Outer Wilds asks you to accept that if you went to space, you’d probably die there. Maybe more than once.
In Outer Wilds, out today for PC and Xbox One, you play an average four-eyed inhabitant of Timber Hearth, a small planet in a small solar system. Timber Hearth’s people live in log cabins but have nonetheless discovered space travel. On the night that the game begins, you’re scheduled to make your first flight out into the great mostly-pretty-known-at-this-point. After you get your spaceship launch codes and walk through a small museum to head out to the launch pad, a statue of a member of a mysterious alien race called the Nomai turns to look at you, opens its eyes, and reads your memories.
This was my first hint that Outer Wilds was going to be weirder and more dangerous than your average indie exploration game. I tried to take it in stride. I got in my ship, launched into space, and headed for the first planet I could see, called Giant’s Deep.
From Timber Hearth, it’s hard to discern much about the planets that orbit the sun. I gathered that Giant’s Deep was covered in water by talking to other residents, but I did not anticipate that it would be constantly covered in multiple different tornadoes that could very easily hurl my ship out into space, and me along with it. On one such expulsion, I lost track of where my ship even was, then drowned.
Then I woke up, again, outside of the launch pad. It was still the night of my departure – I talked to people and checked my ship. Perplexed but determined not to die on Giant’s Deep again, I headed to the moon, Attlerock, which was much calmer. I had heard a rumour that there was a Nomai ruin on the south pole, and I wanted to see it for myself. Not only was there indeed a ruin, but there were some Nomai scrolls inside, alluding to something called the “Eye of the Universe” that the Nomai were hunting for. The scrolls said that they were building a new device to find the eye on Brittle Hollow, the next planet out from the sun, so I got in my ship and headed there.
Brittle Hollow had a very literal name. The planet’s surface was a thin, ever-changing crust that circled a black hole. When I fell off the crust and into that black hole, it spit me out off the planet. If that happens while you’re in your ship, it’s just a matter of landing it back on Brittle Hollow. If you fall while, say, doing a platforming puzzle, you die and start again. Guess which one happened to me.
Outer Wilds is, at times, terrifying. The storms of Giant’s Deep are loud, and the planet itself is bleak. But even more terrifying is the electrified, pulsing heart at the centre of the planet that you can see if you swim too deep. Brittle Hollow is beautiful from afar, but deadly up close. The feeling of falling into that black hole, knowing I couldn’t escape it, was like reliving the claustrophobia of a moment when a friend lost a little respect for me. The loneliness of it was jarring, even after I’d realised that Outer Wilds was gonna get weird.
Outer Wilds sets you up for an adventure, and I got so excited about it that I didn’t realise that it would come with risks. The ship you fly is incredibly janky, and its mechanic admits it’s a death trap if you confront him on it. Controlling it as a player is a bit of a challenge, as you steer by powering thrusters and have to take into account which direction gravity is pulling you. It is very easy to overshoot where you want to land and end up, say, at the bottom of the ocean.
Timber Hearth’s technology in general is unintuitive, which I love. It’s shitty in a very specific way that builds out the planet’s culture. It’s all made by a few people tinkering, with logic that makes sense to them but not necessarily to everyone. The scout system is a great example of this. There’s a possibility you’ll run into “ghost matter” on your travels, which can only be seen in photographs but will hurt you a lot. If you’re not close enough to see the ghost matter, you can send out a scout to take pictures for you. The scout just goes out in a straight line, and you have to press a button to take a picture, and then recall it. If you do manage to get a picture of the ghost matter with this method, you’re still not going to really know where it is until you’re standing next to it. I barely send out scouts, but I love knowing that someone on Timber Hearth specifically made them to work in this really dumb way, presumably because it was the best they could do.
The Signalscope is easier to explain – it’s basically a telescope with a simple radar attached. It’s my favourite thing to use in the game. You mostly use it to find other space travellers, who have taken up residence on different planets in the galaxy. Each of these residents has been given a particular musical instrument, which you can hear if you look through the Signalscope and try to find them. Sometimes, from the moon, I was able to line up all the planets and for a few seconds hear all the instruments in concert.
Then, I pointed my Signalscope at Timber Hearth and heard a harmonica. According to people I talked to back home, the harmonica was given to Feldspar, who went off into space and then disappeared. That constricting feeling of being alone came back as I realised how much about this galaxy and its people I didn’t know. That gave way to a deeper, more satisfying feeling, like when you open an unexpected gift and it’s exactly what you wanted.
I do not know all the secrets of Outer Wilds’ galaxy, but I can’t wait to untie this ribbon, tear off the paper and figure everything out. Sure, I’ll die – probably a lot of times – but the excitement of discovery outweighs the fear of failure. In fact, that failure is part of the process. That’s what I think about when I talk to the residents of Timber Hearth. They wanted to know what was out there so badly that they didn’t develop much technology beyond what would take them off their planet. As I continue to play, I hope to show them that their gamble was worth it.