Annapurna's critic-beloved space game is even deeper than it looks
n the last decade, dozens of big box game developers have closed their doors. As gaming takes on a bigger and bigger share of our cultural attention as the years go on, independent developers are finding success by taking innovative concepts and translating them into approachable and accessible games that don’t require years of R&D. Two of my favorite games from the past decade—Gone Home and Return of the Obra Dinn—require no specific technical ability from the player. Instead, they recall the point-and-click games of ‘90s PCs, taking simple game structures and creating expressive and vivid stories.
In that lineage comes Outer Wilds, a game developed by Annapurna and Mobius Digital. In Outer Wilds, the main character is an explorer tasked with tracking down the roots of an ancient civilization that made an unexplained appearance in the game’s solar system eons ago. Here’s the rub—every 22 minutes a cataclysmic event happens, sending the player back to the beginning of the game. Exploration happens piece-meal, in 22-minute chunks. Discoveries you make are saved in your system—it’s a Live Die Repeat style situation—and the order of how you tackle the game tasks is entirely up to you.
While Outer Wilds is definitely more of a lift than Gone Home or Return of the Obra Dinn—accessing some areas in the game is downright tricky and require a ton of trial and error—its overarching energy is that of freedom. Even though a ticking clock governs how long each exploration lasts, the pace is yours. There’s many moments of pure serenity, as you pilot your kitschy-ass spaceship toward its destination. You can tackle quests, and uncover small clues about who the mysterious visitors were, and what they were doing. Or you can just kind of hang out and let the stars swallow you whole.
While games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2 came out with exuberant proclamations that you could go anywhere and do anything at anytime without the game forcing you to track back on a specific mission or event, Outer Wilds achieves this with much less fanfre. While I’m skeptical of a game truly being a free environment—I loved both Breath of the Wild and Read Dead 2—Outer Wilds is a pleasurable experience no matter how you approach it. If you’re mowing through objectives, you could beat the game pretty quickly, as is the case in Gone Home. But you’d be missing out on the larger experience.
I’m reluctant to go full-on but the game is the friends you made along the way, but Outer Wilds is a particularly rewarding experience in the quarantine era. Just as Animal Crossing fills a void right now—there’s endless, generally easygoing grinding to be had but no pressure to do any of it—Outer Wilds presents a more inscrutable but more surprising system. Though the overarching lesson of the story is very (no spoilers!) very “huh… k”, getting there is just a stop along the way, not the ultimate destination. It rewards curiosity at every turn, even as your 22-minute-window closes. In a time where gaming companies want to sell you on the journey and not the final boss fight, or whatever, Outer Wilds is like nothing else in its category.
Plus, that soundtrack goes.