When it comes to video games, “exploration” is kind of a bullshit word, a sexier way of saying hey, you’re going to be doing a lot of running and stuff. “And stuff,” in this context, can be climbing, walking, riding a horse, swimming, or what have you. All the basic ways you get from here to there. I never pick up a video game because I’m going to be doing those things; I merely hope to be shown something interesting. After playing Outer Wilds, I think my bar might be too low.
Most games reward you for exploring. It’s expected that you find something useful as a result of going off the beaten path. Most games hide exciting loot and power-ups in far-flung corners in order to encourage you to look around more. When that loot isn’t useful, like in Jedi: Fallen Order, exploration might not seem worth it. Worst of all, incentivised exploring makes exploration the one thing it should never be: mundane. If you’re exploring just to find a certain item, it can feel rote.
Outer Wilds is one of my favourite games of this year because it makes exploration feel new to me again. It helps that the game’s structure – a 22-minute time loop where I must race to learn something that will help me escape said loop – focuses me on plunging recklessly into the unknown. But as I learned more in the game – about the friendly inhabitants of my homeworld of Timber Hearth and their big-hearted approach to discovery, or about the long-missing Nomai people who believed the pursuit of knowledge is the noblest goal for a being to have – I feel connected to the explorers who came before me. Instead of finding a new sword or a set of armour, my exploration in Outer Wilds shows me that my character is another link in a long chain of people trying to stumble out of ignorance and become something better.
In so many other games, exploring provides little other than the dopamine tingle I get when I find a fun trinket. In Outer Wilds, exploring makes me feel a whole host of things: I feel fragile, like my colleague Gita Jackson did when she first played the game. I feel impatient, like Maddy Myers did when she realised that shortcuts aren’t always as feasible as they seem. And yeah, I’m haunted by some of what I find, like frequent Kotaku contributor Narelle Ho Sang.
Mostly though, I’m moved by a feeling of romance. No game this year has made me feel anything like Outer Wilds has when the music that plays just before the end of a time loop, warning me that my life is about to end again, but also inspiring me to push just a little bit farther, be a little more reckless. In those last few moments, none of it feels mundane – finding the answers I’m looking for or not doesn’t matter. I’m exploring, and happy to do it.