I remember playing games a decade or more ago, when the extent of online walkthroughs available for most titles were ascii artwork-ridden fan chronicles on GameFAQs. Being cut off from easy solutions, with even the most dedicated guides having to paint pictures with their words.
That remote sensation feels freshly relevant, playing through Outer Wilds. A mystery game has rarely, in more recent years, made me feel more averse to looking up solutions, and has hardly ever breadcrumbed so much of its narrative so well that I don’t actually need to.
Outer Wilds begins with your character awakening on their big day – a young astronaut about to leave their planet for the first time. That planet is Timber Hearth, an environment that feels large as you walk around it to collect your launch codes, but will soon enough diminish to a speck on the horizon.
Once you thruster-blast through the atmosphere you’re out in the galaxy, a network of half a dozen or so planets that need exploring, with a few scant hints at where to start.
Those hints, though, are laid so carefully that you’ll know where to go, whether it’s Timber Hearth’s small moon, a disturbing smoke plume on the other side of the planet, an alluring comet circling in space, or two planets in the distance seemingly locked together by a titanic flow of sand.
Over time, you’ll start to trace the conversations and personalities of a vanished species in your space, the Nomai. These scientific geniuses were pushing at the fabric of spacetime in an effort to further their understanding of the universe, but have left behind mere fragments of their stories.
You’ll translate those fragments, each one giving you a better sense for what happened, and where you might head next for another piece of the puzzle. Along the way you’ll face traditional space-farer risks, from diminishing oxygen to ship repairs and limited fuel supplies, along with the occasional alien encounter.
However, an ingenious reset mechanic will ensure that no setback or death is too permanent, and most demises will make you sure that you know how to go one better on a subsequent try.
This all contributes to a lonely and elegiac tone, as you float around space under constant time pressure, piecing together a story that isn’t clearly delineating its goodies and baddies, figuring out whether the galaxy, and indeed universe, has any hope of survival.
It also makes for a story that feels truly personal, with so many small and large decisions and strategies up to your own judgement in terms of order and priority. I’m certain there are corners of the galaxy I never saw, just as surely as I know that I tackled certain areas in unconventional style.
There were moments where control schemes and autopilot systems felt like they were out to get me, but nothing that knocked away the desire to figure out the puzzle box at the heart of Outer Wilds. It’s a puzzle with a satisfying and tonally apt resolution, too, something that could easily have felt unconvincing instead being handled delicately and cutely.
It’s a treat of a game, carefully constructed but impressively adaptable, and one that will hopefully spread its wise lessons around the industry in the coming years.