Why Outer Wilds Is My Game of the Year (So Far)
Although Outer Wilds has only been in the wild (sorry, I had to) for a short month, it has easily climbed its way to become my Game of the Year so far.
My exposure to the game came from it appearing on my Xbox One as a reward for tuning into the Microsoft E3 2018 conference on Mixer. Unbeknownst to me, Mobius Digital had been working on the game for quite a while and it was the first game to launch on Fig, the gaming crowdfunding site. Flashforward nearly a year later, during a recording of Canadian Geekcast—a podcast I cohost—the release of Outer Wilds was brought to my attention. On May 29th, I immediately investigated the game and launched it on my console.
The game’s narrative is pretty straightforward. You are a young member of an alien race and you’re given the task to simply explore the solar system and record your findings. On the surface, there is no agenda or looming enemy threat. You’re never given a weapon, only tools to help you unlock the secrets of this quirky solar system. Beyond the purposeful lack of combat, Outer Wilds is also void of any handholding. You’re sent to space to explore—that’s your only mission.
Once you take to the stars, you'll begin to discover an interwoven narrative with threads verring in different directions. You'll begin to uncover the mystery of an ancient race called Nomai. You also stumble upon text regarding a space experiment gone horribly wrong. Most of the clue you find are through written translatable text that link everything together.
However, time is not on your side. You are on a real-time clock where at the 22-minute mark, the sun goes supernova, and you restart on your base planet. Not all is lost though, your findings are all stored and catalogued on your ship for easy access upon each death.
As you can imagine, not having an objective, I was completely lost the first time I launched into space. Landing on a nearby moon, I met a member of my alien colony. He began telling me stories and rumours he has heard about other travellers. This automatically updates my ship’s log. Now I could have left the moon and began following those bread crumbs. Instead, I explored the moon a bit further and found written text referencing blackholes and a group that had begun experimenting on them. These two seemingly unrelated story threads would end up intersecting hours down the line. The game’s non-linear way of giving you information is a bit abstract, yet it works. Each clue and each piece of text has purpose. Even if you don't find relevance during the time of reading, it may factor in way down the line.
There’s something extremely cathartic about being left to your own devices. Success or failure, it was all on my shoulders. There’s no one talking through an earpiece disrupting my adventure. It’s me and myself as soon as I step into the ship. The only thing pushing you forward is curiosity.
As you explore each planet, you’ll find different puzzles. You’ll naturally learn and progress through the solar system fairly rapidly. How the game pulls you along is actually quite brilliant. The texts you translate will often hold answers to the questions you seek. Although there was one prominent puzzle on the Hourglass Twins that put me through the wringer. Outer Wilds never punishes you for not knowing the answer right away. It encourages you to learn the solution through other means and revisit areas hours later.
The ship’s log will identify areas which still hold secrets. After giving up on an area, unable to crack the last bit, I had the lightbulb moment hours later while solving an entirely different puzzle and returned victoriously. That satisfaction of completing a puzzle not through trial and error, but through learning the rules of the game is one of Outer Wilds’ most prominent strengths.
Although the solar system is fairly small, each planet has personality. Flying towards a planet called Giant’s Deep, I broke through the atmosphere and found large, towering tornados. The tornados were so powerful that as I landed my ship on one of the islands, the formation was flung into space. For a few moments, I was able to look over the solar system in front of me before being dropped back onto the planet’s surface. The unknown and the feeling of excitement had me wanting to explore every corner of every planet. All planets have some sort of odd behaviour that warrants further investigation. A lot of them work under a mechanic through the passage of time. Certain areas become inaccessible after a period of time has passed. Through your collection of logs, you’ll begin to piece together the overarching mystery.
Mobius Digital created a sandbox worth investing time into. This unsuspecting game dangles one rewarding experience after another on the end of a stick. I can’t genuinely compare Outer Wilds to another game. It’s part Myst, part Firewatch, but for the most part, Outer Wilds is an original take on a space exploration game. Although the concept of "Go out and explore" is simple, the execution and last effect the game has is quite the opposite.
Kudos to Mobius Digital for creating Outer Wilds. It truly is a special game and deserves all acclaim it has received so far. Although a part of me believes it will fly under the radar for most players, I encourage anyone seeking a fresh, new game to try it out on PC and Xbox.