Outer Wilds is a game that starts out seemingly to be one thing, before revealing itself to be something else entirely. Well, actually a whole bunch of other things, and happily, most of them are fun or at least, interesting. How’s that for vague?
If you were to stop me at the end of the tutorial section, where your newly minted astronaut explores a village full of familiar things, like campfires and observatories, and learns to use some important technology, I’d predict that Outer Wilds was going to be sort of a lighthearted cartoon version of Mass Effect or maybe a more story-driven No Man’s Sky. There’s humor, quirky alien characters, a vivid and often lovely art style and a whole bunch of mysteries that will need to be explored.
You eventually grab your rocket’s launch codes and blast off and a few minutes later the sun explodes and you die out there in space, before waking up where you started the game. It doesn’t take long to understand that Outer Wilds is first and foremost founded on a Groundhog Day/existential/karmic endlessly repeating loop: the sun will explode again in 20 minutes, you will die again and again, and with luck, skill and persistence you will come a little close to solving some of the mysteries of this universe. You can’t extend time or cleverly build a super sun shield. All you can do is ever more efficiently and skillfully find your way to the next weird planet/dungeon and solve its unique puzzles.
Unlike No Man Sky’s infinite and often forgettable worlds, each of the planets in Outer Wilds is a crafted and memorable place, often a physics-based puzzle writ large but occasionally something more esoteric or arcane. The love of science and the way the universe of quantum mechanics and gravity really work is at the heart of the game, mirrored in the game’s mechanics. While actually controlling the spacecraft’s directional thrusters can be a frustrating challenge, this is not a universe of magic but of wonder and even the most imaginative planet plays by the rules.
Your character is not just an astronaut but an archaeologist, linguist and anthropologist, too, deciphering ancient inscriptions, exploring ruins and piecing together the history of an alien race. Since the system’s planets can be explored in any order, each player’s experience will be a unique, Sleep No More collection of clues and revelations and discoveries.
Sometimes, Outer Wilds can be a little obtuse and is quite content to let the player poke and prod its mechanics and ultimately fail to discover something important. It’s happy to err on the side of not over-explaining, which can be frustrating when combined with the game’s thesis of repetition, death and doing-it-over. Outer Wilds is not laugh-out-loud funny but there is an essential gentleness and wit to its NPCs and story beats which takes a bit of the sting out of the story’s darkness. It doesn’t break the fourth wall, it isn’t full of sly game references, it simply revels in our deep drive to understand how the big picture works.
I thought Outer Wilds was going to be more of an RPG, and I sort of wish it was. The more engaging gameplay elements — the story and its mysteries, the fascinating and beautiful planets, the thrill of exploration and discovery — always took a backseat to the puzzles and physics, which were intriguing but sometimes felt like an arbitrary impediment that drained some of the delight out of Outer Wild’s often genuinely unique experience.