Review: Outer Wilds
In the gaming world, the best we can often hope for is a decent story layered over solid mechanics. It’s a regrettably necessary concession, since good gameplay and good narrative are both so hard to achieve even in isolation from each other. But that means the truly great games, the games that define genres, can be those that marry their story and mechanics in natural ways. These are the games where reading a note about a character’s life makes you realize you have an ability you never thought to try, or using a scanner in a novel way reveals an important piece of the tale. These are games like Outer Wilds, where the entire experience is so expertly crafted at every turn, that you can easily forget you’re playing a game at all as you get pulled into the incredible interactive narrative that unfolds around you.
On the tiny planet of Timber Hearth, the inhabitants have discovered space travel and taken to the stars. Blasting off from rickety platforms in their wood and iron landers, this budding team of explorers are intent on uncovering the mysteries of their corner of the universe. And mysteries there are, like the twin planets that act as an hourglass, or the strange comet that swoops past the sun, or the fragments of a lost world on the fringes of the system. You are the newest astronaut to join their ranks, but something is amiss on the day of your first lift-off. Not all the secrets to be found in space are so benign, and when your first day ends, it will be clear that something must be done about it. Determining what to do, though, leads to a tangle of enigmas far older than your space-faring species, and further-reaching than you could ever imagine.
The magic of Outer Wilds is in solving a mystery that spans your entire solar system, and the less you know about it going in, the better. If you’re at all interested in this title, if what I’ve said so far intrigues you even a little, stop reading here and dive right in. Everything about the experience is predicated on how you’re free to launch from Timber Hearth to any location in the solar system. You have no explicit mission goals, no quests to track or indicators to show you where to go. A brilliantly-integrated tutorial in your home village both educates you on your tools available and provides you a few plot threads to follow up on, and from there everything is up to you. The solar system is small enough that you can get anywhere in just a minute or two, so if you’re particularly intrigued by that glowing molten moon or a strange bright spot deep in space, you can check it out at any time.
Why this works is the greatest achievement of Outer Wilds. Anywhere you go across the solar system, you’ll find important hints and clues to the greater mystery at work. The obvious places to land and explore will point you in the direction of less obvious places, and the deeper secrets will provide insight on the ultimate answers you’re looking for. My first few flights were whirlwinds of revelations, finding ruins in one location that indicated an answer to their puzzle on another planet, and finding an even bigger puzzle to unravel on my way there. These are not just secrets about the story but revelations about the game world itself, revelations that will reveal new capabilities you always had and never realized. It’s almost like an even more elegant Myst, where you could theoretically finish the game on your very first trip to the stars if you stumbled across just the right places at just the right times and approached them with just the right mindset.
Because that’s what progress is in this game, changing your perspective and mindset. You don’t unlock new gadgets or find upgrades for your spaceship. All you need to do to get through Outer Wilds is observe and learn. The tools provided to these ends are extremely useful and fun to use in their own rights, and every important detail you learn is arranged in your ship’s computer to see the connections between them. Just going back over everything you’ve found can be a thrilling experience for the sudden epiphanies you may have while connecting the dots. It’s a game built around eureka moments, and to its credit it has some of the best I’ve experienced short of something like Baba Is You or Return of the Obra Dinn. And it does it without being even as explicitly a puzzle game as either.
As amazing as the seamless joining of narrative and gameplay is here, it’s worth noting that the moment-to-moment gameplay itself is still something special. You have an incredible amount of freedom to jetpack around or maneuver in your spaceship, and with the solar system and planets so small, this mobility gives you a certain sense of power in exploring. Gravity wells and Newtonian physics are in full effect here, allowing you to execute daring orbital maneuvers or just skim the surface of planets yourself, like long-jumping around a tiny world in Super Mario Galaxy. For anyone who struggles with orbital mechanics, there’s also a pretty effective autopilot system for your ship, though it won’t take into account other bodies in space like, say, the sun. The clear interface and momentum indicators make it easier than ever to understand what you’re doing in space, though, so Kerbal-style disasters shouldn’t be that common for anyone.
With such a polished, robust experience from the moment you start, there’s really not that much to complain about. It is worth noting there are some rather harrowing parts of the game, with one in particular playing on the terrifying unknowns of deep space. This can be a very scary game at times, and on many levels, so be prepared for that. Honestly it’s a very emotional journey overall, as the writing for what you’ll discover about present and past societies can hit pretty close to home. My only real gripe with the game was a very specific one with the endgame sequence, and how one of the things you have to do can go very wrong and foul up a bit of the narrative tension, but this is hardly something that should give anyone pause about the game.
The simple, evocative 3D art style meshes well with the warm, homey sort of feel much of the game goes for, and is even more effective when turned against the player in those moments of fright or tension. It’s the sound design, though, that really goes the extra mile to give Outer Wilds a sense of identity. The soundtrack is nothing short of extraordinary, featuring perfect ambient and atmospheric selections for every moment of the game, and the sound effects make even putting on your space suit or pulling out a tool feel like a big deal. This is the total package in a way few games are: a carefully considered and constructed narrative informed by its gameplay and vice-versa, a vast world of inter-connected mysteries and revelations, and an emotional tale that is a joy and a wonder to work through every step of the way.