Outer Wilds is one of the most terrifying games I’ve ever played in my life. It’s also one of the most frustrating, beautiful, harrowing, and life-affirming. It’s a game that simultaneously deals with the overwhelming, inconceivable vastness of outer space, and the idea that life – however short lived or fleeting – always matters.
I completed Outer Wilds one week ago, and I’ve found myself unable to stop thinking about it. It is, so far, my favourite game of 2019 by a comfortable distance.
The crucial thing about Outer Wilds is that it’s one of those games that is best played blind, so while I’m not going to dive into massive spoiler territory in this article, if you do want to get the best possible experience from it, I’d advise you go away now, check it out on Xbox Game Pass or PC, and then come back here.
I went into the game knowing virtually nothing about it, aside from the fact that it involved exploring outer space (which is absolutely my jam), and was blown away by the labyrinth of secrets, terrors, and joyous discoveries that were all out there waiting for me.
Outer Wilds is best described as a small-scale No Man’s Sky, crossed with Majora’s Mask, a dash of Metroid Prime, and a good helping of Return of the Obra Dinn. The first thing you need to know is that the game features absolutely no combat of any kind – exploration is the focus here, so when I say it borrows from Zelda and Metroid, I mean this entirely in terms of the way in which you learn more about the world.
You play as a Hearthian, a peace-loving race of four-eyed aliens with a love of tinkering and discovery. The Hearthians seem to be the only intelligent life in the solar system, which consists of a small handful of planets.
A number of you have already set off in crudely constructed ships to see what else is out there in the wild black yonder, and uncover the secrets of the technologically advanced civilization that inhabited the galaxy before you, before mysteriously disappearing, leaving only traces and ruins.
On your journey, you’ll come across these fellow explorers, tucked away on various planets in various circumstances, each with their own musical instrument. These encounters offer a welcome break from the isolation that takes up the majority of Outer Wilds. Like Metroid, it can be a very lonely game.
As the game starts, it’s your turn to hop into a ship and set off into the great unknown, armed with only a crude scout for taking photos, a flashlight, and a device for tracking certain sounds. You can explore your own planet for a little bit and learn the basics of navigation, or head straight to the heavens to see what you can see. From the word go, the entire galaxy is yours to explore.
The problem is that you can only explore the galaxy in 22 minute chunks, because once those 22 minutes are up? The sun at the centre of everything will supernova and whip everything out in a searing blast of white light that slowly spreads outwards, Regardless of where you are, the supernova will catch you within minutes – it’s an unavoidable fate.
Luckily, it turns out you can’t actually die – not really. The first time you meet an untimely end, you’ll discover that you and everyone else is trapped in a Groundhog Day-style time loop, so if the sun explodes, or you check out a little earlier because you drowned, crashed your ship, or accidentally flew into the sun (it happens), you’ll simply wake back up on your home planet, ready to hop in your ship and take off once more.
While this might sound a little frustrating, it’s actually a genius piece of design – perhaps Outer Wild’s masterstroke. See, while dying “resets” everything in the world, the one thing you do retain is knowledge, and it’s this knowledge that’s vital to progressing.
Every planet in the galaxy is absolutely packed with secrets to discover. There are portals to other worlds, underwater ruins, buried civilizations, and a city which is slowly sinking into a black hole – to name just a few of the phenomena you’ll encounter.
With that said, you’ll never uncover the biggest secrets each planet has to offer in one 22 minute run, not unless you stumble across them, which is very unlikely given most of them require you to be in a certain place at a certain time, and perform a certain action.
Instead, you have to learn what you can in the time you have, with what you’ve learned on one run then feeding into the next. For example, my first time out I flew straight to the largest planet, which turned out to be a terrifying mistake; the planet is called Giant’s Deep, and is appropriately entirely covered in water, with giant tornadoes that throw up entire chunks of the ground out of the atmosphere and into space.
I didn’t realise this would happen, and the minute I set foot out of the relative safety of my spaceship to explore, I was flung into space and away from my ship before falling back into the atmosphere of the planet, where I sank to the bottom of the ocean and drowned. It was horrifying.
However, while exploring another planet on a separate run, I discovered the knack to successfully navigating Giant’s Deep. Once I had that knowledge, I could go back to there and find secrets which would in turn teach me tricks and offer deeper hints about the other planets out there.
Every time I thought I’d uncovered all of a planet’s mysteries, I’d find something somewhere else that took me straight back to dig up yet more secrets. Every answer comes with another five questions, but that sense of constant discovery is thrilling.
Everything you learn will take you back to somewhere you’ve already been, where you’ll discover so much more than you’d ever realised was there. As you ping pong around the solar system like an outer space detective, you’ll slowly but surely start to piece together the larger narrative in the most satisfying, seamless way.
At no point does Outer Wilds hold you hand or tell you where to go, which really helps with that sense of hard-earned discovery. Your on-board computer will handily store all the information you’ve recorded (which it retains upon your death) meaning you can examine it any time you like, and slowly piece together the game’s central interconnected mystery via all the smaller puzzles and clues you gather up.
Realizing how each planet is connected, and using rules you’ve learned in one place to succeed in another is just… sparkling design. I always found it hard enough to comprehend how Nintendo managed such jigsaw puzzle design, but that indie studio Mobius Digital has managed it in such a novel way, on such a scale, blows me away every time I think about it.
And that, really, is all I can tell you about the game without completely ruining the point of it. You could look up a walkthrough and head straight to the end of the game within about 20 minutes, but that would completely defeat the purpose of the game.
Actually exploring everywhere and piecing together the cosmos for yourself will take much longer. It took me around 23 hours to gather up enough clues and information to work out how to get to the endgame.
It might take you longer, it might take a hell of a lot less time, but the real joy of Outer Wilds is the journey, and not so much what you discover, but how you discover it, and how you decide to use what you’ve found to push on and learn even more.
If I could get all of you to play one game in 2019, it would without hesitation be Outer Wilds. It’s a beautiful, melancholic game that speaks to the adventurer in all of us – perhaps more than any other game I’ve ever played.
Perhaps the most incredible, tragic thing about this game is that everyone will only ever have one “pure” playthrough of it. You can start as many new games as you like, of course, but once you’ve learned everything about the universe and its rules, the way the game works means you’ll know everything about every planet. No more surprises.
That initial joy of discovery will be gone forever, because you’ll always know you can climb straight into your crappy ship and fly to the end. The first time you take off and watch your home planet shrink away as you soar into space and see the planets laid out before you is the last time you’ll really do so. The first time you finally unravel the central mystery, will be the last time you ever crack it.
Every discovery is a joy, and yet every discovery takes you further away from that fleeting, near-indescribable magic of playing Outer Wilds for the first time. The more we know, the less that could be. But then, I think that’s the message the game was trying to convey the entire time.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.