Outer Wilds Review — Chris On Videogames

Many years ago I was watching video coverage of a panel discussion from a game convention when someone perfectly encapsulated the infinite potential of videogames by boldly stating, “this is code. We can do anything.” Most games simply ignore this ethos and are instead content to endlessly clone existing mechanics, eternally slapping one more coat of paint on the same existing structure. But occasionally a game comes along that borrows nothing, completely reinvents everything, and reminds everyone that this medium can, indeed, do anything. Outer Wilds is one of those games.

On the surface, this game is about space exploration. You play as an alien living on an earth-like planet that wakes up on the morning of their first solo space flight. After stopping by a mentor’s office to grab some launch codes (and having a sudden, unexpected encounter), you take off in a rickety spacecraft to explore your solar system. From there you either die a gruesome death — common mistakes include asphyxiating yourself by exiting your spaceship without a spacesuit, falling off a tall cliff on a planet with high gravity, and getting sucked into the sun’s gravitational pull after flying too close to it — or you live for 22 minutes only to watch your solar system’s sun go supernova and consume everything in a blinding light. Either way, you wake up right back where you started: beside a campfire, staring at a distant planet and catching a quick glimpse of something that looks like a shooting star.

At this point, if the game’s magic trick has worked, you will find yourself filled to the brim with curiosity, the same curiosity that inspired everyone from Galileo to Armstrong to discover what the realms beyond our planet might be able to teach us. The rest of the game is spent indulging that curiosity as you explore your solar system and search for the answers to your questions and the questions those answers provoke. Following in the footsteps of sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Outer Wilds drifts into metaphysical territory toward the end of its story and wraps up with a beautiful, abstract conclusion that might spark the player’s imagination more than it ties up the narrative.

There is so much about Outer Wilds that is not just unique, but praiseworthy. There’s the spaceflight system that isn’t just a simple flight simulator but a complex physics toy that takes into account the varying gravitational pull of differently sized planets. There’s the unique characters you encounter who are all rich with personality and give you perfectly organic hints that point you in the right direction. There’s the fact that nothing in this game is behind a door that requires a key, everything is instead only obscured by your lack of knowledge, which makes the process of discovering everything feel natural and true to life. There’s the masterful soundtrack from Andrew Prahlow that is stirring and diverse, transitioning confidently from earthy banjos to interstellar synths.

But what’s most remarkable about Outer Wilds is just how fully realized this experience is. With perfect nuance and clarity, this game simultaneously paints a flawless portrait of the danger of space travel, expounds on the reasons we feel compelled to brave those dangers to explore the stars, and explains how science and research can teach us about ourselves in a way that borders on the religious. And, if that wasn’t enough, it does all of this primarily through the mechanics of play, not the overused and less impactful tools of dialogue, cutscenes, or written lore.

Videogames can do anything. But it takes a game like Outer Wilds to remind us that “anything” is as infinite as the universe itself.

Chris On Videogames is videogame criticism that’s short, sharp, and insightful. New reviews are published every other Friday on Substack and YouTube — subscribe on either platform to get reviews a week before they arrive on Medium.

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