By Eric Lujan
The story begins as you wake up beside a campfire on Timber Hearth, ready to set off as the newest astronaut in the Hearthian space program. Hearthians are four eyed sentient creatures that appear to have developed from aquatic ancestors. Their planet, Timber Hearth, is relatively quiet and peaceful. It boasts lots of water and trees with its main dynamic feature being geysers that can shoot you into the air (or even space).
The home planet serves as a mini tutorial for the player but doesn’t exactly make it obvious. You interact with fellow Hearthians who remind you of some necessary gameplay mechanics but they don’t explicitly give you a step by step guide. This is done purposefully and, as you’ll see later, remains a core principle for the Outer Wilds game. If you wanted to, you could bypass all the conversations, get the launch codes, and take off without having any idea how to play. But the game does a good job at capturing the player’s attention with uniquely nostalgic music, a cozy forest setting, and a space exploration museum that hints at things to come. After you get the launch codes for your first takeoff and initiate the time loop (which I won’t spoil), you set off into space on your own with no mission or objective. Your goal is to simply explore your solar system. This could appear to be a daunting task, however, you’re not alone. On each planet you can find one of your Hearthian space exploring companions that came before you. They can give helpful tips and are worth paying multiple visits as you learn more about each planet.
You may be wondering how the story progresses with no missions or objectives. Well, on Timber Hearth you learn of an ancient alien race known as the Nomai who lived in your solar system thousands of years prior but have since disappeared. On your travels, you learn about their lives and ultimately where they went by visiting their ancient ruins and reading Nomai texts using a newly invented Nomai translator tool. But where could such an technologically advanced alien race have gone? This serves as the narrative for Outer Wilds.
The solar system contains five planets and a comet that all orbit the sun.
The Hourglass Twins (Ember Twin and Ash Twin) orbit one another as the sand from Ash twin fills the deep canyon that cuts around Ember twin. Once the sand fills Ember Twin completely, it reverses, hence the name “Hourglass.”
After Timber Hearth you have Brittle Hollow. This planet has an unforgivable black hole in the center that absorbs pieces of the surface as they fall apart. What causes the surface to fall apart is the volcanic moon called Hollow’s Lantern that continuously spews out fiery rocks which crash onto the surface.
The next planet, Giant’s Deep, is a gas giant with a surface that consists mostly of water with a few islands on top. This planet’s main dynamic features are the stormy weather and the cyclones that launch the islands into space.
Lastly there’s Dark Bramble, which holds many deep and dark secrets. All I will say about this planet is that space doesn’t exactly work the same on the inside.
With an understanding of each planet, you can see how lively the solar system is. It’s also very dangerous. The creators of this game wanted to challenge the idea that games require static environments and instead built a world that changed over time and continued to change despite whether the player was on one planet or the other. The best example of this that I can think of is when I had left my ship on an island on Giant’s Deep only to find it thrown into the air by a cyclone and having it get caught in the trees of an island. The world does not revolve around you. It, quite literally, revolves around the sun.
This game does an amazing job at making space travel feel scary and dangerous, whether it be from the wonky space controls that have you crashing at top speed into different planets or the different dynamic elements of each planet. And the best part is, you are going to die.
This game features a time loop mechanic which places you right before your first launch and lasts for 22 minutes until an in-game event resets the loop for you. The reason for the time loop and it only lasting 22 minutes does have story relevance but at the same time it prevents the player from going on for hours without resetting the loop. Naturally, the time loop resets upon death. The time loop allows you the freedom to choose a different planet to explore if you get tired or frustrated on another. This can be especially helpful for progressing the story since you may get hints to solve a puzzle on one planet while exploring a different one.
As you uncover new information, your findings are stored in your ship’s computer which I found to be a very helpful feature. It keeps track of your progress which is especially helpful in this game since there is no one correct path to uncovering information.
Along with a Nomai translator tool, you’re also equipped with a probe device and a signalscope that helps track different sounds. The probe device can detect ghost matter which can kill you but it call also illuminate a dark area or take pictures as it flies through space. The signalscope lets you pick up noise frequencies that can assist you in finding the other space travelers who each play a different instrument. These tools play significant roles in some of the puzzles.
The most important tool in your arsenal is your space ship. The ship is very difficult to fly at the beginning of the game but the more you play (and die) the better you get. Just remember where you park it and don’t let it get carried away by the dynamic environment.
A Unique Storytelling Experience
This game focuses on the optimistic side of space exploration, which equates to learning about new planets and other life in the universe rather than participating in something like space conquest. It capitalizes on this by having the story be one primed with the task of uncovering secrets and learning about the history of the Nomai in a very respectful manner.
The game is very character driven. Each Nomai text is written by a specific character, and while these characters may never show up, they feel very real and lively. You learn about their thought processes and romantic interests as well as how they came to be and ultimately where they ended up.
What makes this game unique is that there are no conventional objectives or missions. This could prove challenging when writing a compelling narrative, however, the story functions as a puzzle with the player putting together the different pieces and having it make sense over time. So no matter which planet you choose first or which information you uncover it begins to make sense as you learn more.
The developers used 4-5 main narrative plot points to serve as a calling to the player’s curiosity. All the information you uncover is built around them with everything pointing in their direction. All of this becomes evident on your computer as you progress throughout the story.
This game does not hold your hand, rather it peaks your curiosity and guides you with a trail of information that has many different connections to one another. The developers made sure every bit of information you could find has some amount of relevance to keep the player engaged. This directly tackles the text-as-lore gaming trope and instead treats the text as important narrative. They didn’t want to players to go searching behind every rock so they purposefully didn’t hide anything and only put content where there was something to be discovered.
Along with only putting details where there was content, the developers did the same with music as there are different tracks that play as you discover major plot points. This makes the player feel immersed and as if they are actually progressing in the story. It also helps maintain a good rhythm within the game.
All in all, the story of the game is incredibly captivating. Its accomplishes this by focusing on a story driven narrative, enabling the player to have a genuine connection with an unseen race of aliens through the texts, and giving the player the freedom to uncover the mystery of the Nomai on their own.
Something cool about the narrative is that once you know everything and beat the game there is little to no deployability. The ending of the game can be achieved in a few steps that can be accessed right at the start of the time loop (but simply doing this won’t provide you with any understanding of the narrative).
Going into this game my expectations were relatively high given what I had heard about it but I didn’t know much about the game. I was very happy when my expectations were exceeded.
My only complaint is that some of the puzzles did not feel very intuitive and instead relied heavily on labor and luck. Sometimes you had to be in the right place at the right time or simply wait for something to happen. Either way it required a lot of trial and error. This caused me (and other players I’m sure) to search up guides on how to complete certain puzzles which ruined the immersion. But aside from that the game is difficult to critique.
I truly hope that this type of narrative structure is explored more by games in the future as it truly felt immersive and as if you were the one putting the story together rather than simply following along or playing as someone you’re not. I think the time loop mechanic lends itself very well to this type of narrative structure but finding a way to include it in the story does seem difficult. Outer Wilds is a great example of how to do this effectively.
It’s difficult to recommend this game without spoiling the story since that’s what makes it so interesting but the game is best experienced knowing as little as possible. So take my word for it. I’d recommend this game to any type of gamer, casual or experienced. And remember, the less you know the better.
Noclip – Video Game Documentaries. (2020, January 1). The Making of Outer Wilds – Documentary. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbY0mBXKKT0
Outer Wilds. Playstation 5 version, Annapurna, 2019.
Outer wilds. (2022, January 30). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outer_Wilds