I haven’t been properly surprised by a game in a long time.
The build-up towards big releases inevitably removes a lot of the mystery, and even if the game ends up being fantastic, the pre-release hype train upon which we all clamber aboard does remove an element of surprise.
Outer Wilds has surprised me. I heard very little chatter about it in the build up to it’s release. A little moaning from some channels about Epic Store exclusivity drama got the game into my stratosphere but from there I only learned the fundamentals. A solar system to explore, a time loop. Seemed like No Man’s Sky but less random and massive, more tightly designed, smaller, more focused.
It seemed interesting, but I wasn’t going to rush to pick it up.
Then I saw it was on Game Pass. I was actually on the verge of giving up the Xbox service, not that there wasn’t a lot of games on it (there are plenty). I was just looking at cutting out some of those pesky monthly direct debits.
But I had time to get into something else before my renewal date came around, and so I got into Outer Wilds.
Now I think I’ll stay subscribed for a while longer.
Here are the basics. You are an alien astronaut. From your little planet travellers head out to other neighbouring worlds to explore, and you are next in line. You wake up under the stars and are told to go fetch the launch codes for your ramshackle little craft. Along the way you bump into your friends who serve up tutorial guides on the various bits of equipment you’ll need, you fetch the codes and…off you go. Into space. There are a few hints at direction, but your directive is exploration, so go forth however you like.
There’s not a huge amount else that I would want to say.
The game is best experienced first-hand, blind as possible.
All that is necessary to say is that your first expedition will end in death. Even if you don’t plummet off a cliff in the tutorial area like I did. It is inevitable, no matter how handy you are with a jet pack. And when you die you will wake up under the stars, just as you did before, your knowledge retained. You are stuck in a time loop of which all you know is that it is somehow linked to the ancient race of aliens who inhabited your solar system previously. By your ship’s computer log, you begin to piece the puzzle together. Each time you die, you learn a little more.
The solar system functions in real time. No matter where you are, the same things happen in the same place at the same time. You must learn to use this to your advantage.
The defining factor, that which sets Outer Wilds apart from any game I have played in recent memory is the sheer beauty. The awe-inspiring nature of the events which play out through the loop is mesmerising. Although you can die goofily, as I have, many of the hazards which will befall you are of an epic scope. Some events are on the brink of Gravity-esque horror, some play out so majestically that you will sit back and let death wash over you like an approaching tidal wave, stunned, and when you wake up once more under the stars you will feel not frustrated, or annoyed at your supposed failure, but inspired to continue to explore a world which has been made with a real love of journeys, of wonder, of the awe of looking up at the universe blinking in the dark night sky and thinking wow, I’m so small.
In Outer Wilds death is an event. Survival is the mystery, the driving force. It speaks of a life to be loved, but also of the inevitability of death, without being overly verbose or smacking you over the head with some kind of philosophical hammer. It does it by being a plain and simple video game, using the appropriate tools and language that a game uses. It wouldn’t be better served as a novel or a film, it is an interactive experience which is vastly improved by the simple fact that it is interactive.
Which means I recommend it and that I recommend getting into it knowing nothing else but that which I have told you here.
It feels good to be surprised.
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