The game opens as your main character wakes up from a nap under the stars. Today is your big day. You’ve joined the Outer Wilds Ventures Space Program, and it’s time for your first solo space flight. As you head off to the observatory for your launch codes, your friends say their last goodbyes, and best wishes for a safe voyage. Mica gives you some last-minute training with the miniature model ship, to practice using the thrusters, and Gossan gives you a refresher in the Zero-G cave, so you don’t panic if you need to make some repairs to your ship while floating out in space. As you make your way into the observatory, you notice an intact statue carved by the Nomai, an ancient alien species who dwelled in the solar system for thousands of years prior. Not much is known about the Nomai, but the statue is very cool. You hurry into the observatory, so you can get cleared for flight already.
You finally meet up with Hornfels, one of the founding members of the Outer Wilds. He’s very excited to present to you something he’s been working on for a very long time; a Nomai translation tool. With the translation tool, for the first time ever, your species will be able to translate and read all of the ancient text, and unknown mysteries left behind by the Nomai. Where did they come from? Why were they in our solar system? Most importantly, why and how did they vanish so suddenly? Hornfels excitedly sends you on your way, with launch codes and his new translation tool, you’re ready for your first launch. As you leave, you walk past the Nomai statue one more time. It turns to face you, opens its eyes, and you have some sort of bonding experience with it, as your recent memories flash before your eyes. You have no idea what’s happened, but you somehow feel connected to the statue. No time to worry about it now. It’s time to take flight!
Sprinting back to the launch tower, you reconfirm with Slate, your mechanic, that he patched up those faulty thrusters, shoot up the elevator, and climb into your ship. You buckle into the cockpit, and prepare your first flight. How about we keep it simple to start? Just to our moon, The Attlerock, and back to Timber Hearth, easy. It’s decided. You switch to your launch camera view. You can see straight down, so you know when you’ve cleared the launch pad. You hit your vertical thrusters. Like, you really hit those thrusters. Yeah, they’re patched up alright. You switch back to your cockpit view to re-orient yourself. You can see Dark Bramble directly ahead, it’s the 5th and final planet in our solar system. We’re way too far out…
Dark Bramble looks to be a very harsh planet. You don’t know much about it, so you decide to explore it. But, there’s nowhere to land; there’s no surface. There are large protrusions from the core that looks like giant tree roots, and the core itself is porous. The holes in the core look like foggy voids. You curiously wonder if it would be safe to enter, so you fire a Scout inside. Seems safe. Very cloudy and foggy, but it looks like there are light bulbs lighting the way? You curiously wonder again if you could fit your ship through, but you don’t chance it. If it gets hairy, you’d want a quick and easy escape, so you suit up, and exit the ship. The whole planet has zero gravity, so your thrusters take you around with ease. You make your way through, towards what you thought was a light bulb, but it was another core? Another core, with more holes, with more light bulbs in different directions. Again, you pick a light, and fly towards it. As you get closer, you can see this one’s a bit different. This light is attached to something? You realize too late, your thrusters can’t reverse fast enough. You’re eaten, by a giant Anglerfish. You die. Your journey flashes before your eyes. You wake up from a nap under the stars. Today is your big day.
This entire first section of the game serves as a sort of optional tutorial. You can walk around and talk to your friends, and they’ll help you learn how to use all the tools at your disposal. Besides your ship, and spacesuit, your character is also equipped with a Signalscope, a tool that can be used to listen to distant sounds and frequencies, and a Scout Launcher, which is used to fire small Scouts to take photos over the horizon, or check if the areas you’re about to explore are dangerous. This is all of the equipment you’ll use through the entire game. There are no weapons, no crafting, no upgrades.
What you can upgrade though, is your knowledge and understanding of the universe, the wonders and dangers of your solar system, the beings that once inhabited it, and the ones that still do. The solar system in Outer Wilds is fully modeled with each of the 5 planets having their own unique physics, gravity, day/night cycle, moons, a comet, and even black holes, all modeled in real time. Each planet is of moderate size, and are extremely unique, even compared to most games. The Hourglass Twins, for instance, is a pair of planets that closely orbit each other, and a huge plume of sand is lifted from one planet to the other, making one planet easier to explore as sand is removed, and the other planet more dangerous as sand fills its deep cave systems. The scale of the solar system is much smaller than most similar games, though. You can fly from the sun to the furthest planet in only a few seconds. Flying the circumference of each planet’s surface takes even less time, but most of the interesting finds are hidden underground.
Exploration is the entire draw of the game. There are no upgrades, there is no crafting, there are no weapons, there is no combat, but your character can die in a wide variety of ways, like flying straight into the sun… Everything you explore and discover is added to a log in your ship, and anything important you might be missing is also noted by a “There is more to find here” message, or just simply with a “question mark” so you always know if you’re missing something, and the rough location of where. It can become more frustrating as you clear more of the log, and just can’t seem to find that last bit of info. The game won’t hold your hand and tell you exactly what you need to do. You’re rewarded for saying “I wonder what would happen if I tried this…”, trying it, and seeing the results. While there are definite multiple endings (credits roll), this is the kind of game that ends when you are satisfied with the information you know (and search Reddit for what you don’t know).
Most of your more impactful discoveries will be made while using your Nomai translation tool. The Nomai seemed to only communicate through text, and have left numerous walls of dialogue between each other throughout almost every nook and cranny in the solar system. You can find and translate these texts in any order, as you’ll stumble upon them in your travels, and you will find reoccurring names and themes scattered between planets. It’s up to you to piece together these discoveries, and figure out exactly what’s going on. The game can be a bit of a puzzle in this way.
Outer Wilds can be very visually impressive at times. The technology used by your character throughout the game has a distinct 1970-1980 design aesthetic. Everything is big, boxy, and complex. Lots of buttons, switches, cranks, tubes, meters, and wheels. On the contrast, the ancient Nomai technology you come across is very futuristic. Sleek and shiny designs, with very minimal interfaces. You could infer that the Nomai were very much more advanced, and ahead of their time with their technology, and your character’s tools and equipment may have been reverse engineered based on those findings.
The game’s textures have a very stylistic flat approach, and the game’s use of lighting, or lack of light, adds a sense of loneliness and uneasiness to many of the environments. This gives the game a slight psychological horror feeling, of being alone, lost in space, floating around in the darkness, not knowing what lies waiting for you on the deep crevices of the next planet.
The “simple yet effective” motif that can be found in the game’s art design is carried over into the sound design. Outer Wilds is a quiet game, most of the time. Turns out, outer space is very quiet. You’ll learn the subtle hum of your ship’s engines, and the firing of your spacesuit’s jetpacks. Most planets are just dark and silent, which again adds to that feeling of desolate loneliness. When you do approach an interesting sound, you want to head straight towards it, and investigate. You can use your Signalscope as a directional mic, and pinpoint various sounds and frequencies, but it’s always sparse.
Musical cues are used to great effect at key moments, usually when you stumble upon something important. Never anything more than a couple strings in a simple acoustic guitar loop, or a short and sombre synth and piano sting. The music is very purposely understated, but always welcome, and is one of the most memorable things about the game.
Outer Wilds is one of those games where you can play until you’re satisfied, and put it down. Or, play until your mind is blown, and take a break, because things got real heavy. Or play until you get stuck, and check Reddit only to find out you haven’t even scratched the surface yet. Or, you might just try it and hate it. It’s not a game for everyone, and it leaves a lot on the player to just figure out and piece together for themselves.
If you’re at all interested in this game, I suggest you check it out for yourself. I’ve intentionally left out a few key points of the game in this review, to try to spoil as little as possible. There’s just a ton of things to discover in the game, and that is basically the fun of it all. This is probably my favorite game of the year so far, and it came completely out of left field.