Disclaimer: the following article contains *SPOILERS* for the video game Outer Wilds. Enter at your own risk.
The title of “my favorite video game” has long been held by Beyond Good and Evil, but it’s been a month since I finished Outer Wilds, and I think… this might be my new favorite game. At least top three. And even though I’ve picked Outer Wilds apart with my partner, who watched me play, and discussed the high points with my nephew, who played long before me, I still need to talk about so much. This article won’t be a video game review so much as a wild romp through annotating the parts that interest me. There will be spoilers. Brace for impact.
If you’ve already played Outer Wilds or have no intent to, then read on. Well, actually, check out the blurb below first before you decide you won’t ever play it. Then go. Play. And come back.
Welcome to the Space Program
You’re the newest member of Outer Wilds Ventures, a fledgling space program searching for answers in a strange, constantly changing solar system.
Who built the ruins on the moon? What lurks in the heart of Dark Bramble? Why are you trapped in a time loop, and can it be stopped? To solve these mysteries you’ll have to venture into the most dangerous reaches of space.
Winner of Best Game at the 2020 BAFTA Games Awards and named Game of the Year 2019 by Giant Bomb, Polygon, Eurogamer, and The Guardian, Outer Wilds is a critically-acclaimed and award-winning open world mystery about a solar system trapped in an endless time loop.Mobius Digital Games
The first cool element of Outer Wilds is your main character’s species: a blue-skinned, four-eyed race of sentient amphibious-looking people. The race that came before yours are the Nomai, an advanced, space-faring species who are massive, kind of goat-shaped, and sport three eyes. Their true form gets revealed in the busts of them you find, as they otherwise always wear their space suits or are very, very dead. I love so much the total lack of humans. Not even the ghost of a passing whisper about some two-eyed, apelike species in a distant galaxy. We matter not at all to this particular drama.
The Contrast Between Home and Everywhere Else
The instant you wake up from the traditional camping trip of Outer Wilds Ventures, before you ascend to the stars as the program’s newest astronaut, you are immersed in a rustic, cheerful, down-home planet full of water geysers, grass, very tall trees, and all of your neighbors. No one in the village is in a hurry. Everyone is excited for your big day.
The whole place feels like an idyllic mining community from the late 1800s, plus a 1960s space program. There’s an observatory-museum of all the past astronauts’ discoveries of Nomai remnants, the technology of which has served to slingshot forward your species’ technological advancement. There’s a cool mine with anti-gravitational properties you can play around in. There’s an exhibit where you can listen to the satellite looping around the planet. Cheery banjo and harmonica music all around. I was instantly charmed.
By contrast, when you launch your scrappy little ship, lashed together with sheet metal and dreams, up into the sky, space is gorgeous. Stars forever. Planets, small like your own, whipping around your solar system’s sun. You can travel to any of them in moments while getting the actual experience of navigating through space along every possible axis. But my friends, space is also empty. Space is dangerous. Space will wreck your ship if you bump a planet too hard. It will puncture holes in your suit or yeet your ship away from you when gravity gets a little weird or asphyxiate you if you go too long without finding a pocket of oxygen or blorp you through an actual black hole. There’s a planet covered in massive water spouts. There’s one filling up with sand. There’s one actively crumbling and one that used to be a planet but is now a threatening mass of brambles that destroyed it from the inside out. You might love space, but space does not love you back.
There’s no living thing out there. No critters. No monsters. No Nomai, who were wiped out suddenly and all at once 200,000+ years ago. Only their skeletal corpses remain. You’re pretty much alone, aside from five other astronauts somewhere out in the solar system, one of whom disappeared some years before. Yet if you point your Signal Scope—a radio signal receiver—at some of the planets, you can hear the communal tune of Outer Wilds Ventures, a song of which all the astronauts play individual parts on various instruments and broadcast into the sky. It’s a way for these isolated, lonesome explorers to say, “I’m here. I hear you.” A tether between you, the intrepid adventurer, and the community you left behind when you reached for the stars.
Banjos! Harmonica! A delightful, downhome melody that put me in mind of the theme song for The Adventure Zone: Amnesty!
In most places throughout space, you don’t get music, which naturally lends to the creep factor, which I’ll discuss next. But you get the memory of music from Timber Hearth. Going back to how all the members of Outer Wilds Ventures play pieces of the same song, hearing music reminds you of home. (Or that something big is happening.)
You can check out the original soundtrack on Spotify! Maybe give it a listen while you read?
The Nomai, Cheerful Aliens
These little dudes are just so plucky. As the steward of a Nomai translator–the first of its invention–you get to read remnant Nomai texts, an experience no other astronaut has had before. You find that the Nomai are fanatical about finding what they call The Eye of the Universe, the source of a deep-space signal they heard while nomading around, one that’s somehow older than the universe itself. Though their ship was immediately compromised upon jumping to your solar system and they got split up when their escape pods crash landed onto the nearby inhospitable planets, they immediately got to work a) finding each other and b) searching for the Eye.
Yet their fervor never comes off as threatening. As you read their messages regarding their experiments, successes, and failures, you get a sense for each castaway’s personality, as well as the attitude of the species as a whole. They are scary intelligent cosmic wanderers, so perhaps life on spaceships calls for a certain gung-ho outlook on life. Through some quantum tomfoolery, you get to meet a both-there-and-not-there Nomai on a cultural pilgrimage. I almost flipped when I saw her in the flesh (in the suit? They are always in those). I liked the game’s solution to the language barrier, with you using symbols to ask about what you want to know, her writing her answer out, and you reading with the translator. She immediately considers you a friend and compliments your four eyes. I was delighted.
As mentioned, Outer Wilds displays a deep contrast between the safety and comfort of your home planet versus the cold, uncaring reaches of space. But at the beginning, I knew none of that. Given the cheerful nature of the environment, music, and characters, I grew comfortable in the safety of the starter area. Yet as I investigated the observatory-museum, I found a display of a quantum rock by noticing that it kept moving when I wasn’t looking at it. Lizard brain instantly did not like that. Yet I laughed off my reaction once I read the plaque explaining the rock’s quantum nature. But then, when I went to leave, a couple other members of Outer Wilds Ventures had been setting up a new display at the entrance to show off an intact Nomai statue, brought in from an excavation by one of the other astronauts. As I approached the exit, this massive, goatlike bust turned its whole self around and looked at me. Lizard brain hated that.
The reason why this happened becomes apparent when you get up into space and discover you’ve been trapped in a time loop. You might be, say, investigating a shady-looking bramble seed on the other side of your planet when some intense music starts to play and, at the end, the sun blows up. I won’t get into why or how the Nomai statue looking at you is linked to reliving your final 22 minutes until the sun explodes over and over. Or maybe I will, just not right here.
More subtle creepiness ensues throughout the game. The worst part for me may have been everything quantum. There’s a tower the Nomai built dedicated to understanding quantum nature and within, you get to see (or not see) so, so many inanimate objects relocating themselves when you’re not looking. In a clearing on Timber Hearth, you find where someone wrote a four-line poem on one of the trees that not only jumps around when you’re not looking at it, but the order of the lines changes each time it reappears. Though there’s absolutely no one and nothing out there with you, I could never shake the sense of something alive messing with me.
- Getting crushed against the ceiling of a cavern as it fills up with sand
- Looking over the edge of a planet’s crumbling crust to find a black hole lurking at the center
- Being tossed all the way up into space by a cyclone so tall that it pierces the atmosphere
- Finding the skeleton of an angler fish large enough to swallow your ship
- Accidentally launching yourself into space on a Nomai ship you can’t steer
- Hearing the totally alien radio signal of a quantum moon
- Finding a bramble seed on your home planet, the same kind that destroyed another planet from the inside out
- Discovering the scene of what wiped out all of the Nomai all at once before they could complete their mission
In addition, there’s a moment at the end when you have broken out of the time loop by making a literal quantum leap and the chaos of what you just did gets expressed as a return to the observatory-museum. This place exists nowhere, so the outside is pitch black. The inside barely lit. You get dropped at the entrance with that first Nomai statue staring you down out of the gloom. There’s no music, no sound. No one else around. I hadn’t planned to finish the game when I did, so it was late at night and I was tired and this creepy statue looking at me in this knowing way made me feel like crying.
Another moment like this happens after you pass through the imaginary observatory-museum and wind up in a quantum forest, where things keep changing every time you turn off your flashlight. One of the times, when your flashlight comes back on, you’re faced with the outline of another astronaut and… it’s you. And then your flashlight clicks off.
Finally, there were so, so many times when a quantum rock appeared directly in front of my face.
Nudges and Winks
The Origin of Your Species
On the Sun Station, I found how long had passed since the Nomai were wiped out: 281,042 years. At the time, your species did not exist. Or did it? Some Nomai text within a mine on Timber Hearth makes mention of being careful not to disturb the local ecosystem, especially a little blue, four-eyed, frog-like creature living in the cave waters. In 281,000 years, those frogs would grow up in a solar system touched indelibly by an alien race and use the study of that race’s advanced technology to dream of the stars.
The Sun Will Explode (Sooner Than You Think)
Inside the observatory-museum, there’s an exhibit showing the life cycle of a star with a plaque describing how eventually the sun will explode. Since I once stayed up late to read about this very process and freaked myself out with the fragility of existence, I adored the inclusion. But in my reading about the ultimate end of our sun, it’s largely understood that it won’t happen for a long time and humanity might not even be around by then.
Yet for you, the explosion of your sun will happen in 22 minutes.
Imagine the end of your world happening when you’re still alive.
The End of the Universe
Worse, imagine the end of the universe happening while you’re still alive. It’s understood that the universe, somehow, had a beginning. So it stands to reason that the universe should have an ending. When you find Chert, one of the other astronauts, hanging out on Ember Twin, they excitedly tell you about how they’ve seen a bunch of stars go supernova while they’ve been updating their star charts. But as the time loop progresses and your sun gets big and red and scary, they realize that all the stars are going out, including yours. The end has come, and it’s happening in your lifetimes.
Somewhere, I don’t remember where, you read a Nomai conversation in which one of them makes a lighthearted remark about how someone will be around at the end of the universe. The underlying subtext being “at least that won’t be us.” I had to have a little moment after reading that. To the Nomai, and by extension to us, the idea of being around for the absolute end is incomprehensible on a experiential level. But here you are, reliving the end over and over and over, desperately seeking a solution to the irascible nature of existence with the 22-minute do-overs you’ve been given, up against the unstoppable forces of time and entropy.
After you realize the universe has begun to end, eagle-eyed observation shows the occasional starburst in the background of space. Just blue bursts of light, much like you see every time your star goes supernova, hinting at reality going out around you. Obviously, physics disagrees with being able to see all stars going out at the same time as yours, as starlight takes lightyears and lightyears to reach observers. However, the creators got around this issue by messages received by the Nomai vessel from other nomadic Nomai clans who had noticed an increase in stars going out. This means the stars you see bursting at the same time as your sun could have been any of these previously observed by the Nomai centuries ago. I love this detail, because otherwise, the physics disagreement would have bothered me so much. On this note, maybe let the title animation play for a while—see what you can see there.
Betrayal to Salvation
Another time I needed a moment was when I discovered just what exactly the Nomai were up to that triggered this time loop you’re trapped in. So I guess I’ll explain the time loop after all. The Nomai had gotten to playing around with black hole/white hole technology and discovered that they could send information back in time. Using this, they built a massive probe station that would fire a probe in a random direction in search of the Eye of the Universe. They could only fire this once but needed a way to search the solar system in every possible direction, so they refined the black hole technology to give themselves 22 minutes between firing the probe and triggering the sun to supernova, the energy of which would power their time loop technology. They could do this as many times as necessary until the probe discovered the exact coordinates of the Eye of the Universe. Once the coordinates came back in time, they would have any of those 22 minutes to shut down the time loop technology, effectively having never blown up the sun.
When you first learn about this plan, you don’t get the details of how the Nomai planned to preserve the sun, only that they wanted to blow it up. When I read that, I felt a little betrayed, realizing that the sun blowing up was their original intent all along. However, you find out later that their attempt was unsuccessful, meaning that their technology remained dormant but intact until the real death of the sun triggered the time loop technology.
The Nomai statues, such as the creepy one that looked at you on its own, were designed to upload the experiences of those Nomai attuned to a statue to a massive data bank that would then transfer the memories back to them at the beginning of each new loop. You accidentally got attuned to one of those statues. That’s how you’re caught in a time loop carefully designed before your species gained sentience, by a species looking for something that didn’t involve you. You were never meant as a part of this drama.
A couple of things impressed me about the implications here:
- As you, the character, have discovered, you get to experience being killed by the sun over and over and over every 22 minutes. Hurray! Who knows how long this will keep happening! This means the Nomai were committed to living that death over and over and over and over until the success of the probe. When you pull that data off the probe yourself, you find how many times the probe was fired and therefore how many loops happened before the coordinates were found: 9,318,054. The Nomai were prepared to relive their deaths over 9 million times! I don’t care how plucky or gung-ho you are, that many deaths would have to mess you up.
- These time loops would have had to have happened more times than that, even though the counter stopped after mission complete. They happened without you knowing, much the way your time loops happen without the other Hearthians knowing. How many times did you die and not know because your consciousness wasn’t recorded and downloaded back to you? The only reason why you got looped in (ha) was because in one of these invisible loops, Gabbro, another astronaut, happened themselves to look into a Nomai statue and got pulled in. Then in one of their loops, they decided to bring another of the statues home to the observatory-museum, where you happened to also get pulled in. This might have continued unto eternity if those two events hadn’t come about. Yet, the possibility of infinite loops almost guarantees the odds that your involvement would have happened eventually.
Planets as Timers
Some of the planets feature environmental factors that change and, often, become more dangerous as the loop plays out. Brittle Hollow, the crumbling planet with a black hole at its center, slowly falls more and more apart. I actually got knocked out of an energy beam sending me from one safe zone to another as a huge chunk of planet crust clipped me on the way down. The more obvious planet timer comes from Ember Twin and Ash Twin, a binary planet system revolving tightly around each other. Every 22 minutes, the sand on Ash Twin flows in a massive column over to Ember Twin, then flows back. Seen from a distance, the intended hourglass theme here becomes obvious.
Resources: Oxygen and Fuel and That’s It
Before I knew that I only had 22 minutes to live, I wondered how and where to refuel my ship as well as pick up more oxygen for my adventures. Boy howdy, did I have no idea how little that would matter. When you’re exploring around on a planet, you come across the remnants of oxygen-producing vegetation left behind by the Nomai or the occasional oxygen or fuel tank placed there by Outer Wilds Ventures, and that’s really all you need. It is possible to mess up so bad that you asphyxiate or wind up adrift in space with no propellant, adding a resources management element to the game. But I really dug only having two meters to worry about, alongside the invisible countdown.
Gamers love a good binging. Games that welcome your attention for hours and hours of seamless fun. But I, as an adult with a mortgage and bills and a job, have at most a couple of hours in the evening to enjoy a game (when I’m not writing or working on the house). So I adored the 22 minute loops. They were always enough time to glean a new piece of the puzzle, often down to the last second. But they were short enough and had such a natural stopping point that I could say “I have enough time for one or two loops” and then easily stop for the night without overdoing it.
Life on Ember Twin
On Ember Twin, sand flows from Ash Twin and back, evidently every 22 minutes. The sand fills up the canyons and caverns riddling the planet, forcing you to be very fast in your exploration of the deeper caverns, as well as your tour of the Sunless City. The Sunless City is where the Nomai whose pod crashed onto the inhospitable planet built their settlement to escape the burning sun. But then that begs the question: how could they live there with their city filling up with sand every 22 minutes? Nowhere (that I found) does the game imply that the sand flowing from Ash Twin was an artificial construction of the Nomai’s. In fact, the first explorers of Ember Twin noted the caverns they found already filling with sand. I would allow that perhaps the 22 minute loops are compressed representations of the time that passes purely for the player’s benefit so maybe the time actually took much longer in the world of the game, but one of the messages left by the Nomai does specifically call for sending information back in time by 22 minutes. So I guess the Nomai had to head to the surface constantly scorched by the nearby sun several times every day to escape suffocation? Not much of a way to live, but then, they really had no choice.
The other gripe is not actually much of a real gripe. More of an observation about a psychological effect of the game. I had Covid-19 when I downloaded Outer Wilds, so I had literally nothing else to do but sit on the couch and play (and cough). This meant I got a solid eyeful of the spinning effect of the small planets and moons you can land on. To allow meaningful progress within the 22-minute loops, the solar system and the planets are all small and close to each other. Almost none of them have a space-obscuring atmosphere, either. The result is the stars above spin around you pretty fast as the planet you stand on rotates on its axis as well as around the sun.
The effect? I often went to sleep with stars spinning behind my eyelids.
Maybe not the worst thing for a space-loving nerd.
Thanks for reading!
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