Legitimate discovery is a difficult sensation to simulate in a video game. Countless worlds smother us with lore and histories, giving us the opportunity to understand them better if we choose to stop and smell the roses, but that understanding is usually optional, and often feels superficial as a result. That’s a problem that Outer Wilds, a space-exploration sim laced with puzzles and a mystery story, sidesteps by putting the storytelling that normally litters the background of games front and center. That makes it feel vital. By turning lore into puzzle elements into progress, into the meat of the experience rather than the dressing, it elevates the process of learning about these worlds to heights rarely seen in games.You control an alien astronaut/anthropologist exploring your own solar system to uncover and unravel the mysteries of the Nomai, a mysterious and ancient race whose ruins lie scattered across every planet. Before too long, you figure out that you are trapped in a surprisingly helpful Groundhog Day- (or Majora’s Mask)-style time loop, so it is up to you to figure out how to break out of it. That process leads to a long, convoluted puzzle which you solve by exploring each of the system’s five planets, along with a handful of moons and other points of interest. The simple premise gives way to the interesting story (stories, really) you uncover in your travels: The Nomai, like Metroid’s Chozo, Mass Effect’s Protheans, or any of a handful forerunner races seem unknowable at first glance, but as you become acquainted with them through diaries and other notes they feel both distant – they are dead, after all – but relatable.
Revealing the whole story seems like a daunting task, but once you jump in your spaceship and set out on your expedition things start to fall into place. Without any real tutorials – there are a few practice areas on your home planet, but they’re entirely optional – learning the rules of the world takes time. I specifically had some issues learning to fly the spaceship, which is a small shuttle guided by directional thrusters. While there’s no math involved, Outer Wilds takes a physics-minded approach to space: You need to keep track of your momentum relative to the planet you where you plan to land, adjust for its orbital trajectory, and so on. Everything controls well once you get used to it, but the sink-or-swim approach makes the first few runs more aggravating than they need to be because of time wasted by under or overshooting planets. Sometimes that leads to a fatal crash, which – a la Groundhog Day – resets you back to the beginning.
Every 22-minute run is both exciting and a bit terrifying.
That lack of understanding makes every run, from blasting off for the first time to exploring a previously hidden place, both exciting and a bit terrifying. Though the solar system is small enough that you could conceivably touch down on every planet in a single 22-minute run, you are smaller and insignificant by comparison. It feels like anything could come out of the deep black void at any time – and there are some surprising moments in store. If you, like me, are mildly unsettled by swimming through underwater levels in a lot of games, you may find the experience of floating in space instills some existential dread. If you’re willing to work through it, though, that fear is almost always unfounded and the thrilling feeling of discovering a new place is always rewarding.
Since exploration is the centerpiece of Outer Wilds, each of the five planets serves as a mechanical and aesthetic showcase. Each planet has a unique look and feel, not to mention a mechanical concept that complicates traveling and creates “natural” puzzles out getting from point A to point B. Each place feels unique and meticulously crafted, from the largely aquatic planet of Giant’s Deep, whose rising green seas and sky-high whirlpools can disrupt you at any time, to Brittle Hollow, a dying planet with a black hole at its core that’s pulling in chunks of the surface as time goes on, potentially blocking your path or even sucking in and destroying your destination before you can reach it.
The time loop also plays an important role in traveling the world and solving puzzles because certain areas only become accessible at specific times. For example (a minor spoiler!) one of the planets appears to be a giant desert if you head straight there at the beginning of a run, but over the course of each loop the sand level gradually lowers and reveals new places to explore. Stumbling upon a new area because you were in the right place at the right time leads to some of the best discoveries: Each planet has the capacity to truly surprise you, even after you thought you’ve figured everything out.
Your understanding of the world and its stories is your progress, and each step forward feels like a genuine eureka moment.
Again, “figure out” is the operative phrase here. You do not find gear and there are no clear-cut missions spelled out for you to perform. You simply explore, finding and reading as much as you can, then using what you find to find and read more and more until you eventually know what to do. For example, while exploring a lab on one planet, you may read that there’s a lab on another world that with information that would allow you to access a new area, so off you go to find it. There is definitely structure to it, in that each piece of info helps you find one or two other specific pieces, but doesn’t explicitly tell you how to use each fact or where to go. You have to process the information yourself, and the act of piecing the story together step by step is the beating heart of Outer Wilds. Your understanding of the world and its stories is your progress, and each step forward feels like a genuine eureka moment.
That all sounds very abstract, but there are some visual cues and other means of helping you feel like you’re making tangible progress. From the start, you have a language translator which allows you to conveniently convert the picturesque Nomai writing into legible text. Like a used textbook, every subsequent reading comes with the keywords highlighted, indicating that you are reading about something important that factors into some portion of your quest. And the most salient details get summarized and stored in your ship’s log and stay there even after time resets. The ship’s log is very useful – I got into a rhythm where, at the start of each run, I would check the log for new details I’d found and rumors of places I hadn’t, presenting open threads that could inspire my next adventure.
That said, your actual progress is not quite so obvious. The ship’s log saves the bullet points, but you often need more information than that to make the logical leaps from one piece of information to the next. For example, in one area you find giant bones and some ancient notes from the Nomai explaining a detail about the species that left them. That information becomes very important later on, but your ship’s log will not tell you when or why. Moreover, once you know, it’s on you to apply that knowledge to allow you to navigate a hazardous area. Though I never found it difficult to make the connections, it is rewarding to think critically about everything you read and remember what’s going on every step of the way.
No one’s going to tell you if you’re missing something.
It also means that no one’s going to tell you if you’re missing something. This is where things can get complicated and frustrating. If you find facts out of order, or approach ruins from the wrong direction, certain tasks may seem impossible. In some cases, it’s easy to look around and find what you missed, but other times, especially late-game locations whose entrances are obscured, puzzles can get obtuse. The puzzles, when you have all the information you need to solve them, are generally pretty, clear, but when a piece is missing, it’s impossible to tell where to even begin: For example, one area on Brittle Hollow is only accessible via a series of crystals that let you walk along the underside of the planet’s hollow crust. If you haven’t found the area where the crystal path begins, you may try to wander the planet blindly looking for an entrance or try to fly to it, which will inevitably get you sucked into a black hole. There’s an order of operations that is easy to ignore if you stumble into the right place at the wrong time.
It was also in my lowest moments that I really understood the genius of the time loop as a gameplay mechanic. While the 22-minute cutoff seems prohibitive early on, the loop forces you to break your exploration down into more digestible tasks and allows you to reset when you hit a wall with a specific place or puzzle. It won’t necessarily help you solve a head-scratcher or finish the story, but it absolutely forces you to take things in at a somewhat leisurely pace, giving you room to breathe and enjoy the ride.
I don’t hold the frustrations raised by those obtuse puzzles against Outer Wilds, though. Given the nature of how you process the information that reveals the solutions to these puzzles, I expect people will start sharing knowledge online as they find it, as they did with games like Fez, Dark Souls, and The Witness. I’ve chatted with a couple of other writers about their experiences, and there’s something really fun about sharing stories and, in particular, hearing about things you haven’t discovered yet and going in search of them.
Outer Wilds’ tricky exploration and puzzle solving is definitely an acquired taste. Its very specific brand of active storytelling differs wildly from highly guided open-worlds that many of us think of when we talk about non-linear gameplay. Though it can be confounding at times when events don’t unfold in precisely the right way, the feeling of discovering something new about the story, or following a couple of facts to something totally unexpected on a faraway planet far outweighs those hiccups.