I am terrified of outer space. I have recurring dreams where I'm drifting alone and breathless in the void. The very idea of taking a one-way trip to an alien planet leaves me queasy with loneliness. Every cell inside me shrivels inside me at the notion of going anywhere near the vacuum beyond our stratosphere, which is a frozen, irradiated hell where our warm, oxygen-loving bodies do not belong.
Regardless, I've spent piles of hours reading about planets, moons, and galaxies. I think constantly about what might be under the miles-thick ice of Europa and wonder what might be wriggling in Titan's methane oceans. I realize interstellar space travel likely won't be a thing in my lifetime, and I almost start crying.
I am, in other words, a boiling mess of conflicted emotions regarding space and space travel. That's why my life is better for discovering Mobius Digital's Outer Wilds. It's an indie space exploration game that's half whimsical wonder, half terrific danger. It's exactly the kind of space-faring experience my flaky soul craves.
In Outer Wilds, you're a member of a four-armed reptilian race with an inborn love for adventuring in space. When the game starts, it's your turn To Boldly Go. For a little while, you jaunt from planet to planet and search for remnants left behind by an ancient civilization. Unfortunately, your solar system's sun inexplicably goes supernova in about twenty minutes, and you're atomized.
Then you wake up unscathed and wonder what in the name of Almighty Blarxphlat just happened. Surprise: It's a time loop! Every time you die, you're allowed to retain a little bit of knowledge from your interplanetary exploration. In time, you build up an idea of what's going on, and learn how you can wriggle free of the loop.
Its gameplay offers very little in the way of instruction or direction: You land on planets, you search for traces of the precursor race, you try to piece together the reason why you're stuck in a time loop, then you do it all over again. As fans of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask already know, simply breaking out of a loop can be a rewarding game experience if said loop is engineered well, and Outer Wild's loop is built very well. But it's Outer Wilds' rustic approach to space travel that endears me most to this charming indie trip.
Outer Wilds would be interesting even if it starred a human astronaut, but the alien aspect makes it that much more interesting. Your spacecraft in Outer Wilds isn't a bone-white, pressurized aluminum behemoth. It's made primarily of wood, metal, glass, and bits of precursor technology that make lift-off possible (your race has no idea how it works; it just does). Your spacesuit may as well be a goldfish bowl attached to a zip-up romper. Messages left behind by your fellow explorers are played back on ancient reel-to-reel tape players that pop and fizz. All told, everything you carry into outer space isn't far removed from your home planet of Timber Hearth, a world of towering cedars, geysers, and primitive technology shaped from wood and metal.
Your race has absolutely no business being in space. None. But within ten minutes of starting your first loop, you slip the surly bonds of Timber Hearth and are on your way to explore whichever planet interests you most. And it's not as if you're an outlier in your race: Space travel and exploration are regarded as just another occupation, like mining or lumberjacking. Not everyone on Timber Hearth dreams of going up, up, and away, and it's certainly regarded as a dangerous job—but it's also accepted as a natural and necessary one.
Despite being based around a space program that runs on crayon-scribbled blueprints, Outer Wilds stops just short of over-romanticising the hazards of the beyond. You will absolutely die, inevitable supernova notwithstanding. One planet literally crumbled under my feet as I explored it, and though I could see my ship on a stray fragment of rock, I couldn't reach it with my weak self-propulsion systems. I clawed uselessly in its general direction until I ran out of oxygen. Yes, your badass alien self is a little bit hardier than humans, but that won't save you from a cruel, gasping, nightmare death if you run out of air.
The universe you explore in Outer Wilds is more fantastic than our own universe, but it's still largely airless and extremely dangerous; even if you survive its natural hazards for a prolonged amount of time, your inevitable end by means of a near-incomprehensible force is still around the corner. It's everything that makes me shudder about the very idea of going into orbit.
Yet, Outer Wilds' space-faring race isn't too concerned about odds and risks. It regards space exploration with the same nonchalance we reserve for an occupation like long-haul trucking. It builds and launches ships made of wood and duct tape and simply has faith the contraptions will fly, like children willing their bikes to become spaceships by believing in magic. But unlike children's bikes, cardboard boxes, or wagons, the aliens' ships can land on other planets and explore their wonders. It's everything I love about the idea of space exploration, and everything I hope we can achieve someday as a race.
Maybe that's why when I'm not playing Outer Wilds, I'm thinking about it. I wonder what else I can find without being dragged down by safety checks, pressurization procedures, and countdowns. I wonder how I'll die next. Fire? Asphyxiation? Ingestion by a hostile lifeform? The possibilities are as endless as space itself.