Thursday, September 14, 2023

Game Review: Outer Wilds

Developing bad habits around black holes and other fun adventures.

Though Outer Wilds is not the big space exploration game on the scene today, it is nonetheless an indie title of note that recently caught my attention. Released in early 2019, Outer Wilds has made a name for itself as the premier title from studio Mobius Digital, published by the narrative-centric indie publisher Annapurna Interactive. Outer Wilds is a spacefaring adventure that puts the player at the center of a mystery in a small solar system. With only twenty-two minutes until the sun explodes, the player is stuck in a repeated loop to discover what’s going on and why.

As you take your first gasping breath on Timber Hearth, you see the gas giant—Giant’s Deep far above, hovering in space. You notice a small purple explosion propel a piece of something out into space. If you play this game prepare to see this scene a lot, as this is how every time loop starts. It ends when the player dies, either self-inflicted or by the explosion of the sun. But somewhere in between is where the magic happens. The game draws some inspiration from rogue-likes, forcing you to use the knowledge of the world to advance further in each subsequent loop. With an untraditional approach to storytelling, Outer Wilds cements itself as an inspiration for developers to take risks, even at the expense of traditional rewards and potential player enjoyment.

Outer Wilds walks an interesting line, at times I was enamored with the exploration and discovery, at others I was completely frustrated with the mechanics and lack of rewards. I would sometimes go multiple loops without finding anything of note to record in my ship’s log (the only thing that gets saved between loops). There were times I found myself putting the game down for days due to poor in-game time management options and a lack of meaningful advances. Some discoveries—necessary for advancement—I found completely by accident at a very specific time within a time loop. It made me wonder if I would have found said thing otherwise.

Some puzzles feel clever and rewarding while others are simply frustrating. Once I learned to play around with the time within a loop, things became more clear. But then I was subject to the terrible waiting system and unfortunate control scheme that hampered the game for me. Outer Wilds is meant to be a spacefaring game, but it isn't a sim. So why are the controls so wonky? By trying to fight with acceleration, gravity, inertia, etc., I lose some of the enjoyment of exploration. And good luck with using auto-pilot, sometimes it flies you directly into the sun or allows your ship to be sucked into the gravitation pull of another planet. After finding myself stranded in space a dozen times, the waiting game became old quite quickly.

Despite the sometimes cumbersome controls and unpleasant waiting I had to endure, Outer Wilds exudes significant charm. From the unique planets to the Outer Wilds Venture tune that hums in your head even once you’ve exited the game, the game has many memorable traits. Discovering the unique properties of each planet was a delight. A black hole in the middle of a hollow planet? Count me in (except for when I fell into it for the twentieth time). Each body in the solar system—whether it be a moon, planet, or comet—has some sort of history attached to it, and stumbling upon something can be quite satisfying. More so if it was difficult to reach. The Nomai space predecessors left quite a bit of information behind, but it’s the sweet, human-like recorded interactions that made me smile. Little nuggets like these are scattered all over the solar system.

Outer Wilds is an odd paradox, it feels huge due to its nature as a space exploration game, but at the same time creates a coziness within its confines. Some places are mostly barren, while others have tons to explore, but at any point, you can equip your singalscope and listen to a fellow member of the Outer Wilds Venture play the theme song on their chosen instrument. So even after getting sucked into a black hole and getting thrown into deep space, you can find the music thousands of kilometers away and you’ll never feel alone.

It was difficult to decide how Outer Wilds made me feel as a whole. I don’t normally put a game down never to pick it back up, but there were moments where I considered doing just that. There were also times that I stayed up late into the night trying to discover more hidden messages from the Nomai. Though I found some frustrations with the game, when the credits rolled I was satisfied with the final message and many of the decisions that the developers over at Mobius Digital implemented. Outer Wilds takes many risks, and while some don’t pay off, the ones that do make this a venture worth taking. The game may not be perfect, but it is memorable. I recommend it to anyone who likes space travel and discovery sprinkled with a little charm. Just try not to get stuck in outer space too often.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 8/10

Bonus: +1 for unique storytelling method. +1 for satisfying space discoveries.

Penalties: -1 for wonky controls that don't ever feel great. -1 for poor waiting options. -1 for progression/reward imbalances.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.