“The Outer Wilds is a game where you fly around in a spaceship and try to figure out why you’re dying every 22 minutes.”
Before playing The Outer Wilds, I had heard only something like that sentence about the game and that it was very good. So good that it was on the top of many people’s Game of the Year lists for 2019, but I just wasn’t sure if that sentence was a description for a game that was for me.
I was wrong.
Warning: Major story spoilers for The Outer Wilds ahead
To sum the game up in a couple more sentences: The Outer Wilds is a game where you leave your home planet of Timber Hearth on a one person sized spaceship to find out why you’re dying every 22 minutes and starting back where the game began. The only thing that stays with you between deaths is a “rumor map” that shows you links between different pieces of information you’ve came across. For example: “Quantum Objects” on the rumor map would link to “Quantum Moon” and underneath both those items you could read information you’ve gathered on them. The key way you learn information about these different things in space is a translator tool. It translates text left behind by an ancient alien race named the Nomai that lived within your solar system in the past. With that, the only important thing you lose when you die is where you’re currently at in space, as you’ll need to navigate yourself back there if you want to keep exploring when the sun explodes after 22 minutes.
The Outer Wilds is definitely a different type of game than most mainstream gamers play. Some might argue that there hasn’t been another game like it while also citing concepts it takes from games or other media that already exist. I typically enjoy a good adventure game, although I understand why some might bounce off them. It took me awhile to get why everyone really loved The Outer Wilds though, until I realized how part of it resonated with me.
With how the game works, you are alone for much of it. Yes, at the beginning it might be that you’re trying to get to someone you know is at a specific location, as there are a couple other travelers like you who you can find by scanning space and detecting the noise of a musical instrument they’re playing to pinpoint their location. Most of the game you will be alone though. And once I realized how aloneness is interpreted throughout this game, I felt it click with me and I started to realize how much I was enjoying it.
Many of the characters feel different about being alone in this game. We’ll begin with maybe the loneliest one: Esker. Esker, a Hearthian who is stationed on Timber Hearth’s moon, The Attlerock, hints about their loneliness as you talk to them (Note: Hearthians are referred to with they/them pronoun). Esker mentions that the Hearthians on the ground will radio them sometimes, but they often forget about Esker up there on their moon. When they do, Esker sometimes sends a scout (a small device with a camera that can latch onto surfaces to take pictures) home so they can feel like part of society. Even though they’re lonely, they do lament that, “It’s peaceful and quiet. You don’t always get that in our solar system.” Which is comforting to hear that even though Esker is lonely, sometimes they feel content where they are at. Once I thought about it, I was able to draw a parallel to how I experience loneliness and being alone. Most of the time I enjoy being alone, but sometimes I will get lonely. Everyone does, its nothing to feel ashamed of. And at times I will feel lonely, then do something I really love, and that feeling will be replaced with a content aloneness, like Esker expresses here. This was the first time I was able to get a read of loneliness and aloneness in space, although this wasn’t what triggered this introspection within me.
Timber Hearth’s moon is where most players will stop first. After talking to Esker and translating some ancient Nomai writing on the moon (we’ll get to the Nomai later I promise) you’ll travel around space a bit and encounter some other Hearthians among the planets. Undoubtedly, the chillest one is Gabbro. Gabbro is lying in a hammock on an island in Giant’s Deep. Giant’s Deep is a large green planet that is covered in water and tornadoes that will throw its islands into space, only for them to come crashing down, seconds later, right back into the water. Gabbro, when this happens, just floats out of their hammock and gently plops back down as you hit the water. When you reach them, they reveal that they’re also stuck in the time loop, which made me feel a little less alone each time I died. I felt like my character’s relationship to Gabbro was so different because they were stuck like me. This translated into feeling like my character felt a bond with them over this, as they weren’t stuck alone in this time loop by themselves. Gabbro, when you ask them about how they deal with going through the time loops, reveals that they try to take deep breaths and meditate. You can also ask them to teach you how. In game this translates to you being able to go to the pause menu and click “Meditate until next loop” to instantly go through the death sequence, respawning you back at Timber Hearth like the game just began.
My personal favorite Hearthian, and the one that made me realize how marvelous this game is, is Feldspar. Feldspar is said to have been the best pilot that decided to explore space from Timber Hearth, but no one knows what happened to them as they seemed to have lost contact. Eventually its revealed that they crashed in the planet Dark Bramble. Dark Bramble isn’t much of a planet, but when you fly up to it you can enter a white light that transfers you into a pocket dimension. Within that hazy pocket dimension there are other lights you can enter, and large anglerfish you need to avoid. Eventually you’ll find Feldspar chilling in the skeleton of a giant dead anglerfish. If you chat them up they are genuinely surprised you found them and explain that they were being chased by an anglerfish, crashed, and found this spot. Feldspar talks to you like you’re a kid and jokes that you weren’t always the brightest so in that way they’re a bit of an asshole, but Feldspar was what helped this game click with me. When talking to them, you can ask them if you should notify ground control about them being stuck out here and they tell you yes, but no rush. Even in the terrifying foggy expanse of Dark Bramble they say “Frankly, I kinda like it out here.” Continuing conversation, one of their dialogue options ends with “It’s a lot of pressure, being the best that ever was. Been nice to have a break.” If my planet put me up on a pedestal as the best pilot ever, I think I’d understand where they were coming from. Although, I’m not sure if I could handle Dark Bramble as well as they.
As I navigated through Dark Bramble after conversing with them for the first time and eventually died, I came back the next loop to finish whatever task I was in the middle of doing when the last loop ended. As I did it hit me how much I loved that state of mind. How much I loved the concept of someone getting trapped in a terrifying pocket dimension, but them saying “You know what? I’m tired and I just want a break. I’m gonna eat some marshmallows and play a harmonica by a fire and its going to be good.” In some weird way, I really connected with that, and I believe that everyone can.
Then it got my mind thinking about the other characters. Gabbro with how easily they take each time loop while your character is out there searching for a solution to what is happening, and Esker, alone on the moon of your planet, their only company the far away music that other Hearthian astronauts are playing. But, I mostly thought about the Nomai themselves.
Over the course of the story you learn that the Nomai got stranded in your solar system looking for something called The Eye of the Universe. After they landed in your solar system, they were wiped out because of something (not going to spoil all of it in this article ;-)). You end up learning much about their lives and what they were doing to find The Eye. While investigating, one object that you start reading a lot of information about is the Quantum Moon. The Quantum Moon is a moon that seems to disappear and reappear at different locations in the solar system. Eventually you learn that the Nomai used to travel to the moon as a pilgrimage, and you learn how to get there and find its secret location.
At the Quantum Moon’s secret location, you find the only living Nomai that you can encounter all game, Solanum. You can converse with Solanum by placing stones on pedestals that relate to what you want to talk about, and she’ll write on a rock for you to translate (the Nomai use he/him and she/her pronouns). Eventually you learn that she exists in a kind of quantum state where she’s not quite alive. She’ll also give you some interesting information about the quantum moon. And while she regrets that you both can’t have a better dialogue because she can’t completely understand you, she does say that she will call you her friend.
The reveal of a living, or a semi-quantumly-alive, Nomai was one of the highlights of this game for me. And she seemed so alone too. Hell, she was the last one alive of her species that landed in your solar system. And she’s been on that moon for awhile. Although, because of the nature of quantum physics its hard to say how long. It could be you’re seeing her minutes after she landed, or decades. And her lamenting that “This encounter feels special. I hope you won’t mind if I think of you as a friend,” made the encounter with her feel complete. I felt a connection to her like I did Gabbro. My character wasn’t as alone as I thought.
There’s a lot to be said about the Nomai getting cut off from the rest of their species with aloneness and loneliness, especially in search The Eye of the Universe (a person lost in search of a purpose perhaps?), but as a whole they seem to have a good sense of togetherness from what you gather from their writings. The last, and maybe most heartwarming, thing I want to touch on is the main intended ending of the game.
Once you go through what you do to get to The Eye of the Universe you’ll be transported to a forest reminiscent of the title screen. You’ll find Esker by a fire, and eventually gather the rest of the instrument playing astronauts from the solar system. Also, if you find her before getting to this ending, Solanum. She’ll play a piano part with the group of Hearthians. Each person gathered around the fire has different dialogue, all of them are good for different reasons, but the one I love most is what Esker says when you get everyone back together: “Wow…how long has it been since I got to make music with everyone around a campfire? I’m really happy we’re all here.”
How Esker feels right before the end of the game encompasses what I love the most about The Outer Wilds. Every character handles being alone different in this game, just like every person does in real life. Yes, being alone can be special, but if you’re alone too long like Esker, it becomes something else entirely: loneliness. Some people can’t stand being alone at all and actively fear it, but in this game there’s much more an embrace of being alone than the opposite. Whether you or the characters of The Outer Wilds enjoy your aloneness or are suffering in your loneliness, getting together with the ones you care about is always special.
Oddly enough, the title screen of the game is what impacted me the most emotionally until I realized how this game connected with my relationship to loneliness. Starting the game up, it provides a sense of comfort. And even though you might not know what you’re getting into, it makes you feel like you’re at home.
Embrace your aloneness, and when it turns to loneliness seek others out for connection. Maybe even gather them around a fire, roast marshmallows, and play some music with friends. At the end of the night, make sure to appreciate them for being there with you, as even if you do get lonely in the future, you can remember the night you played music around a fire, and smile.