Many games and movies sugarcoat the dangers of going into space; at worst, spacecraft explode when they’ve taken a critical hit, leaving you gawping at an unexpected Game Over screen. With a few exceptions on-screen death is too neat, too fast for you to ever see a member of the Rebel Alliance asphyxiating in the depths of space. I wonder if the billionaires lining up to buy tickets for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spacecraft are aware that the statistical fatality rate for astronauts is 3.2 per cent.
So it’s fallen to Outer Wilds to more honestly depict the hazards of space exploration. But it’s not the risk of having your throat torn out by a slavering, toothy entity that the game concerns itself with; alien life is scarce in this scaled-down space-sim. Instead, Outer Wilds pitches you into an unforgiving frontier where the slightest misstep can result in your demise; misjudge a planet’s gravity and your next, overenthusiastic leap might carry you into orbit.
Just landing your craft is harrowing; it took two hours for the Apollo 11 lunar lander to touch down on the moon and your first few landings in Outer Wilds are every bit as tense; the game’s semi-realistic physics make flying your craft a trial. Arrogantly assuming the game would let me brake on a penny, I roared towards my first planet, only to smash into the ground again, and again, and again.
Finally getting the message, I eased my craft towards the surface, using the ground camera to observe my descent, gingerly tapping the reverse thrust button to slow my descent. I felt a sense of pride as I touched down and disembarked, stepping out onto the surface of a strange new land. At which point my spaceship tumbled over a cliff and into the depths of the planet. Despite my best efforts it was so far away from me that, running out of oxygen, this brave new world became my graveyard.
Nearly every aspect of this game drives home how fragile your lone astronaut is, from the very moment you step aboard your spacecraft. U.S. Astronaut John Glenn reputedly said that every part of the rocket he was on had been built by the lowest bidder and, while he returned to Earth safely, there had been a range of non-fatal space-faring malfunctions. Outer Wilds goes one better than that, launching you into space in a vessel that looks like it’s been welded together from junkyard scrap.
When your craft breaks (and it will) Outer Wilds forces you to step outside of your craft in order to perform repairs, another unwelcome reminder of how alone you are: the Apollo 13 crew at least had each other to rely on when their spacecraft became crippled. But as ramshackle as your ship is, it’s your primary refuge, which is why the game goes to such lengths to separate you from it.
In order to advance the plot, you’re required to exit your ship and head across or under the surface of a planet. By rights this should be a wonderful journey of exploration, and discovering the remnants of an alien civilisation can be an exhilarating experience. But any joy is tempered by the unsettling notion that your ship might not be there when you get back, having been pitched into the sky by some unexpected phenomenon.
Or you might be the one getting launched into space; and when you’re floating off, oxygen dwindling, your archaeological accomplishments aren’t going to help. The game’s mini black hole doesn’t spaghettify you (look it up, it’s horrifying) but spits you out into deep space where you have no hope of jet-packing back to your craft. This, more so than some horrifying alien beastie, is a human terror in space exploration; floating off into the galaxy with no hope of rescue. Outer Wilds denies you a quick game over; short of quitting the game, you’re left to experience your demise in glorious first person.
The game’s Groundhog Day-style time-loop doesn’t take the sting out of death, far from it. A nice, neat 'Game Over' at least lets you draw a line under your mistakes. Repeatedly waking at Outer Wild’s campfire serves as a reminder of how poorly you’ve fared. By the time I was halfway through the game, I’d racked up over forty fatalities, each one adding to my imaginary pile of astronaut corpses.
Few space-exploration games go as far as Outer Wilds in terms of exposing you to the horrors of space. All the craft in No Man’s Sky are easy to fly, an absolute breeze to land and the wealth of available resources means that running out of oxygen is a mercifully rare situation. Eve Online and Elite: Dangerous let you get stranded but, unlike Outer Wilds, there is at least a slim hope of being rescued by another player.
Some of Outer Wilds’ hazards, though unique, are highly improbable. It’s unlikely that, if you took to space, you’d get devoured by a giant space-breathing anglerfish, or encounter a black hole at the core of a planet – others, however, seem worryingly plausible. It’s been suggested that Mars could still be volcanically active so Outer Wilds’ idea that you might come back to find your ship wrecked by a blob of lava isn’t so far-fetched.
Perseverance does eventually pay off; you become partly accustomed to the pitfalls of Outer Wilds’ solar system and start to notice the patterns in each time loop. And you take the time to check that your would-be landing site isn’t going to be engulfed by a water spout; the Apollo 11 crew at least had the luxury of a relatively safe place to land.
But navigating Outer Wilds’ solar system remains a daunting task, no matter how many hours you’ve already put in. Every take-off, every approach to a planet, makes you deeply uneasy. Is this the occasion when you’ll fatally misjudge your approach, or suffocate on a strange planet, salvation depressingly out of reach?
Pushing into space for the first time, exploring the unknown is never safe, nor should it be. One of the most striking things in all the recent anniversary coverage of the Moon Landing was how dangerous it was, and how Earth’s astronauts were not just the best of the best but, at some fundamental level, deeply courageous people. Space is not just the final frontier, but a terrifying prospect with it. Outer Wilds understands the dark side of space exploration and, as you drift helpless away from the planet below you, never lets you forget it either.