In the indie sci-fi exploration game Outer Wilds, you play as a four-eyed alien setting off in a rinky-dink rocket on an outer space mission. That’s all very exciting, at least until the sun explodes and demolishes your galaxy.
That galactic destruction kicks off a mysterious time loop that brings you back to 22 minutes before the explosion happened, setting you back on your home planet, about to board your spaceship. In a Groundhog Day-esque series of loops and resets, you must uncover clues hidden on other planets as to why the time loop is even happening, why there are so many strange things in this galaxy—for example, what’s up with the disappearing moon?—and if there’s anything you can do about it.
The non-violent first-person adventure comes to the PlayStation 4 today, having already been out on Xbox One and Windows since last May. It’s a favorite of several Kotaku staffers, including me. We’ve never officially reviewed it here, but in a sense we have done so cumulatively, by writing about it and even podcasting about it in detail since its release. We keep looping back to it to tell you about it again, which seems fitting.
As you explore the galaxy in Outer Wilds, you’ll discover text logs left behind by a previous alien race, describing their scientific discoveries about each of the planets’ mysterious qualities. Many of these text logs are buried behind puzzles or hidden in hard-to-reach locations. As a result, Outer Wilds can’t be described in much detail without sacrificing the surprise and delight that will result if you take the time to uncover these clues on your own. In other words, it’s a game best left unspoiled.
It’s also a game that doesn’t have a predictable progression system. You won’t be fighting, won’t be acquiring new gear, won’t be gaining experience points or filling progress bars. You certainly won’t be visiting an in-game microtransaction shop nor have to worry that you haven’t bought a season pass. An Outer Wilds player just explores, going wherever they choose in the game’s strange galaxy in each rendition of the time loop. Maybe you’ll get sucked into a black hole that spits you out next to an ancient satellite. Or maybe you’ll jump out of your ship and dive down into a volcano. There’s something to find everywhere, and a story of a lost civilization and some alien science to decode beneath it all.
Kotaku’s Gita Jackson wrote initial impressions of the game on release day: “Outer Wilds Is An Excellent Game About The Joy And Terror Of Space Exploration.” You often die in the game well before your 22-minute loop is over and the sun explodes. The galaxy is full of unexpected dangers. In her impressions, Gita described how effective the game can be at intriguing and frightening the player with its many mysteries.
“The storms of Giant’s Deep are loud, and the planet itself is bleak,” Gita wrote. “But even more terrifying is the electrified, pulsing heart at the center of the planet that you can see if you swim too deep. Brittle Hollow is beautiful from afar, but deadly up close. The feeling of falling into that black hole, knowing I couldn’t escape it, was like reliving the claustrophobia of a moment when a friend lost a little respect for me. The loneliness of it was jarring, even after I’d realized that Outer Wilds was gonna get weird.”
Over time, though, Outer Wilds encourages the player not to fear death anymore, by virtue of its time loop. If you tried something and failed, you can just do it again on the next loop. Kotaku’s Joshua Rivera noted this in his post “Outer Wilds’ Time Loop Is Beautiful,” writing,
“Twenty-two minutes isn’t a lot of time—you’ll find yourself deep in the heart of planet with answers to questions seemingly within reach, and then it’s over. You wake up by a campfire, and you start again. Outer Wilds may have a set time loop, but in one of its best design decisions, it doesn’t tell you about it, nor does it ever display how much time is left. It’s an inversion of how we usually think of time: limited in a way that we can’t fully grasp, always running out, spent well or wasted. You could set a timer if you wanted to, but it would rob you of something beautiful—the feeling that in this moment, you are writing a story. It may or may not be remembered, but it is yours. The end is coming, but in this moment, it has not. In this moment, there is so much time.”
Once he beat the game, Kotaku’s Jason Schreier compared Outer Wilds to Metroid and Majora’s Mask, which makes sense, given that it’s about an intrepid space explorer, as well as a time loop. Jason’s comparisons sold me on trying out the game, but once I had beaten it myself, I realized how different it is in terms of its larger themes. In Outer Wilds, you don’t get stronger as the game goes along. When you start a new loop, you don’t bring anything from the previous one with you except knowledge, much of which is conveniently tracked in your spaceship’s computer. You aren’t, for example, bringing back a key to unlock a door you couldn’t pass through. Instead, you’re bringing back the knowledge of how to get past that door, something you could have guessed but now know for sure because you figured it out during a previous loop. It may sound weird or even impossible for a game to work like this, but Outer Wilds pulls this off superbly. It turns out that your ability to observe is all you ever need. Your true reward, at the game’s end, is an evolved understanding of this world and its history.
Outer Wilds is not a power fantasy. It is a game about discovering how little power you have, and how maybe that isn’t as scary as you might initially have thought. The galaxy is huge, but you can still make your mark on a small part of it. And that mark will reverberate forward through time, like an echo of a harmonica played by a friend in the low light of a dying campfire.