsters a chance to relive the game, which everybody wishes they could do!

  3. First of all, thanks for the piece. For me as well, it was a way to experience Outer Wilds again, the small, fragmented steps, the false starts, the realisations. Beautifully written.

    I played OW right when it came out, and observed (eh) with great interest as the community formed around the game theorised, explored, tried to put pieces together not only – not even mainly – to ‘solve’ the game, but to reconstruct the story of the planets, the system, the Nomai, the Hearthians. I’m not that good at figuring out puzzles and directions, to be honest, and this (combined with my crippling fear of deep water which made me put off exploration of Giant’s Deep as much as possible) pushed me to look up some of the clues. I’m sure this robbed me of some of the intended experience of discovery, but I don’t mind too much. For me, reading the diaries, learning of the Nomai’s struggle to adapt to a new solar system, search for the Eye, and even the small, apparently insignificant relationships between them was as interesting as seeing the sights and learning how the planets work. OW is the first game I played that really humanises the process of scientific inquiry and discovery.

    As such, I’m not sure I agree with your take on OW’s message. I found the game very forward-facing in all its aspects. Exploring Nomai ruins, reading their messages, is not something done out of a necessity to remember; rather, I feel it’s the learning, the advancing that’s the focus. Somewhat naively, OW is saying to me that in the path of discovering and understanding the universe (and ourselves) we are all merely stepping stones. In the ending, you are not alone, even if technically it was you who “discovered” the Eye. That it argues against a self-centered “great men” view of science while also not making you the hero of the story is the cherry on top.

    Still, that’s my very biased reading of the game. Hopefully it made some sense.

  4. I didn’t finish Outer Wilds. I got pretty much everything but the access to the Ash Twin core was too iffy for me to discover without a walkthrough; plus, anglerfish evading seems really iffy on keyboard+mouse; this means i couldn’t find the Vessel, and couldn’t do the final run *after* getting a walkthrough.

    This makes me a little bitter, because until the very end, the game is just burying you further in depressive conclusions. It’s not really a game about wilds; it’s a game about *ruins*.

  5. Lorenzo

    Hey! Yes, looking down into the water of Giant’s Deep is scary as heck, brought back all those Subnautica horror vibes. I also enjoyed piecing together the larger Nomai history and the hints of how their lives operated – reading about “The Festival” for example, which is tradition our Nomai couldn’t continue as they had lost contact with the other Nomai clans. I have been back into play a few times to prepare for this article, and it’s surprising the number of Nomai cultural details I missed. That is, I read them, but I wasn’t able to put them in proper context until later in the game. As those details were not important for completing the game, they weren’t revisited. So there’s still more for me to do, really. I should return to the Nomai ruins on Timber Hearth and the Attlerock because those were about the first ruins I explored.

    I can agree with your thoughts on the Outer Wilds focus on scientific endeavours – I was going to write a little more about that (the tone of the Observatory museum is excellent) but I had already spent 4,000 words talking about what the game did for me :) You’ve just reminded me that I don’t think a single one of the Nomai scientific discoveries/inventions were named after anyone although there are suggestions of a little ego here and there! (Thinking of the construction of the probe launcher and the warp cores.)

    Thanks for reading.

    Zara

    Ah, I didn’t realise you had actually quit on the end.

    Ash Twin is an interesting one because it was the last place I gained access to and was close to giving up. Here was how I worked through it. Tere was some chatter about the shell of the project having to be supernova-proof which meant they couldn’t have a natural entrance/exit. And eventually I realised ohhhh that means it has to be a warp, after having already explored Ash Twin countless times looking for a secret door. Then it was just a matter of thinking it through and realising where the warp had to be; I had assumed the warp to Ash Twin wouldn’t be on the same world but of course there’s no such rule. I was wondering why I might not have triggered it before by accident and whooosh, the sand column scooped me up first time. (Sun Station, incidentally, I did use a walkthough on.)

    The trick which I had been told before was that you could place a HUD marker on the Vessel which would shorten the route instead of having to go via Escape Pod 3 every time. I only used thrust when I absolutely needed to (i.e. in the vicinity of a “portal” node) because once an angler fish was disturbed that pretty much meant I was dead meat. That meant I was able to complete the game on first attempt although the co-ordinate entry was a mess – that interface was shonky as hell.

    I agree that it’s not really much about exploring planets and a new frontier but about exploring a lost culture. Although there is some clever weird planet stuff such as the sand exchange, that’s definitely not the focus of Outer Wilds at all.

  6. That intro… chef’s kiss!

    My takeaway from Outer Wilds was a kind of ‘positive nihilism’; that, while in the end, everything might be pointless, all we really have is now so make the most of it (as well as the company of others–the gathering where you all have one last musical hurrah together was bittersweet for that reason for me. Getting the old band together.) I know that’s a bloody obvious thing, but in the face of absolute total cosmic annihilation (which I don’t think I’ve witnessed before in anything) it seemed a lot more vivid or real and provocative.

    If you visit Chert at different stages during the 22 minutes, he starts quite chipper while recording star activity. A bit later he’s noticed… some of them are going nova. Then he realises they’re all doing it and, god, wouldn’t it suck if we were the ones who had to witness the end of the universe? (And that kind of lottery is pretty damn terrifying in itself!) He panics and doesn’t talk much for a while. Towards the end of the cycle, he’s accepted it and I seem to recall him just wanting to enjoy the view or something. It reminded me a bit of (Dark spoilers!) Jonas and Martha, and to some degree Magnus and Franziska just before the end of the world, but also The Flaming Lips songs ‘Do You Realize?’ and ‘All We Have Is Now’, which are back-to-back.

    I know very little about philosophy, for what it’s worth, but existentialism and nihilism always seem to be portrayed as dark or negative concepts so it was refreshing to play a game that somehow manages to take a toybox solar system, imbue it with so much cosmic awe-inspiring spectacle, scale and raw wonder, then make its total destruction… weirdly edifying. It was the last thing I expected. I feel like Outer Wilds *gets* space and exploration and the unknown and discovery unlike most other games. I thought it was going to fluff the ending but it just left me breathless and pretty emotional. What a ride. The soundtrack is a huge part of the experience too. Andrew Prahlow did such an incredible job getting the emotional beats and atmosphere just right, from the warmth and cosiness of Timber Hearth to the melancholy of the Nomai. I listened to an interview with him and apparently most of the soundtrack was done a long time before the game was complete and only towards the end of development did he come back to record the ending credits, which I think makes that piece more poignant still.

    Something else which I also appreciated with Outer Wilds, and this is reflected in the logo as well, is how it balances/contrasts/juxtaposes extremes, from the heat death of the universe, time travel and quantum mechanics (BIG THINGS), to wooden spacecrafts, toasting marshmallows and playing banjo beside the campfire (small things). ‘Backpacking in space’ as Alex Beachum said. I’m not sure Outer Wilds would have worked as well without that warmth or humanity to ground the lofty stuff. I think that’s something that was missing from The Witness for me. It felt very cold and clinical in comparison, despite its deeper and similarly affirmative core or meaning! That, and I was too dumb for a lot of the monologues! :-) I think your final paragraph and sentence are spot on though.

    Anyway, I’m so glad you played and enjoyed it as much as I did! I don’t think I’ll ever have such an incredible run of games from Quadrilateral Cowboy to Return of the Obra Dinn to Outer Wilds (and The Witness was played amongst them all co-op). After each one I was left feeling like I’d peaked for the year.

    A few final things: looking back at screenshots seeing that you observed and snapped the Quantum Moon without realising it is trippy. Also, blinking at the beginning and seeing it momentarily appear then disappear is all kinds of WHAAAAAAT? I got to the north pole on the Quantum Moon using quantum entanglement to move the tower while inside it! You have to turn the light off and on until the wall markings and floor change. That was a moment for me. Oh and seeing the suspended Nomai in Dark Bramble who pursued the phantom signal of The Vessel and perished was sad. I thought of you when Solanum appeared. It’s not all beautiful dead!

  7. Video recommendation from Andy Durdin: Jacob Geller’s 17-minute Outer Wilds: Death, Inevitability, and Ray Bradbury.” It’s a nice little story and try not to stare at the Ray Bradbudy typo.

    Hello Gregg!

    I once discussed in more detail with Chert about our sun on the verge of the supernova and he freaked out and shut down for the rest of the duration. Well, as far as I am aware: I didn’t have a habit of going back to people too much. I wonder if there any conversations you can have at the precise moment of supernova where someone goes “oh my gosh”.

    I’m not sure what to think of gaining the “power” to exit the loop early from a conversation with Gabbro. Part of me feels like it should have been something you had from the beginning – but I also understand that forcing you to deal with dead time delivers playful moments but might not have happened with an instant reset button.

    I think you’re on point about Outer Wilds getting space exploration with a caveat: despite Outer Wilds breaking practically every known physics rule of our universe, it feels much more like how you imagined space exploration to be as a child: hopping from planet to planet is less than a minute, thrusting through space, explore wacky planets.

    I concur that The Witness feels a little cold versus Outer Wilds which exudes more human warmth and that’s why the ending resonates much more – although this is despite the fact I couldn’t quite feel connected with any of the characters. (Solanum came close and Feldspar’s fuck-it attitude was delightful.)

    To clarify: I did everything I was supposed to do with the Quantum Moon – I also blacked out the shrine (what you called the tower; I don’t want to get mixed up with the “Tower of Quantum Knowledge”) to shift to the Eye’s orbit. We figured all this stuff out before resolving what happened to Coleus and without reaching the Tower at all. I believe Brittle Hollow gives you direct access to the North pole but the other orbits don’t, and the shrine appears right there. Walkthroughs I’ve read since suggests you just need to get “near” the pole.

    It was a genuine surprise to find Solanum, who was obviously caught at the Eye’s orbit when the comet struck. She suspected that she was not “entirely alive”. It felt possible that I’d meet a living Nomai at the ending but certainly not as part of the game proper.

  8. This is a great write up; glad to see you enjoyed it so much! I’ve read about people who bounced off it early and people who love it through the end like you seemed to, but haven’t seen many critics who shared my experience.

    I love so many of its big existential ideas and how those made me feel, but might hate nearly as much how it felt to play its late sections. Instead of further new discoveries, it’s suddenly about precision testing climactic epiphanies that are incredibly possible to fumble in execution, even if the conception is correct. Combined with a time loop that has hard opening gates several minutes in, it made iterative experimentation feel (for me) punishing and time-wasting in a way The Witness never did.

    Putting one of the most frustrating dexterity challenges late in the sequence was also especially souring during my last few cycles. That stress, plus the lack of a definitive “ok, the timer has stopped” notice during the actual final segment meant I was mostly just dreading the low % possibility that I’d suddenly see white heat death overcoming the screen again and have to run the gauntlet once more. My whole end run experience really thoroughly corroded the wonder and good will I’d felt before then. :(

  9. Hello CP! I also struggled with some of Outer Wilds’ wild physics at times. I’ve mentioned the coordinate entry and the journey to the Southern Observatory – but I suffered much during my Sunless City explorations. It’s interesting just how much of the game is time-dependent. It does make it difficult to approach the game with calm in the face of intense time limits. I managed this but I played for nearly 30 hours. I’ve been watching Joseph Anderson play on Twitch and he’s been racing through it.

    I was confident, after travelling to the Eye, that the nova timer was no longer a problem. But it would’ve been nice if the nova had been made clear in the distance to put you at ease – you can see the nova from the Vessel apparently, but *only* if the time is right.

  10. So many moments in this article sent that same shiver down my spine. There are a handful (3, maybe 4) of games that I’ve loved almost spiritually… At the risk of sounding grandiose, they were spiritual experiences. This was one. I could try to explain it, but I’ll never be able to pin down exactly what I mean.

    I could say this: there is one cosmological theory that says, if I understand (I’m no physicist), that as the expansion of the universe accelerates to its conclusion and the speed at which everything is rushing away from everything else reaches the speed of light, every part of the universe is infinitely stretched and time becomes meaningless, stopped. At that point, when there can be no more time between these infinitely separated points, there’s no difference, relativisitcally, between infinitely stretched and infinitely compressed, but still expanding. Zoom out. You’re looking at a new universe.

    I don’t know if we’ve found any yet, but apparently, black holes from the previous universe should be traceable in the cosmic background radiation of this one. A remnant from before the universe. Like the Eye.

  11. Mr. B!

    I think I get what you mean on the “spiritual experiences” but I’m not going to be drawn explicitly on that here for fear of getting into taxonomy wars! Obviously The Witness made me feel this way, but perhaps one of the most important game experiences I’ve ever had was Cart Life. Man, that game.

    As for your other theory, I’m not sure what to say other than have you thought of working on Outer Wilds 2?

  12. 22nd August?! Apparently I left it longer than I thought to comment on this post.

    I remember playing an old alpha of Outer Wilds many, many years, and though I didn’t invest much time I was intrigued by the promise of these weird-looking places and their evocative names, as well as the orbital-mechanics-in-microcosm aspect of the game. It must have been five years later that the final game finally emerged, and oh boy, did it buck the trend of reality falling short of expectation. :)

    Thanks for this piece allowing we veterans to relive the game. I liked all the vignettes of your exploration and wonder. These moments feel so personal, and in precise execution they often are (that Brittle Hollow revelation!) but of course the game is precisely authored, so said moments are of course universal. Hmm. I wonder if that could stand as metaphor for something…

    Incidentally, I never thought to flee the supernova by travelling out-system. :)

    One aspect of Outer Wilds as a puzzle game that I appreciated was how you are largely free to pursue goals as you see fit. I hate hitting a metaphorical brick wall in a linear puzzler and being left with either looping through the same failed solutions and patterns of thought, looking up a walkthrough, or taking a breather to allow my brain to work through the problem. I’m impatient, for sure. With the Outer Wilds I could take that breather by just going and exploring somewhere else. I valued that.

    Obviously this shuts down as you approach the conclusion and, like CP, I had a lot of issues with some final runs that were highly prescriptive, at odds with the bulk of my time with the game. Whereas earlier I could simply decide that this iteration would be about exploring planet X or Y, I now had to travel to one place to set up a precondition to do something elsewhere. And that f**king co-ordinate entry UI! On my first attempt I fumbled it and was unable to reset, and just cursed at the screen until the supernova consumed me. I shut the game down and didn’t return for several days.

    “I found the final message a little mixed: remember the past but accept you will be forgotten.”

    Perhaps, but was this not the reality for the vast majority of humanity and human cultures throughout history?

    I don’t really have a point to make here as I’ve not worked through this idea myself, but it strikes me that the above is only really contradictory if you stick within certain precepts (those that come naturally to highly individualised consumer societies, to be fair).

    I also find myself thinking here of Shelley’s Ozymandias. Hmm.

    I feel that in part Outer Wilds is about coming to terms with endings, and with learning to let go. Loss need not be an ending. Or to put it another way: All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. Baty’s interiority dies with him, but he chooses to save Deckard. :)

    That said I like your reading of the game, and Lorenzo’s too. It’s a delight that the game legitimately supports multiple readings. That’s good storytelling!

  13. Hi Shaun!

    Originally, I was going to write a series of very brief articles “Tales from the Outer Wilds” each one being a vignette that felt unique – such as bouncing on Giant’s Deep waiting for the supernova. But I kept collecting more and more little stories and decided to put them in one long article instead. I know some of these vignettes would be unique but others not – the discovery inside the comet, for example – and I knew it would be fun for readers to relive some of these moments.

    We were lucky to get through that co-ordinate UI first time – but we did have to force it to reset which was not easy. I drew one coordinate wrong and desperately needed to fix.

    On being forgotten: I felt the game (amongst other things) was conveying how an entire species could be remembered through archaeology – that it’s achievements and culture what not be lost. But Outer Wilds curtails that for your own species. I agree, however, that one of its themes is of accepting that all things must pass… embrace the moment and forget about posterity. The moment is all that counts.

  14. I should also add about speeding away from the supernova… I didn’t think it was possible but it certainly was. However, nothing special happens – the game just stops and resets as it usually does. I didn’t understand this originally (why can’t I just stay alive in space) but, of course, once you fill in the gaps with Ash Twin it makes sense. It’s just like if you sit inside Ash Twin during the supernova. You’re safe but, at some point, the memory transmission sent back 22 minutes completes and that’s the end of the memory.


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