Outer Wilds is a very different game, with a very different play experience. Its handcrafted solar system and beautiful landscapes are not quite like anything else as they shift and move around the player without any sort of input. This is a world that doesn’t revolve around the main character, something that separates it from every other major title and lends itself very nicely to the themes of exploration, isolation, discovery, and the absence of control.
Time Loops and Space Adventures
To summarize briefly, Outer Wilds puts you in the role of a Hearthian alien who’s part of their people’s space program. You set out early on to explore the world around you, from your home planet of Timber Hearth to the treacherous oceans of Giant’s Deep to the dubious physics of the Hourglass Twins. After a little less than half an hour of this, the sun explodes in a brilliant supernova and you’re sent back in time to the beginning of the day. This time loop forms the core mystery of the game, and while players never pick up new abilities or upgrades, they do learn valuable information that guides them through the game.
The first major difference between Outer Wilds is that the world you explore doesn’t care about you. Most game worlds tell a story – whether intentionally or no – with the systems that player characters use to shape their surroundings, be it through shooting enemies or jumping platforms. Outer Wilds’s world is dramatically different, as very often you’ll find that you can’t affect your surroundings in any meaningful way, but your surroundings can easily affect you. The most obvious examples of this phenomenon are on the planets Brittle Hollow and the Hourglass Twins. Brittle Hollow is literally hollow, with a black hole at its center that will slowly consume the surface, creating a landscape dotted with holes and pitfalls. The Hourglass Twins are actually two planets – Ash Twin and Ember Twin – and true to their name, the gravitational force between them draws sand from Ash and towards Ember, revealing structures on the former while concealing tunnels on the latter as time passes. These events happen regardless of what you as the player character do, which contributes to the overall feeling of helplessness cultivated by the game.
The Eye of the Universe
The actual story also builds on this theme of powerlessness. It’s centered around the mysterious Nomai, ancient aliens who lived in your solar system many thousands of years ago. Exploring the world reveals fragments of their knowledge and their quest for something called the Eye of the Universe. As part of their endeavor to locate the Eye, they created the technology responsible for the time loop, intending to randomly launch a probe on each iteration which would eventually find the Eye simply by sheer luck. The only problem was that in order to power the time loop, they would have to trigger a supernova, and so they built the Sun Station in order to perform this task.
At this point in the story, the problem seems clear. The Nomai were obviously messing with forces beyond their control, and this led to their demise and the player’s current predicament. The solution, then, is to board the Sun Station and find a way to stop it. It’s a logical conclusion to reach, and we’ve been trained by hundreds of other games to expect this sort of narrative. We see something going wrong, and we know that by the end of the game, we’ll be the ones who fix it and save the day.
Helpless in the Face of Calamity
Outer Wilds flips that expectation on its head. Once you actually reach the Sun Station, you learn that the Nomai never managed to make it work. It is incapable of causing a supernova, which means that the death of your sun isn’t some malfunction or mishap – it’s just the end of its natural lifespan, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. In fact, the entire universe is dying out, which you can see on your map as dozens of stars burst and go dark in the distance. All you can do in the face of this inevitable calamity is finish what the Nomai started and find the Eye of the Universe. Even then, this doesn’t save anyone, not even yourself.
Ultimately, Outer Wilds is a game that confronts you with cosmic indifference. The world around you doesn’t care about you, and will go on regardless of what you do. The universe is dying and there isn’t anything that can save it. Even the Eye of the Universe, when you finally reach it, initially presents as a cold, dark, and inhospitable place. It’s a terrifying idea, and it’s one that the game forces you to reckon with.
Hope in the Void
Despite this rather depressing subject matter, Outer Wilds still manages to feel hopeful and optimistic at the end. Throughout the game, a question is repeated – what would happen if the Eye of the Universe were to be witnessed by a conscious observer? This is a scientific query, as the Eye is a quantum anomaly, one that has no defined state of being. It’s also a thematic question – what do you see when you confront cosmic indifference? The final section of the game answers this as after tumbling through a vortex and entering the Eye, the player finds themselves in a forest, sitting at a campfire. Music can be heard on in the trees, and exploring deeper reveals friends and allies who you met throughout your journey, who join you by the fire. You can even find one of the Nomai, if you took the time to figure out the mysteries of the Quantum Moon. At this point, at the very end of everything, in the face of the uncaring universe, your character cares. They care enough that when they observe the Eye, what manifests are versions of their friends.
This is what matters when confronted with a world we can’t control. Outer Wilds seems to say that we have to accept this cosmic indifference, because we can’t change it. What we can do is hold onto those we care about, because even if there’s no greater purpose or meaning behind it, they matter to us – and that’s more than enough.