I finished Outer Wilds last week. Finally.
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.
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?
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.
I started playing Outer Wilds this week.
So far, I’m only 22 minutes in.
…five or six times. You know, because the solar system explodes and time loops back around.
I don’t think I’ll be talking much about the experience of Outer Wilds as I go along, because a lot of people have gone to great lengths to not “spoil” anything. Not that I have encountered anything in-game that might constitute a spoiler yet. Supposedly the game can be completed in 20 minutes if you know the right place to go, but… of course it can. The sun explodes every 22 minutes of game time, so by definition it has to be solvable within 22 minutes.
What I will say though, is that Outer Wilds has not thus far been anything approaching peaceful or idyllic or an explorer’s dream or anything of the sort. That seemed to have been the impression I gleaned from reading other posts about it.
In my first foray in space, I brought my spaceship over to some interesting orbiting debris, took a space walk to explore, and when I turned around I realized that my ship had floated away. Or rather, was in a rapidly decaying orbit around the goddamn sun. So I chased after it, damn near skimmed the surface of said sun, and then was slingshotted out into the abyss of space where I eventually suffocated in the darkness, alone.
That was the “first death” too, so I had to watch it play out in its entirety. Kind of fitting, I guess. On all subsequent screw-ups, you can use the menu to manually reset the time loop at will. But that kind of starter experience really sets a tone.
After that, I started exploring an ocean planet with constant, horrific tornadoes that are so strong that they LAUNCH THE ISLANDS YOU WALK ON INTO SPACE. That was a fun second experience. After surviving re-entry somehow, I died walking off a cliff, not having realized a jetpack at full thrust was unable to overcome the planet’s 2.0x gravity. The next few deaths were “only” due to sun explosion as I tried exploring some other ruins. Fun times.
So, yeah. Outer Wilds. Fun in the way I imagine Alien Isolation or the Chemical Plant level in Sonic 2 can be considered fun. But I’m getting the hang of things, and hopefully the experience will improve as time goes on. And loops again. You know what I mean.