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:
- You should play Outer Wilds.
- When you start Outer Wilds, you will struggle to understand why people say “you should play Outer Wilds”.
- When you finish Outer Wilds, you will tell others “you should play Outer Wilds”.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?
* * *
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.