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13 July 2022

Outer Wilds Review

by Florian

The Outer Wilds is one of the most delightful and enjoyable games I have ever played. It’s one of those games that transcends its genre (and medium) and is an excellent mechanical story-teller.

There’s spoilers here, so be aware.

But first, yes, I am one of those people who bought The Outer Worlds thinking it was The Outer Wilds. I don’t really regret this! That was a fun, albeit dumb, game.

The Premise

The Outer Wilds’ premise is that you’re an alien creature - a Hearthian - and your species has recently discovered space flight. The Hearthians are sending astronauts out to explore their small solar system through a group called “The Outer Wilds Expeditions.” You’ve just joined and you’re on your first mission into space!

It’s really hard to overstate just how delightful this setup is. There’s maybe 30 Hearthians total? It’s more of a small village than a full blown civilization. They hang out and play music or eat marshmallows. Space is more of a camping trip than a yawning abyss of emptiness.

Before launching off into space, you “pair” with a statue that begins recording your memories. Apparently there was an ancient civilization that lived in your solar system called the Nomai who disappeared mysteriously thousands of years ago, but left remnants of their past around. The mind reading statue is from them.

It becomes apparent while playing that the universe is stuck in a 22 minute time loop. Every 22 in-game minutes (about 26 minutes in reality) the game resets. You’re back to being on your home planet awaiting your first space launch.

Each loop, you retain any information you gathered previously, but that’s it. Everything else is reset. The game gives you this, a Nomai translator, and a couple other odd tools and you’re off exploring the half dozen planets in your solar system.

What makes this so great?

The game’s premise (even as I typed it) is not crazy original. A sci-fi adventure where you bop between planets is pretty standard fare - KOTOR, No Man’s Sky, Star Citizen, EVE, The Outer Worlds, etc. all have that core premise. Outer Wilds does a couple things just wildly different and creative, though.

  1. The solar system is small. There’s a ton to do but there’s really only 6 or so planets to explore. This makes it feel do-able, first, but it also gave the devs the ability to pay complete attention to each individual planet. There’s no randomly generated vistas or half baked aliens. Each planet has had special attention paid to it and each one is special. It’s oddly refreshing given that so many space games try to tackle the scale of space and miss the magic of it. This game does not miss the magic. Each planet has its own mechanics that impact the story in different ways, there’s dozens of secrets on each, and even their orbits are directly relevant to the plot. It’s neat stuff.
  2. Space travel doesn’t feel like space travel. 2001: A Space Odyssey is often described as a space opera but the milieu is still very science fiction. There’s sterile ships, space suits, centrifugal gravity, that sort of thing. Outer Wilds eschews all that. There’s bright colors, your space ship is made of wood (mostly), and people can light campfires in the vacuum of space… so long as they grow some trees first real quick. It’s a cute inversion of what a space exploration typically is and I really enjoyed it.
  3. You’re an archaeologist. The Outer Wilds isn’t a shooter, or a run-and-gun looter, it’s just an exploration game. That’s the core game mechanic and ultimately you kind of play as an archaeologist exploring the world. This is an odd role to play in a video game, but Outer Wilds leans into it harder than most “there’s a lost civilization with some advanced tech I need” type stories.

The best way I can summarize (and praise) this game is to say that it really reminded me of Super Mario 64. Not in the running, jumping, plumber way, but as a bright, beautifully crafted world, packed with secrets, and begging to be explored.


All that said, there’s a lot of chatter about what to do or not to do when playing this game and I didn’t agree with the consensus around some of it.

First, looking things up is totally fine. Make sure you’ve given a really solid effort to discover the secret or trick the game is trying to nudge you in the direction of, but after that, if you can’t figure it out, grab a guide. I don’t think it diluted the experience all that much so long as you gave it a good first couple stabs. It is a game after all and it should be fun, not frustrating.

I really loved the mind map in your ship. Mandalore Gaming was absolutely right that this is an innovation games should remember, and use. It makes seeing the connections between plot points simpler and it fit with the lore of the game as well.

That said, I do wish they had filled out certain plot chunks with more details. Why was the vessel pulled into Dark Bramble? What was Dark Bramble? It’s listed in the wiki as a satellite but behaves like a living thing. Also there’s fish inside it. I wanted more from it. To the point that I really expected it to be the late game plot fulcrum. Instead it’s just kinda there.

Likewise, I felt as if the Nomai’s extinction was a little shoe-horned in. It was not at all apparent to me that they died from the comet on first playthrough. I was hoping there’d be a little more to their societal collapse than a sort of deus ex machina style device. This is space though, so I suppose something randomly killing you is par for the course there.

I loved that at first the signal scope and scout launcher are totally worthless. I thought they were equivalent of the marshmallows - just a cute little addition. The fact that they are indispensable should have been obvious from a game-dev standpoint but I’m an idiot and missed it. In the end, they were really cleverly used and I loved how they were integrated with the plot.

The Ending

I have mixed feelings about how this game ends. My final, perhaps most controversial point, is that I do not find the Hearthians that endearing. They’re cute and I loved the unique sound design that accompanied each guy, but fundamentally they’re just not around all that much?

This is primarily a solo adventure. I was alone for almost all of it and the friends dropped in from time to time, but that was about it. I dunno, I loved the ending campfire scene, but it also didn’t jive with my experience of the game which was primarily a solo exploration game. I’m split on this, but I wish the exploration and the mystery of the universe could have gone on somehow. The death and inevitability of life was a theme but it wasn’t the experience for me. The experience was discovering new mysteries and secrets of a solar system.

Perhaps we could have flown off to a final new planet or something instead? But then, the universe was ending so I’m not sure.

All told, I think this is a fantastic game. The ending will make you think, and it’s truly a masterclass in game design.

tags: posts - video games