How a happy accident turned us onto one of the year’s best indie games.
“Xbox, launch Outer Worlds,” I called across the living room as I slid the beanbag gaming chair next to a low table filled with snacks and soft drinks, excited to settle in for a few introductory hours of Obsidion’s latest action RPG.
The Xbox confirmed my instruction with its trademark beep as I fussily arranged the refreshments, taking a swig of juice and plugging my headset into the controller while I nestled into the chair.
That was when the confusion began. The title screen said Outer Wilds. I was expecting to see a lithe shuttle pilot standing atop a crashed spacecraft, nestled into the bustling diorama of a rocky alien world complete with planetary rings and nearby moons.
Instead, what I got looked more like a backwoods trip than an interstellar adventure. A strange bipedal creature sitting next to a campfire in a small forest. I was about to back out to the main Xbox dashboard when I heard the title music – a mellow banjo ditty accompanied by various folk instruments. I was instantly intrigued (the soundtrack is available on all good streaming services for anyone interested and is very catchy).
A cursory search on my phone revealed that this strange looking game had been on my xbox since May – I subscribe to Xbox Gamepass and compulsively queue up downloads of all new releases with my iPad, regardless of my intention to ever play them.
So that was one mystery solved; the next piece of advice I got online was to immediately put my phone away and stop Googling – this game is choc full of intricate and deep rooted mysteries and surprises; surprises that can be spoiled in an instant by careless review surfing.
So, mobile phone secreted, settled in for the long haul, I took my first steps in the Outer Wilds universe. In many ways, it apes a lot of the concepts of its etymological cousin. The Outer Worlds is also a space exploration adventure, in which you pilot a ship between worlds in search of answers to the age-old questions: Why are we here? Who came before us? What’s out there?
You play as a humanoid frog-like character who hails from a small planet orbiting a dying star. It’s your job to find out what has happened to an extinct race of travelers who inhabited the system before you. To say anything more on that subject would ruin a lot of discovery for would-be adventurers.
However, Outer Wilds does things on a much smaller scale to Outer Worlds. For starters, the whole game takes place within one solar system with a handful of planets and celestial bodies – but don’t let that put you off.
Unlike most space games, every inch of this miniature cosmos has been meticulously crafted. Every planet, asteroid, rock, tree, river, valley, forest and cave have been placed with purpose. Often times, huge games that rely on procedural generation can be described as a mile wide but and inch deep. Here, it’s definitely the other way around. Even now, I’m continuing to discover new areas and mechanics that have managed to elude me.
Once you have a spent a bit time on your home planet, familiarising yourself with zero gravity and the fundamentals of space flight, you bid farewell to your people and take the stars in your primitive craft. You also realise that you can traverse the entire system in a few moments, but again, with the amount of things to explore here, that’s not a bad thing.
For me, Outer Wilds is reminiscent of the 80s sci-fi classic, Explorers – an adventure movie in which three school children build a space ship in their backyard and take to the stars using technology borrowed from a more advanced race. It perfectly captures that sense of childlike discovery and adventure. Even the names of the planets and celestial bodies evoke memories of classic Mark Twain adventures, places like Dark Bramble, Brittle Hollow and Timber Hearth.
Each of the places are as unique as their names. The Hourglass Twins are two binary planets that transfer sand between each other like a huge celestial timer. Flying too close with your autopilot engaged is not recommended.
Giant’s Deep is a gas giant with a fluid core that kicks up huge tornadoes under the planets outer surface, invisible from orbit. The whole system is filled with hidden dangers.
You’ll die many times in your adventures. Death is inevitable but is never the end. One thing you discover very early on is that the star at the centre of your solar system keeps going supernova, consuming everything in a blinding flash of light. Next minute, you’re back at your campfire, but with your memories intact. This 20 minute cycle is certainly a novel mechanic and keeps you progressing on your travels. Rather than getting stuck somewhere, you are actively encouraged to visit new places.
As you can probably guess, the more you explore, the more alien text you uncover, and as you progress, you start to understand the intentions of the ancient race that left your system in such disarray. Without going into spoiler territory, it’s quickly apparent that these beings were not too dissimilar to us, especially in their ambitions. The story serves as a parable of what can happen when your reach exceeds your grasp.
The trial and error nature of the gameplay keeps you coming back, especially when you realise that due to the way the system evolves over its 22-minute life cycle, you can only gain access to specific areas at certain times (one half of the Hourglass twins is filling up with sand, so to get into its caverns you have be to quick off your marks when a new day dawns).
Outer Wilds is a difficult game to talk around without revealing too much. Suffice it to say, the sense of discovery and the satisfaction that you get from cracking its many secrets, make it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. By turns funny, terrifying and ultimately tragic, you’ll piece together an original story that spans time and space.