My Outer Wilds journey had me awash in emotions from fear to joy to sadness. There was one discovery, however, that made me unexpectedly queasy. It also left me with a lingering sense of overwhelming dread that morphed into much more.
Mobius Digital’s game, which was released earlier this year on Xbox One and PC, begins on your home planet of Timber Hearth—a quaint, quiet village with log cabins, fellow four-eyed alien townsfolk, and a comforting campfire for roasting marshmallows. As a fledgling explorer, players are equipped with a signalscope, a scout launcher and an alien translator, and are tasked with setting off on their first voyage into space. It’s soon revealed that the galaxy is caught in a 22-minute time loop and is ultimately destroyed when its sun explodes.
What follows is a reset cycle that scales in scope—from simple exploration to one which leads players to discover the mysteries of the universe. Along the way, players will uncover the scientific exploits of an ancient alien civilization, the Nomai, who left their mark on various planets in the solar system. And, eventually, you’re left trying to figure out what could be done to stave off the impending destruction.
It should be noted this is a loose summary of the progression of events. One of the coolest things about Outer Wilds is the distinct possibility that no two players’ journeys will unfold in the exact same way.
Outer Wilds is a blend of awe-inspiring moments, stress, and beauty. Very few of us (if any at all) will ever have the chance to set off on a journey, for a first hand account, to someplace so unknowable to humankind. But if Outer Wilds is as close as I’ll ever get to space exploration, I would be content with that.
The game achieves a sense of adventure that’s filled with strange and terrifying sights, loneliness, and wonder. It’s a journey that’s immensely imaginative, and deeply intelligent. I spent hours engrossed in the puzzles, worlds and story Outer Wilds sought to share.
Part of its brilliance lies with tapping into a palette of human emotions through its writing, in addition to its cleverly constructed adventure that’s filled with excitement and fraught with danger. As a result, the biggest surprise was how the game led me to experience empathy for its characters’ failures and their celebrations of life’s accomplishments. At the end of the journey, I came away with many questions and, interestingly, self-reflection.
It all starts with the gorgeously crafted Outer Wilds’ solar system, and the emotions that develop through exploring all its weird and wondrous places.
There’s nothing quite like discovering something new in Outer Wilds. This begins with taking off into space and landing on one of five planets in the solar system or simply a point of interest of your choosing. It’s both thrilling and terrifying, and depending on where you land, that level of terror can increase exponentially. As dangerous as the areas can be, there’s creativity and beauty to behold in each location’s vastly different environments.
The waters of Giant’s Deep stretch into the sky as massive tornado waterspouts, picking up islands and tossing them about. The volcanic Hollow Lantern orbits Brittle Hollow and bombards the planet with fiery rocks, causing the latter to gradually crumble beneath your feet. At Brittle Hollow’s core, the Nomai had carved out a settlement called the Hanging City that floats above a black hole. The hourglass twin planets orbit each other and are connected by a cascading tower of sand. It’s both beautiful and deadly or as fellow Hearthian traveler, Chert, calls it, “On a scale of one to dead, I’d give it a seven or eight. Awfully pretty though.”.
The planets’ environments are not the only aspect that make visiting the locations unique. Each hides a wealth of information—whether there’s a puzzle to solve through rising and diminishing sands, or translating the Nomai’s beautiful curved language, to figuring out how they were wiped out, and all their impressive scientific achievements in between.
Navigating the solar system in pursuit of the Nomai’s secrets is where things get deeply intriguing and petrifying.
Gathering key information can be perilous work, and each piece is a clue that reveals more about the Nomai and the mysterious time loop. Places like the Dark Bramble amplify just how terrifying Outer Wilds can become—a reminder that in this exploratory sci-fi game, there are inevitably going to be frightful things to find lurking in the vast reaches of space for those brave enough to visit.
The Dark Bramble is quiet and seeped in a thick fog. It’s one of the game’s most dangerous places, and for me, the scariest planet Outer Wilds has to offer. I found myself holding my breath whenever I had to explore its depths. It gave me the same type of nightmarish panic that horror games instill in me.
And yet, Outer Wilds had much more in store for me as I closed in on its secrets—and I was not expecting it to affect me as profoundly as it did.
The Dark Bramble is just one example of the absolute terror I experienced. There’s a different form that I alluded to earlier—the sort that made my stomach sick, with an indescribable psychologically gutting feeling. It was all too real and invoked a rare type of dread I’ve experienced in the past. I was left mulling over this particular scene late into the night after my play session, and in the days following.
In Outer Wilds, it’s revealed that the Nomai crashed into the player’s solar system with three sets of their clan scattered to different planets. As curious, brilliant scientists and explorers, they had set out to investigate the new galaxy they found themselves in, all the while trying to unearth the truth behind something they referred to as ‘The Eye of the Universe,’ which they believed called to them. During the course of their ventures, they began to seek answers by developing extraordinary technology—warping stations, orbital probe cannons, and more—to further their advances and curiosities through manipulating all they could in inventive, and sometimes dangerous, ways.
One of their biggest projects was to cause the sun to implode, thereby triggering a supernova to power a project they called The Ash Twin Project. There are more details about the project than I’m willing to explain here but it’s important to note that this plan compelled the Nomai to create an area called the Sun Station—a place where they sought to harness the power of sun’s explosion, and it had to be built very close to the sun. What I experienced next in real life, when I set foot into the Sun Station, surprised me.
Armed with the belief that the Nomai were likely dabbling in matters that probably erased their existence, as well as set the solar system on track to being destroyed and trapped in the time loop, I tensed up at what I thought I’d find. I felt nauseated. Then, a specific incredulous question in my mind: “What did these fools do?” I had never felt anything like it before for a game. Have I felt fear that comes with a zombie attack or jump scare? Yes. Sadness that comes with a character’s terrible fate? Sure. But fear from dreading that a game’s characters’ aspirations led to their demise? No. Not that I could think of.
Maybe it was the way information had been building throughout my journey up to that point. It also, partially, had something to do with the Sun Station’s musical score. A sorrowful track began playing once my character had made the terrifying leap across space from one open part of the Sun Station to the next. A strange tension filled the expansive glass room. Staring out into the fiery inferno that is the sun, just a few feet from the Station, felt unnatural. It was intense, claustrophobic, perfectly executed, larger than life, and absolutely a place where it felt no explorer belonged—even if the Nomai’s ambitions defied the impossible to become possible.
Before I finally found my way into the Sun Station, I had suffered countless frustrating deaths on so many planets getting to that point. By then, I had seen enough of the Nomai writings to get a sense of their civilization’s good-natured dispositions. Their messages, through their back and forth text-based conversations, read like excited achievements. Each of their discoveries, small or great, was something to be celebrated. I could feel their victories juxtaposed with my character’s own amazing findings at uncovering the Nomai’s history. And in turn as a player, celebrate small victories of my own, as I had successfully navigated Outer Wilds’ tough puzzles and challenges.
At the Sun Station, it all changed. For the first time in my journey, the usual chipper Nomai messages were sullen. I had seen a few of their messages express alarm prior to that discovery but nothing like this. Here, their mission to create a supernova had failed and they suffered a crushing defeat.
Relief and Sadness
Once I had discovered the failed Sun Station plan, my sickness turned to relief and then to sadness. I felt empathetic to their shortcomings.
As explorers, the Nomai took their defeat and began to focus on what they could do next. A new comet, The Interloper, had appeared in the solar system as per their records—it happened to be the very first place I landed on when I started my game hours before—and the Nomai were excited to investigate. I wasn’t eager to return to the comet because it was the site of my first major death. The Interloper, my ship, and inexperienced astronaut me, had traveled straight into the sun on that maiden voyage. It was terrible, and I winced thinking about how I’d possibly stick a landing and not repeat my fate. Even though I died via flying into the sun in voyages since, the thought of accomplishing this specific task felt like a daunting, unnecessary risk. But the Nomai’s messages directed me there, so off I went.
When I arrived at The Interloper a second time, it was even worse than I feared. I knew from my first outing that the Nomai had landed there and were in distress by something they had found. After many attempts at my new target mission, I eventually discovered what happened to The Interloper’s investigation crew and by extension, the Nomai civilization’s fate. The messages the crew left behind were frenzied, and their attempts at warning everyone about the dangerous comet—which would ultimately be the thing that wiped out the Nomai when it plummeted into the sun, releasing a deadly material called ‘ghost matter’ to spread across the solar system—came too late. Their fate was sealed, and as the last discovery the Nomai made right after their failures at the Sun Station, it felt dreadful to me.
The Nomai’s curiosity and motivations encouraged them to explore and create astounding technology. And in the end, their society fell through an ironic twist of fate.
Was it better to die in ignorance? Was attaining knowledge worth the risks if it was all for naught in the end?
It was not lost on me that by pursuing clues, my thirst for knowledge would follow in the Nomai’s footsteps both literally and figuratively. I was chasing after their ambitions—maybe foolishly so. Additionally, at that point in the game, I had not yet uncovered all there was to know about the Nomai civilization. What lay in wait could be even more hazardous but I knew it had to be done. The Nomai’s scientific defeat at Sun Station, and their subsequent erasure, weighed heavily on me and I remembered a particular Nomai conversation I read at the Sun Station.
Reflecting on my Own Failures
During the planning stages of the Ash Twin Project, some Nomai were against its creation. At the Sun Station, a line from one of the Nomai, Idaea, stayed with me. “I may have disagreed with exploding the sun, but I never wished the device would fail,” Idaea’s message read. As a clan, they wanted nothing but success for their fellow members.
The selfless, unified voice of the Nomai—despite very few instances of internal struggles and bickering as evidenced through the conversations your Hearthian discovers throughout the journey—contained an unwavering strength. It’s true that their curiosity had led to dangerous decisions, and their thirst for knowledge brought them to catastrophic discoveries, but theirs was a shared experience. They suffered defeat together. Their successes and failures were felt by all. And in the end, they died together before achieving their greatest goal—finding the Eye of the Universe—leaving you to finish what they started.
For nights afterwards, I thought about Idaea’s words which led me to contemplate my own personal insecurities and grievances experienced in this life. I thought about the instances of people wanting me to fail at my endeavors, as well as those who were generally unkind. I thought about my many mistakes in friendships gone south, and situations I could have been handled better. My mind wandered to the friendships I’ve maintained and continuously strive to be better at, along with an uncertain future, wondering when my next misstep will come. But I also thought about all the good people waiting to cheer me on. The ones there for me on a daily basis, helping to mold my life’s journey as I’ve shaped theirs in turn.
Outer Wilds is very much an affecting experience. This game, with its initial unassuming space exploration adventure, is able to invoke a spectrum of human emotions and reactions from its players. And, on an even deeper level, speaks to our very existence. This certainly holds true for me.
There was a lot more to uncover in the Outer Wilds and I did just about everything to see the Nomai’s journey and my Hearthian’s to the end. I poured over my ship’s logs and set out to investigate points of interest that needed to be addressed further. The risks were plentiful but I saw and experienced amazing and frightening things the game still had in store. Lots of questions are raised in its poignant ending. It’s been weeks since I finished but I still think about the game and the moment at the Sun Station where I felt genuine empathy for a fictional clan that beautifully mirrored human nature and curiosity.
In one of the closing scenes of Outer Wilds, there’s a creepy but beautiful depiction of bodies of dead Nomai that have to be stacked on top of each other in order to reach a Nomai spaceship. The ship then shoots into the unknown reaches of space to attain a piece of a puzzle for the game’s best ending.
The scene is part of a gorgeous send off for a game that reminds us, as players and in real life, of our place in the universe and our inter-connectivity with others—our shared human experiences of celebrations, failures, and the haunting discoveries that await as we make our journey through life, death, and beyond.