Lately, I’ve been trying to save the star system. Not the world, not the universe, just the star system. See, I’ve been playing this darling game called Outer Wilds…not to be confused with the other “Outer” game, Outer Worlds. In my hectic and barely-have-time-to-sleep life, I was looking for a game that was slightly more involved than the random match-three mobile games on my phone but not as all-encompassing as the next greatest RPG or MMO release. Because I have a love for indie games, I tend to find them sprinkled throughout my newsfeed and Outer Wilds was no exception.
This game recently hit the news because it had been nominated for six Golden Joystick Awards from PCGamer and on November 15th it won Best Indie Game of 2019. Most recently, it was nominated for Best Indie Game at the Game Awards, losing to Disco Elysium. However, Polygon just awarded it their title of #1 Game of the Year on the 13th of December.
Outer Wilds is a charming, open world, action/adventure puzzler played in the first person. It’s available for XBox One, Playstation 4, and Windows PC, but not yet available on Steam as of this writing, so you will have to download it from the publisher’s website if you’re so inclined.
Three of the PCGamer nominations Outer Wilds received encapsulate why I have thoroughly enjoyed playing it over the last couple of months and why it has been winning awards since 2015 when work on it began. First, it was nominated for Best Storytelling. I am a storyteller at heart and will always stop to enjoy a good tale. Sadly, I can’t go into the story without divulging spoilers. However, I can say that your character is the newest member of a small group of space explorers from the planet Timber Hearth. It is your mission to track down clues and artifacts left behind by an ancient race that once lived in the same star system. Each planet, including your home, holds ruins that are just crying out to be explored! Be warned, there is no combat in this game, it is strictly a puzzle game with a mysterious story to tell. Yet, being a space explorer, there are a thousand different ways to die!
The second nomination was for Best Visuals. The star system is a group of tiny, unique planets as varied as the TRAPPIST-1 system, ranging from sandy red rock canyons to lava moons and even an ocean giant. Exploring them is a visual treat. Although I am constantly stopping to enjoy the scenery, these aren’t photorealistic environs. Instead, the artistic quality fits with the game’s “handcrafted” tagline.
Finally, Outer Wilds was also nominated for Best Audio. From the music to the sound of your breath inside the spacesuit, Outer Wilds presents an immersive soundscape. The game’s audio is center stage when you equip your signalscope, which lets you search for … well, signals. These include hums reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey–one of the game’s influences, and musical instruments played by your fellow explorers.
The star system is sparsely populated by a plucky cadre of characters, each one exploring their own planet, bringing items of interest from the ancient civilization back to Timber Hearth from time to time, where they are studied before being donated to the observatory/museum. Finding your fellow space explorers and swapping stories of adventures is just one of the distractions that keeps me from completing the main quest…which is quite a pity. The main quest is, after all, to save the star system from total annihilation. All those brilliant space explorers are counting on me to save them and I’m sitting around looking at pine trees, roasting marshmallows, and listening to a harmonica.
I am not very good at saving the star system but I’m in luck because the game is played through a series of time loops that last approximately 22 minutes each. This is, of course, the main reason I am able to play this game with my current life…who doesn’t have 22 minutes to try and save the star system? Mind you, I do die an awful lot. There was that time I forgot my spacesuit and left the spaceship only to asphyxiate just outside the door. Or that time the autopilot crashed into the lava moon. And I’ll never forget the first time I was buried in sand, watching my spacesuit’s helmet crack, listening to my strangled breath just before everything went black and the time loop reset. However, there is one death that I will remember for the heartstrings it pulled instead of the bizarre, “only Star could die that way” circumstances. This one will likely stick with me long after I’ve solved all the puzzles, figured out why I’m in a time loop, and stopped the star from going supernova and it epitomizes why this game won the Golden Joystick and why it deserves a moment or two of your time.
I had been traveling quite regularly beneath the brittle shell of a dying planet and I knew the path well. At the center of the planet sat a black hole and I knew that, despite all the laws of physics, it was quite possible for me to travel through the black hole and out the other side to White Hole Station. There, I normally found my way aboard the station and traveled back across the system to my ship, but this time I decided to explore the debris field around me. The debris is made of various building pieces, torn asunder by something and left to orbit the star. I knew as I started to explore the area that my time was short. I had little oxygen left in my spacesuit and little fuel in my jetpack. Plus, I knew that I’d been a long time getting out to the white hole and I could feel the time loop coming to an end. As I explored the debris, the warning flashed across my screen, three minutes of oxygen left. There was no getting back to my ship or an oxygen source in that time so I shrugged it off and continued to explore, knowing that death was imminent. As I crawled through a hole in the wall, I came across a note that had been left by someone who had once called this debris home. With the time loop ending and the last of my oxygen circulating through my suit, I thought, “I’ll just read this note before it resets.” What I found made me pause. It was a note to a lost love, hoping that wherever they were, they were okay. Finding that note out in the dark, so far from the rest of the system as I was about to die myself brought a tear to my eye. It wasn’t long before the time loop ended and I was back at the beginning ready for another try. I’ve since re-read the note left on the wall, earlier in the loop when things weren’t so dark and grim, but I will always remember that first time, dying alone at the end of time, reading about loss and love.
There is so much more to explore and people are starting to produce guides for those who really suck at puzzles and need a hand to hold. If you have a few minutes, give Outer Wilds a try. Who knows, you may just save the entire star system!