Outer Wilds Is a Beautiful Puzzle about Tranquility and Death
Outer Wilds presents an incredible puzzle, and like the best puzzles, it can never be solved twice. Basically: Spoilers for this game are an incredibly big deal, and knowing about discoveries on a first-time playthrough can straight-up ruin your time with it. Please refrain from reading this if you haven’t beaten the game!
(However, there are no spoilers for the recent expansion, Echoes of the Eye. If you haven’t finished it yet, you’re safe!)
The first time I died in Outer Wilds was pretty embarrassing. I had ambled around my home planet for awhile, gotten what I needed, and raced out into the stars for what I assumed would be a triumphant adventure through space. Then I landed on the nearest orbiting body, forgot to put on my spacesuit, and died almost immediately upon touching the surface of the moon. So much for the final frontier, I thought. Now everyone below is going to look up to the stars and periodically see my asphyxiated body whizzing overhead. It’s like if the Space Race ended with Neil Armstrong dead on the moon.
As I pondered the consequences my dead body would have on a burgeoning spacefaring society, I realized that my death had kickstarted a surreal experience which was playing back the memories of my (incredibly short) journey in reverse. As it settled on where I’d begun, dozing by the fire, I was transported (teleported? sent back?) into the past. This wasn’t just like respawning in a video game: My character was incredibly bewildered by the sensation of having died before waking up eleven or so minutes ago. My errand, to walk across town and get the launch codes which allowed my ship to go into the brief orbit that led to my unfortunate accident, had now never happened. Only it had, and as some fading text in the corner of my screen told me, I still had the launch codes. Without even setting foot into my village, I was in space again.
I returned to the moon and settled my score with it (by walking across its surface without suffocating) before venturing into the wider universe. Here, my adventure really began. But it was only after a few more death-induced time rewinds — I’ll spare you the details, but on one particular occasion, I set my ship’s autopilot to a planet on the other side of the solar system and looked up from my phone to find that I had flown directly into the sun — before I realized that I was less of a time god and more of a tragic time prisoner.
You see: it all started when the sun exploded.
Remember that weird period in cinema localized around 2010 where movies would begin by showing a bit of a climax before the main character would chime in with a record scratch, assure us that this would all make sense later, and then rewind to the actual beginning? This felt like that, but on an apocalyptic scale where everybody died. I was utterly helpless to do anything but look at the hypnotic blue glow of the sun going supernova before it consumed me. And then, like always, I was dozing in front of the campfire and looking into the night sky. I looked over to my friend on the other end of the fire, who I now understood was doomed to die in twenty-something minutes for all of eternity, and raced to my ship.
I gazed out across the expanses of the solar system to find everything back where it was. The sun looked relatively un-exploded, which meant it was fine. But this time I realized that it really wasn’t fine. I started noticing what I hadn’t before: The sun was getting redder by the minute, and the hundreds of stars in the sky were dwindling, one by one. Near the end of a particular loop between me waking up and the sun dying, I could look up and see… almost nothing. Just the inky blackness of space. Each star a solar system, each solar system a collection of worlds, and each one of them snuffing themselves out by the minute.
I felt very alone now. And very much responsible. One way or another, I had to do something.
Perhaps the bravest and most impressive thing about Outer Wilds is that it does not cheat. The timeloop that starts and ends your universe is always on the dot, though you can check a few appreciated quality-of-life features that pause the solar system while you’re reading. It does not control the loop dynamically to account for your actions, such as slowing it down during a key discovery. At no point can you bring anything back in time other than the knowledge you’ve gained, which is (in the only necessary bit of fixing) tracked neatly on your ship’s computer between loops.
This is why spoilers in Outer Wilds are such a massive deal: Beating the game actually takes less than 22 minutes, but the knowledge required to find and execute the steps to get there can take anywhere from 15 to 30 hours to acquire. When you pull it off, you’ll find it incredibly hard to believe just how… simple it all seems. I found it almost impossible to process that I’d ever felt lost or confused on the game’s many planets as I recklessly glided across them in the endgame.
Undoubtedly my favourite area in the game is Dark Bramble. It’s orbiting around the sun like any other planet, but it looks… off. I initially visited it thinking it wasn’t a planet at all. It looks more like space debris, or some sort of weird plant. But driving right into its foggy core, I realized I was dead wrong.
My first impression inside the Dark Bramble was one of complete fear. Outer Wilds is certainly a game where you die a lot, but it has unspoken comforts. For one thing, it’s hard to actually get completely lost. It’s also a pretty open game where you can always trace the boundaries of your space (ha) just by looking around. The universe is full of danger, but I never felt in danger whenever I visited a new place.
Dark Bramble throws all that away. It’s bigger on the inside, your visibility is low, and all you can do is guess on where to go next. The lights in the distance are your only source of direction, which leads to the other surprise in the Dark Bramble.
Say hello to the Anglerfish.
Another unspoken rule in the expanses of Outer Wilds: If you’re killed, it was probably because nature took its course. There’s very little sapient fauna in the game, save for your own astronaut friends scattered around on various planets. You might get crushed or electrocuted, sure. But never chased. Never eaten. Never reacted to.
In a game where you know death is ultimately an inconvenience, it’s hard to be scared of crushing or electrocution. When I died in most areas, I just came back and tried again. When I encountered an Anglerfish in the Dark Bramble, I left and didn’t even look in its direction for hours, as though I could accidentally incur the wrath of one and send it barrelling across the solar system. It introduces pure and unadulterated fear into the long list of the game’s obstacles, and my gut reaction was to turn tail and never come back.
Discovering the weakness of the Anglerfish is one of the more complicated journeys in the game, and requires spelunking in a dark (but thankfully lifeless) cave which constantly fills with sand. When I figured it out, I was beside myself. When I urged myself to come back and try it, I could hardly believe how simple it was. The threat of the Anglerfish was completely nullified, and with a few other tricks, I could get anywhere I wanted in the Dark Bramble without getting lost at all. Conquering the most downright hostile and labyrinthian area in the game gave me a feeling of accomplishment usually reserved for things like Dark Souls, where intensely repeating things until you can conquer them is the name of the experience. Outer Wilds doing this without actually being “hard” in the usual gamey sense feels like a genuine accomplishment.
And the game is filled with these moments. There’s practically one or two on every planet, and every single one feels like unlocking the secrets of nature. It’s a game that feels genuinely rewarding to just walk around in. Ever since I’ve beaten it, I’ve found myself opening it now and then just to go to the Black Hole Forge on Brittle Hollow or reach the bottom of Giant’s Deep; these once seemed like incredibly daunting feats, and I can do most of them in less than 12 minutes. I didn’t need to try for them over and over, I just needed to… figure it out.
To bring up the elephant in every room with a timeloop in it, it’s the scene in Groundhog Day where Bill Murray’s character, after thousands of days spent living the same 24 hours, can tell you about the lives filling an entire diner without a moment’s hesitation. Just, you know, less depressing.
I’ve promised myself I’ll stay away from backseating any of my friends as they get into the game. I really want to see their first-time reactions, but I also need to accept that I literally will not be able to control myself from asking why they keep flying past the reverse tornado on Giant’s Deep. Like any truly great logic puzzle, you can only solve it once. Watching someone else try to solve it feels frustrating, like seeing someone stumble on the answer to a crossword puzzle you’ve already filled in. You can’t go back and see it through their eyes, as much as I’ve tried.
Outer Wilds left me thinking about a lot of things. Perhaps the biggest realization was that I could never play it for the first time again.
I really love the story in this game, which centers around the enigmatic Nomai, a pretty typical-at-first-glance precursor sci-fi race which inhabited the solar system tens of thousands of years before you. Their presence is felt on almost every planet; their extensive colonization efforts told through their incredibly characteristic branching language. By translating their writing, you find out how oddly human they are. The “ancient race of aliens left a civilization behind” trope is usually marked by cold, incomprehensible beings exploiting their surroundings for their own gain. Outer Wilds makes the really welcome choice of portraying the Nomai as, for all intents, good-natured. The writing you find on your own planet documents how they deliberately made sure to only take as many natural resources as they needed, knowing that the life that was blossoming there would need them too. It made my heart feel full.
The Nomai are the spine of the game, which largely involves uncovering their discoveries and technology. The stories they left behind, from their deepest ambitions to their intense disagreements, were more than enough to keep me going loop after loop. I wanted to see them succeed, or at least find what they wanted. But Nomai writing is never far from a Nomai skeleton, and as I came to realize the true extent of their unrealized hopes, I was almost heartbroken. Their charnel remains are both exuberantly hopeful and crushingly lonely. An emotion other science fiction media often fails to convey at sheer scale is empathy. In comparison, Outer Wilds got me to cry. Like, hard. That’s the biggest compliment I can give its writing and story direction.
Most impressive of all is its non-linear structure. Like I said: it doesn’t cheat. You can miss bits of it, experience it in a completely weird order, and even be taken out of a quiet moment by the sun picking a particularly inopportune time to explode. This last part should be annoying, and it sounds extremely annoying. But it reminds you that sudden death, as it came for the Nomai, is always right around the corner. Everyone back home has dreams and ambitions too. If you can’t find a way to save them, they’ll join the unrealized and skeletal ranks of the lost Nomai.
But about that last part…
At no point does Outer Wilds actually tell you what you’re doing in the first place. If you’re like me, you naturally assumed it was to find a way to keep the sun from exploding. If you look at any game or movie that involves someone stuck in a repeating cycle of events, you’d be hard-pressed to find one where the end goal isn’t to break out of it. So you go on searching, hoping the Nomai left you an answer. That’s how these things work, isn’t it? You’re the hero, and only you can do anything about what’s going on. It’s your job to save everybody… right?
The game rejects a simple answer. As you eventually travel to the Sun Station, an incredibly volatile and fast-moving satellite spinning around a ticking timebomb, you’re faced with an incredibly hard truth: the sun is dying a natural death. The Nomai tried to manually trigger a supernova, but nothing they did ever worked. There’s no “OFF” switch for a star dying any more than there’s a way to stop a windy day. The message seems clear: there’s nothing you can do.
With the universe at the end of its natural lifespan, your purpose in the scheme of things, if you even have one, is uncertain. Only by combining knowledge of the Nomai’s greatest dream (the Ash Twin Project) and their greatest tragedy (the ruined Vessel that stranded them here) can you finally reach the ending of the game. The final loop, a genius race against the time you’ve taken for granted as you shut down the machine that’s been sending your memories back in time, is so intensely nerve-wracking that it’s one of the few things in the game I can replay over and over without it losing any effect.
Of course, if you’re reading this, you beat the game (I pray you heeded the warning at the top), so you know what you find at the end of everything. I’ve completely restarted trying to write about the ending several times, and I think it’s becoming clear that it’s in a language that I can’t speak. I think that’s for the best. It’s a beautiful thing, so immense and indivisible from the sum of its parts that I’ve never stopped thinking about the implications of it all.
I love Outer Wilds, and I’d do anything to play it for the first time again. But I can’t, and maybe that’s part of why it’s so beautiful. It’s a finite thing, and it knows it only needs to be experienced once. When it ends, it ends.
And what an ending.
I could write so much about this game. I haven’t even talked about some of my favourite moments, like the terrible discovery at Escape Pod 3 or, god, everything about the Quantum Moon. I didn’t even touch on the recent expansion, which deserves its own article (that I’ll get to eventually, promise). But, after that last section, it seems right to end it here. I do have one more anecdote, though. Like most of them, it concerns a time I died.
Even as I was gripped with the tragic loss of the Nomai, I stopped caring about my own life pretty fast. Sure, a particularly untimely death might mean getting back to where I’d been on the next loop, which could be annoying. But even if the possibility of saving the lives of all of my friends kept me going, my own life was largely disposable.
As I flew my ship out of an orbiting space station where I’d learned a particularly exciting new fact (perhaps contributing to my newfound inability to not crash into walls), I crashed into a wall. Even though it was equally as replaceable in the long run, I probably cared about the well-being of my own ship more than myself. So when it started aggressively flashing a red siren in the cockpit, I immediately climbed out to do emergency repairs in the orbit of Giant’s Deep. I hadn’t encountered this type of damage before, and unable to figure out where to repair it, my ship did something new: It blew up.
I was flung fast, but somehow survived. Now I was in the orbit of Giant’s Deep. Using the last of my jetpack’s fuel, I Interstellar’d around until I was finally caught in the gravitational pull of the planet. Had it been any other, I would’ve been dashed on the rocks below. But it was Giant’s Deep, and the ocean, however volatile, caught my fall.
I swam to the shore of a nearby island. With no ship and no jetpack fuel, you can’t get very far in the Outer Wilds. As I pondered my next move on the beach, I heard a faint flute. It was none other than Gabbro, one of my astronaut friends. As I’d learned some loops ago, he was also aware of the timeloop, though he’d simply resigned himself excitedly to the repetition. This meant that was he was the only person I could actually talk to about it.
My ship was gone and my jetpack was useless. I knew I was going to die here. I asked Gabbro how he could be so calm, knowing his life was so close to ending. It was a stupid question: didn’t I know the answer? Didn’t I know how little it mattered? No, I thought. It does matter. I want to sit here and talk to Gabbro for as long as I want instead of in the few minutes before everything ends again. I want to radio back home and ask to be rescued, and then, back in the village, I want to tell all my friends what I’ve seen. I want to tell them about how scared I was when the Anglerfish heard me, or how silly it’d been when I forgot to wear my spacesuit on the moon. I deserve these things, but I can’t have them. The Nomai deserved so much more, and they can’t have it either.
Gabbro tells me he meditates. I can hardly believe that he’s been burned up by the sun as many times as I have, and all he does is sit there and take it. But what the hell? There’s nothing left for me in this loop anymore. The next one will be different. Now I know what’s in the space station. I have an idea; I think I know where to go next.
Gabbro tells me to close my eyes, and we sit together until the sun explodes.
The past is obdurate, but there’s always the future.