outer wilds

Friends Around a Fire – Outer Wilds Review


Before I sat down to write this, I built a fire in our cabin, sat down, and watched it grow. There is a truth in watching a well-built fire burn. I really can’t explain it; I only know that it’s true. 

I finished Outer Wilds last night. I went to bed, mouth still agape by how thoroughly delighted I was that I managed to finally, after nearly a year, beat finish this game. I woke up this morning, head still ablaze with banjo music, campfires, and supernovas. 

Is Outer Wilds worth buying?

Outer Wilds, not Outer Worlds (common mix-up), is a first-person space adventure puzzle game made by the folks at Mobius. Your character is part of an alien race that has devoted themselves to really only three things: music, exploration, and, for some reason, marshmallows. The plot is centered on the protagonist exploring a very living solar system for clues about a mysterious, lost civilization. The solar system is littered with ruins, writings, and an increasingly more complex trail of clues. You set off in a ramshackle little spacecraft to untangle the mysteries of your world. 

There’s a catch: after 22 minutes of gameplay, the sun supernovas, and you and everyone you know dies. 

Now the game begins. You start over from the beginning. Every 22 minutes, the same beautiful/haunting music chimes, and that ol’ sun collapses, and everything resets. You now know that you have to learn as much as you can in 22 minutes before the sun goes. Hang in there. This can be frustrating. Sometimes you may walk away for days or weeks at a time, but trust me, hang in there. It is worth it. 

“The quiet shade”

The solar system is vast, ever-changing, and scattered with a seemingly endless amount of clues. Questions and answers come and go until you eventually learn how to start asking the right questions. 

Each world is beautifully and nerve-rackingly distinct. Each has its own rules and cycles. One world is crawling with island-moving water spouts, whereas another crumbles beneath your feet. Some are so utterly terrifying and confusing that you might end up leaving them for later. But that is your choice. You are free to go where you choose. There is nothing that is locked or out of bounds. You merely have to figure out how to get there.

“across old bark”

Outer Wilds refuses to hold your hand in any way. There are no goals. No objectives. Only a ship, some planets, and a whole helluva lot of questions. You are totally free to explore. Not only are you free to do that; you are encouraged. 

You will come across some of your exploration peers. Often, they’re stranded but unbothered. They can provide clues, insight, or even some laughs. There is something “zen” about these fellow travelers who are content to sit by their fire thumbing the same handful of notes on their instruments. 

“it’s always dark”

This isn’t a puzzle game like you might be used to. The creators of Outer Wilds are clearly very attentive, thoughtful, and frustratingly clever. The designers require you to use science, physics, pattern recognition, metaphysics, theoretical junk, and even a love of music — especially a love of music. Above all else, though, the game is designed specifically for those of us who are pitifully curious. 

OW isn’t all brains; it also requires a bit of physical skill. The space shuttle, your suit, the gravity of different planets, all of these things take a while to get proficient, and trust me when I say, you will need to be proficient with that damn ship. These actions also come with the knowledge that the clock is ticking… You will be in a near-constant state of heart-racing anxiety but also profoundly moved by the artwork, sound design, and original score. Below all the apocalyptic drama and stress, there beats the heart of a wonderfully rich and moving point to it all: a campfire, some friends, and a song. 

“In the ancient glade”

I know that this game isn’t for everyone. It just isn’t. It is for a very specific type of person, and therein lies the genius. Unlike so many forms of storytelling or entertainment media, this just wasn’t made to serve everyone. 

This game was created for those of us who follow a dirt road just to see where it goes. It’s for those of us who stare at the stars every night, even though it never changes because maybe this time it will. It is for the curious. It is for the hopeful. I know that’s a little cheesy but it is also the truth. 

It’s rare for an ending to be as good as the story itself, but in this case, it is. 

Outer Wilds is a piece of storytelling that proves the gaming segment is undervalued. It is a game of mind-bending originality that leaves you longing for something our world rarely offers – true wonderment and a grand mystery. I feel like Outer Worlds is less of an escape to a new world and more of a look at what our world could/should be. Maybe even who we could/should be — people who embrace the mysteries instead of running away from them. And maybe play a little more banjo.