If you put me in a room with ten executives and asked me to pitch Outer Wilds, here is what I would say: “It’s got the exploration of a Metroid game and the structure of Majora’s Mask crossed with the interstellar wonder of No Man’s Sky and the narrative framework of Return of the Obra Dinn.”
Then, undoubtedly, one of them would say, “What’s Return of the Ober Dunn?” Damn executives, am I right?
Outer Wilds, which came out for Xbox and PC last month, is a tremendous experience and a game unlike anything else I've played. (Not to be confused with Obsidian’s upcoming role-playing game, The Outer Worlds, this is a game by the small studio Mobius Digital.) I finished it last night after playing some 25 or 30 hours over the past couple of weeks (thanks to a recommendation from my Kotaku Splitscreen co-host Kirk Hamilton), and it’s been in my head the whole damn time. It’s a game in which you conquer space’s deep frontiers without firing a single gun and in which your progress is marked not by racking up points or filling an inventory, but by learning. Information is the currency you’ll accumulate in Outer Wilds, and it’s the tool you’ll use to solve its puzzles and unravel its mysteries. That also means that by its nature, it’s an easy game to spoil, so tread carefully when reading about this game.
You play as a Hearthian, part of a ragtag race of explorers who have put together enough primitive technology to leave their home planet, Timber Hearth, and go explore the cosmos. After a brief tutorial, you’ll be sent off into space with nothing but a suit and a couple of rudimentary but surprisingly versatile tools, then told to go explore. Maybe you’ll go to the Attlerock, your planet’s moon, and visit the friendly hermit who’s camped out there. Or maybe you’ll travel to Giant’s Deep, an oceanic planet covered in storms that can launch visitors (and islands) into space. If you’re feeling really risky, you’ll set off for that mysterious planet in the distance called Dark Bramble.
Then, maybe you’ll fall off a cliff or get eaten by an anglerfish or accidentally fly into the sun. Or maybe you’ll survive for 22 minutes (in real time) and get to watch a supernova consume the solar system. Either way, you’re going to die, and then you’ll find that you've woken up in the same place you started. That’s when things get really interesting. It turns out you’re stuck in a time loop that always ends the same way—doom.
Like Majora’s Mask, this conceit allows you to explore time in the same way you’d explore space; the when is just as important as the where. One planet might be slowly deteriorating, and the later you arrive, the more broken it’ll be, preventing you from accessing some areas but unlocking secrets elsewhere. On another planet you might be expected to rush into a cave before it overflows with ash, so you can uncover the secrets within.
The point of this whole venture is simple: Learn things. Outer Wilds’ solar system is covered with vestiges of life from a now-extinct alien race called the Nomai, and you’ll find their writing everywhere. The more you read, the more you’ll get to know these gentle, curious, science-loving people, and the closer you’ll get to unraveling all of their mysteries. Why did they come to this solar system? How did they die? Why is the sun exploding? And why do you keep coming back to life? The only thing you’ll carry from life to life is your knowledge, summed up in a handy computer on your ship that retains all of the discoveries you've made no matter how many times you die.
It takes a couple of hours to really get into the rhythm of it all, but once you do, it becomes clear why Outer Wilds is so special. A list of short- and long-term tasks will slowly start to creep into your brain, and you’ll find yourself constantly wondering: “What would happen if...” You’ll gradually figure out the big mysteries and how to unravel them, learning that whenever you’re stuck, the answer is always to go explore some more. It’s a game for people who are curious, although that can be dangerous if you happen to be addicted to curiosity and wind up playing for five or six hours at a time without so much as a water break. Whoops.
Outer Wilds is meticulously crafted, brilliantly structured, and enticing enough to get you past the oft-wonky ship-flying mechanics. Although that 22-minute timer can be frustrating—nothing worse than hearing the “we’re all doomed” music when you’ve just discovered a brand new, sprawling area—it ultimately makes for a more beautiful experience. And this is a beautiful experience. It’s a game you have to play. I can’t recommend it enough.