The Outer Hype, Also

I finished Outer Wilds last week. Finally.

/review over

As with its similarly named cousin, The Outer Worlds, I walked into this experience under the cloud of effusive praise. Polygon named Outer Wilds Game of the Year 2019 and added it to their Game of the Decade list (#25). Which… makes sense, I guess. It would be kind of awkward for a GOTY to not be good enough for the decade.

But if Outer Wilds is Game of the Year 2019, then 2019 must not have been a good year for games.

To be fair, there are a number of praise-worthy elements to Outer Wilds. The premise of a time-loop mystery is fairly unique (Majora’s Mask notwithstanding). The lack of any form of combat is similarly rare. The game does a really nice job of simply letting you jet around the solar system right from the get-go. The soundtrack is great and the visuals and setpieces can be breathtaking. In truth, there is a lot to like here. The fact all this novelty and ambition came from an indie dev with a dozen people is the commendable bow on top.

Setpieces are pretty crazy original.

It’s just that… the game isn’t for me. Or possibly you.

Everything was great for about two-thirds of the experience. Once you get the controls down, you can wake up from the beginning of the time loop and be orbiting any planet in the solar system within minutes. The impending supernova did grate on my nerves a few times, as it always seemed to occur when I was 90% done exploring a specific location, requiring me to make a return trip to finish up and then suiciding so as not to limit exploration time somewhere else. 

As with all videogames though, things escalated from there. Exploration started requiring some gnarly platforming, where failure often resulted in survival… but lost minutes, of which you only ever have 22. So it may as well have been death. Then the game required gnarly platforming AND specific timing. It wasn’t enough to discover where you needed to go for the next clue, you also had to be there at a specific timeframe.

Up to this point, I had been doing everything on my own. But when I encountered a particularly annoying timing puzzle I could not solve after repeated attempts, I was ready to abandon the game. As is often the case, when I broke down and looked up the solution, it was something that should have been obvious. But immediately following that one sequence were many more that would not have been obvious (to me) at all. Still later sequences require you to sit on your hands for 7+ minutes before getting the opportunity to finish navigating a hallway that becomes impossible to complete within 30 seconds of the window of opportunity opening. Who is this fun for?

I too recreated that one scene from Sunshine.

And that’s the $25 question. Or in my case, $17.80. And the answer is: Not me.

This should not have been much of a surprise. I don’t actually like Adventure/Puzzle games. Or more specifically, I abhor games in which you can come to a hard stopping point and flounder around not even knowing what it is the game is asking you to do. Can’t beat a boss? Gain more levels, or memorize its attacks, or try a different strategy. Can’t get into a locked room? Well, unless there are some movable statues right outside or a monster with the key, then good luck. There could be any number of reasons why the door is locked, up to and including the fact you aren’t supposed to go through the door. And when the solution ends up being “attach a probe to it and then wait FIFTEEN MINUTES for the entire structure to be sucked into a black hole and ejected out into space and then go through a different opening altogether,” I’m not exactly happy at the designer’s cleverness.

Nevertheless, I am glad I played Outer Wilds, if for no other reason than to see for myself as to whether it is a transformative experience. Again: not for me. I can see how it could be for some people though. Maybe. I’m not really sure, actually, because I find it difficult to imagine the sort of person who is capable of working through the entire game without a guide and also receptive to its underlying message. The guides I used didn’t ruin any of the details, but the experience itself gets a bit disjointed when you’re Alt-Tabbing every few minutes.

But if you are a fan of timed, Adventure platforming roguelikes though, you are in for a treat.

Posted on July 22, 2020, in Review and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Sounds like my nightmare of a game, but then I find any game that is heavy on repetition AND also heavy on discovery/story to be an oxymoron.

    Sunless Sea was that kind of game for me. The dialog and world initially are awesome, and the core gameplay is fun enough, but the design of the game is meant for you to repeat that same dialog and ‘exploration’ dozens of times. Like you said, maybe it works for some people, but I’m not one of them.


    • It’s not as bad as Sunless Sea – once you have explored a planet or area and scanned all the alien text, there is (usually) not a reason to return. Your ship’s computer is the only thing that updates between time loops, and it will helpfully tell you if there is “more to discover” at a particular location. Which translates into alien text you might have missed on a wall somewhere.

      The issue is that in the “late game,” it becomes increasingly difficult to get to the places that you haven’t discovered yet. I mention one area in the post, where you literally have to wait until minute 15 before it becomes accessible. There is another area which you have to make a beeline to immediately because it starts to get buried in sand as soon as you wake up. That latter area requires to you get there before the sand, then sit around for a few minutes once past the door, then navigate through a little maze before the sand buries you. There is only so much trial-and-error I can stand these days, especially when you are not certain you are even in the right spot.

      But yeah, this is not the fun, relaxing exploration game that it seemed from other reviews.


  2. Braid was very much like this for me. I wrote at the time:

    “I don’t like mechanics that break the established rules of the world without warning. There was one puzzle very early in Braid that I felt broke the rules that the game established. I don’t actually remember what the puzzle was, but I had to google for the solution. As soon as I saw the answer, I uninstalled the game.

    I still harbor an irrational antipathy towards Jonathan Blow because of that experience.”


%d bloggers like this: