The following article contains major plot spoilers for the endings of Disco Elysium and Outer Wilds.
Last year's two best games, Disco Elysium and Outer Wilds, couldn't look more different from each other on the surface. Disco Elysium is a grimy, noir, Soviet-inflected alt-universe tale about a damaged detective navigating class war, addiction, racism, and crime. Outer Wilds is a colorful science-fiction fable in which an unnamed alien must journey across a system of tiny planets to understand why they're all stuck in a time loop. Aside from both being broadly under the "speculative fiction" umbrella, they wouldn't seem to have much in common.
And yet these games—the two best games that came out in all my time at USgamer—have something in common: the themes of change, entropy, and what we do when confronted with the end. Nearly a year after their release, these ideas probably weigh heavier on us now than ever before. A year of change, of entropy, and the looming notion that any of us could be orbiting some kind of finality… It's been an interesting time, to say the least.
The theme of the end is expressed pretty differently in each game. For example, one of the most gut-punching revelations in Disco Elysium is the idea of the Pale, that the world we explore is actually formed of featureless grey chaos with islands of normality between. You're safe for now, but the Pale is always encroaching, and it's made clear that sooner or later these islands will no longer exist, dissolved and broken down into the rest of this empty void. It's not something that can be fought or solved, it's just the way this reality works. Sooner or later, there will only be the Pale. There's even places in the city of Martinaise where you can already find it beginning to eat away, the few citizens who realize what's happening filled with shaking despair at the oncoming nothing.
Outer Wilds is no less frightening in its consideration of oblivion. Part of its story is that the sun keeps going supernova, the event that triggers the aforementioned time loop and transports you to the beginning all over again. Your character uses this cycle to journey across space and find out the truth, only to discover that this isn't some strange attack or a machine going highwire. The time loop machine is being triggered by the supernova, sure, but it's not actually causing the sun to explode. Your star just reached the end of its natural lifespan, and your world was always going to die, whether you were going through the loop or not. Not only that, the whole universe appears to have reached the end of its existence, and you were just unlucky enough to be the last species, the one that gets to watch it happen. Your own planet's death is a microcosm of a larger, cosmic collapse, against which there is no solution or appeal.
Bleak ideas, to say the least. And yet both games end with a note of hope, albeit approached from two different angles. Disco Elysium's is more uncertain, considering you can take any manner of stupid actions that could hurt those around you, but assuming you get a relatively decent finale, you're told that you'll be back on the force (if that's what you want), and that a newly-made friend will come with you. The encroaching Pale is not even mentioned, because… well, why mention it? There's nothing that can be done and it will destroy everything in time, but that doesn't mean that until then we don't have friends and thought and music: all the things that make our lives worth living. Disco Elysium tells us we shouldn't bother fearing the things that we don't have control over, because it's just wasted effort and subtracts from any joy we can get along the way. A little denial isn't necessarily a bad thing. Get drunk with your friends, singing songs long into the night, and don't burn your time being afraid of the nothingness ahead. You're going to die, but you don't have to do it alone.
Outer Wilds looks even further forward. As the cosmos begins to finally wink out of existence, your character has one hope left to them: head to the Eye of the Universe, the ancient, mysterious signal that preceding civilizations had tried and failed to reach so long ago. As you finally work out how to access it, space opens up and pulls you in. You walk across a roaring hellscape of buckled space and impossible geometry until suddenly reaching a quiet forest where familiar faces from your journey reappear, though it's unclear if it's really them. You gather them all around a campfire, each friend gets their own musical instrument, and they play together in a way that feels peaceful and serene. As the last person joins the harmony, a light appears above the campfire, swirling with color, and expands outward, drawing you all into whatever comes next.
Credits roll, and the last shot we see is titled "14.3 Billion Years Later." It shows a new universe, full of color and light, letting you know that the end was never that at all: just a transition. The timid explorer Riebeck puts it best as you all sit around the campfire at the end of time, watching the last lights of reality give their final glitter.
“I learned a lot, by the end of everything. The past is past, now, but that’s… you know, that’s okay! It’s never really gone completely. The future is always built on the past, even if we won’t get to see it. Still, it’s um, time for something new, now.”
I suppose it is. I love both Disco Elysium and Outer Wilds more than I can put into words, but I think it's the latter's message I will hold onto as I move into the future. Outer Wilds keeps hope in a manner that feels honest and authentic, while Elysium gently lets it go, telling you to find solace in what's dependable and close to hand. Both have their appeals and I suspect I'll probably flip-flop between them at times, but right now I like the idea that as one universe ends, another might begin.
Endings, conclusions, finales… they're hard. Losing something you care about is always hard. But it's better to recognize the joy you had when it was there, and to let go when it's all over, even if there's new worlds on the other side. Whether it was a lifetime, a decade, or barely a year, it's better to have loved and lost than—oh, you know the rest.
Hold onto the hope of something new, everybody, and see you all in whatever universes come next.