Outer Wilds Has Made Exploration In Other Games Boring

Kotaku Game DiaryKotaku Game DiaryDaily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we're playing.

When it comes to video games, “exploration” is kind of a bullshit word, a sexier way of saying hey you’re gonna be doing a lot of running and stuff. “And stuff,” in this context, can be climbing, walking, riding a horse, swimming, or what have you. All the basic ways you get from here to there. I never pick up a video game because I’m going to be doing those things; I merely hope to be shown something interesting. After playing Outer Wilds, I think my bar might be too low.

Most games reward you for exploring. It’s expected that you find something useful as a result of going off the beaten path. Most games hide exciting loot and power-ups in far-flung corners in order to encourage you to look around more. When that loot isn’t useful, like in Jedi: Fallen Order, exploration might not seem worth it. Worst of all, incentivized exploring makes exploration the one thing it should never be: mundane. If you’re exploring just to find a certain item, it can feel rote.

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Outer Wilds is one of my favorite games of this year because it makes exploration feel new to me again. It helps that the game’s structure—a 22-minute time loop where I must race to learn something that will help me escape said loop—focuses me on plunging recklessly into the unknown. But as I learned more in the game—about the friendly inhabitants of my homeworld of Timber Hearth and their big-hearted approach to discovery, or about the long-missing Nomai people who believed the pursuit of knowledge is the noblest goal for a being to have—I feel connected to the explorers who came before me. Instead of finding a new sword or a set of armor, my exploration in Outer Wilds shows me that my character is another link in a long chain of people trying to stumble out of ignorance and become something better.

In so many other games, exploring provides little other than the dopamine tingle I get when I find a fun trinket. In Outer Wilds, exploring makes me feel a whole host of things: I feel fragile, like my colleague Gita Jackson did when she first played the game. I feel impatient, like Maddy Myers did when she realized that shortcuts aren’t always as feasible as they seem. And yeah, I’m haunted by some of what I find, like frequent Kotaku contributor Narelle Ho Sang.

Mostly though, I’m moved by a feeling of romance. No game this year has made me feel anything like Outer Wilds has when the music that plays just before the end of a time loop, warning me that my life is about to end again, but also inspiring me to push just a little bit farther, be a little more reckless. In those last few moments, none of it feels mundane—finding the answers I’m looking for or not doesn’t matter. I’m exploring, and happy to do it. 

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