When I was a kid, I wanted to be one of two things when I grew up (or both – a kid can dream), a professional footballer or an astronaut. Alas, as I sit here writing about video games, it is obvious to all that my childhood dreams did not come to pass. FIFA is probably the closest I will ever get to playing football professionally, and now Outer Wilds gives me a chance to discover what it would mean to be an astronaut. The game takes my young self’s dreams of exploring the wonders of space and diving into the unknown, and it perfectly crafts it into a video game experience.
There have been space games before, ones that let you pilot through the stars, discover new planets and meet new species. What sets Outer Wilds apart from all that came before it is its exploration; in doing so it creates a sense of wonder and mystery akin to what made The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild such a memorable experience. The player starts on their home planet, and today is the main character’s launch day, your first time flying into space. It is here on your way to retrieve the launch codes for your ship that you encounter a statue from an ancient alien race. This statue’s eyes open and glow at you, causing you to enter a time loop. The time loop mechanic plays a lot like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Zelda again?), allowing you to explore and learn before having to start the cycle once again.
It is when you enter your ship for the first time and rise through the planet’s atmosphere that it really dawns on you. There is a whole solar system out there running in real-time, like clockwork, it doesn’t stop for you, and you can go anywhere you want. There are no objectives thrown at you, you can choose where you want to start your adventure, and the game never pushes you or forces you to go one way or the other; the universe is your oyster. There is a mystery to be solved and a story to be heard, and it can be unlocked in any order. The game is designed with the idea that every player will have a different route through to the end, and it is actively encouraged.
As you explore each planet and endeavour to solve the universe’s mysteries, it will become apparent that every area is unique, and each one will pose their own challenge and threat. In a game where there are no weapons and no killing (though you will die a lot), it might be difficult to understand where any danger might come from. Both urgency and peril are provided by the natural world, Mother Nature will push you close to death’s door and provide countless puzzles for you to overcome. In doing so, the challenge feels natural rather than man-made, feeding into the sense of wonder – and realism – that comes with exploration. You will have to surmount inhospitable planets in order to learn more and find new areas, and each one feels like it is out to get you. Even when you manage to beat Mother Nature, you are still on the clock, some mysteries only show themselves near the end – or beginning – of your time cycle, and you have to be quick to gather all your information.
You do have some tools at your disposal to aid you against the challenges and dangers you face, although none are used to attack or destroy. The first is the Little Scout, which you can send into space, around a planet’s surface or into nooks and crannies that you can’t fit into. It can then be used to send images back, revealing hazards or even secrets. You also have a Signalscope, which can search for signals across the universe, a handy tool for pointing you in possible directions to explore or even finding your bearings. The one tool you will probably use the most is your trusty jetpack, which allows you to jump higher and further but has a limited boost at a time. The height and distance of a jump is also determined by the gravity of the environment you are in, which definitely has to be taken into account to avoid an early demise. Along with your tools, you also have your ship to aid you in your adventures.
Your ship is your home away from home, your safe place. In here you don’t need to worry about running out of oxygen, and you can refill your jetpack fuel. Its location is always marked on your HUD so that you can always find your way back. There were times when the sight of my ship after a grueling battle against the elements was a sight for sore eyes, offering me respite and sanctuary from my ordeals. Flying the ship through space can be an ordeal in itself. It can be tricky and take some getting used to as judging the flight path of the ship, especially when trying to reach planets, is extremely difficult. You will find yourself crashing straight into a planet’s surface or zipping past a planet entirely. When time is such a commodity, it can be frustrating to watch a planet slowly spinning out of reach, despite your finger pushing the accelerator with all of your strength. That being said, when you pull off a good landing, it makes you feel very good indeed. The ship has an autopilot function to make getting to planets a lot simpler – and avoid missing them completely – but even this automated function comes with its own problems. It will take you in a straight line towards your objective and stop you perfectly just outside its atmosphere, which is very convenient. However, it doesn’t do anything but go in a straight line, so if there is something between you and your goal, like a sun, for example, it will throw you into it.
Your ship is also home to a log of all the information that you have gathered so far. It does a decent job of surmising and even colour codes parts that have been fully explored for information and those with secrets left to find. As the web of info becomes larger, however, it becomes harder to pinpoint and find exactly what you are looking for. This is off-set by the ability to look at the information through a map view, but it still feels a little messy. This intel acts as an objective list, giving you clues as to where you can go next; it is vague by design, giving you enough to start your search but not so much that it holds your hand. Such an approach feeds into the sense of exploration, but if you become stuck at any point, then its vagueness becomes a hindrance. What’s more frustrating is that the log is only available in the ship, so once you are out exploring, there is no way to access it. There were countless times I wanted to refer back to it, but my ship can’t always be within walking distance, and when time is of the essence, such a trek could make a huge difference.
Outer Wilds manages to perfectly capture both the sheer danger and utter beauty of exploring the natural world. The same instances that will have your mouth agape are the same that will haunt your little astronaut to the grave. In giving you an open universe to explore, it lets you discover the story and the mysteries it holds in your own way so that each find feels unique to you rather than checking off a pre-determined list. No game has made me feel the thrill of exploration since Breath of the Wild, and that is great company to keep indeed. With that in mind, I implore everybody to give this game a go.
Developer: Mobius Digital
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 29th May 2019