Generational Cycles in Outer Wilds

by Josephine Markin

The ending of Outer Wilds is an impactful, overwhelming sequence of revisiting the many stories you encountered in your journeys throughout the solar system. The instruments of the Outer Wilds Ventures explorers you have met are joined by the music of the Nomai civilization in a hauntingly beautiful song, and the universe collapses into the smoke of a familiar campfire until you leap into the infinite possibilities of the future. The final screen shows a new universe born from the death of yours, painted with some familiar images as well as some entirely new creatures and elements. All of existence has begun a new cycle, and from all you have learned about the Eye of the Universe and the patterns of time, you can surmise that this was how your world was born as well. By giving you the willing decision at the end to move into the future, the game reinforces the message that its entire ending conveys: your life, and the universe you lived in, is passed on as part of the existence the new generation inherits. Your time is over, and the stories to come will both carry the familiar strains of your legacy and entirely new ones.

Although this message comes together cohesively in the ending sequence, the entirety of the game leading up to the end cultivates this theme, building on a time-loop mechanic and a narrative of generational knowledge and legacy. The player starts the game at a campfire, and for the rest of their Outer Wilds experience they will find themselves returning to this campfire over and over to begin a new iteration of their loop – the same campfire, significantly, features in the ending screen image. In the approximately twenty minutes following their awakening at the campfire, the player can explore the solar system and do anything they want on any planet; however, they will inevitably die and awaken once again at the campfire where they started from. The loop is not entirely self-contained, however: there are some actions which can carry on between cycles. These include collectable information like the launch codes; new dialogue options reflecting the experiences the player has had in a previous iteration; the rumors which are permanently recorded on the map; and even small reflections of the particulars of the previous loop, like the player making different gasping sounds when they wake up depending on how they died in the previous loop. In the case of the dialogue options, rumors, and collectable information, these reflect a growing compendium of useful knowledge the player is giving to their next iteration as they explore the world. Diegetically, the player is passing on knowledge to their “next” self through the method of the Nomai memory transfer statues and the Ash Twin Project; this technology itself is also a symbol of passed-on knowledge, as it comes from a long-dead civilization from which the Hearthians have inherited much. The awakening gasp which reflects the previous death is a more natural, subtle nod to this inheritance, because it is not useful, permanent, or discrete information. Instead it is an involuntary sign of the previous loop’s role in the birth of the new one: however the player died in the last iteration is how they were born in their new iteration, just like the way in which their universe dies is how the next one is born.

The Hearthians and Nomai themselves are another iteration of the passage between generations. The player is told in the beginning that they are the newest generation of Outer Wilds Ventures explorers, and in Timber Hearth and then in dialogue with Hearthian explorers off-world they inherit knowledge and skills from their fellow Hearthians. The Nomai, however, provide the structure of the core of gameplay: uncovering new knowledge from long-past Nomai writings and structures. By scanning spirals; tracing the paths of the actions of the Nomai who ended up in their solar system long ago; examining skeletal remains and collapsed space suits; and utilizing the left-behind Nomai technology, the player learns about a past iteration of life in their universe. However, this knowledge is not useless history: the actions and discoveries of the Nomai have ripples that continue to shape the path of the universe as the Hearthians inhabit it. The connections between Nomai and Hearthians are closely traced: notes unveil that the Nomai discovered the evolutionary ancestors of the Hearthians long ago, while Hearthian exploration technology is founded on the devices left by the long-dead wayfarer species. The doom that the system faces is (at first glance) because of the experiments of the Nomai, while the project which revives the player with memories of a different iteration of themselves was built by the Nomai. Outer Wilds explores this connection further by creating a Nomai character who is still alive: Solanum, an explorer residing on the Quantum Moon. Solanum, as she tells you herself, is likely both dead and alive: because time operates strangely on the Quantum Moon, her bones can be found in some places, but a timeless version of her lives on and can be encountered. The interaction between the player and Solanum provides a concrete bridge between the two civilizations, even more explicit than other connections, and the two can exchange a variety of information in their conversation. However, because Solanum cannot understand the player as well as the player can understand Solanum, the exchange is mostly a passing-down of Solanum’s knowledge to the player; the player cannot tell Solanum anything in return. In this way, the generational cycle is reinforced, and the Nomai continue to have a legacy on the Hearthians but cannot ever come back. 

Outer Wilds masterfully uses both a narrative of generations and a time-loop mechanic to create a powerful theme of the forward march of time into new and unique iterations of life that inherit and add to a legacy from past civilizations. The very malleability of time in the game is used to deeply explore the connections between two generations of existence, while the inevitable rebirth of the process and the ending which follows the creation of yet another universe emphasize the unending loop of death, birth, and change. The player finds themselves in a unique position to truly understand and be a part of this generational exchange, and while their story must come to an end, its end is just another beginning.

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