There is an idea in the field of theoretical physics and the study of time, that while our bodies are wholly fixed in the present, our minds are free to time-travel at will. Our memories allow us to look into the past, essentially 'travelling' to once-trodden lands otherwise lost to us. Similarly, we can use our imagination to visit potential futures, briefly inhabiting areas of space and time that our physical selves cannot reach.
In Outer Wilds, you’ll slowly learn to understand the workings of a wonderfully realized miniature universe, using the power of memory as a tool to subvert time and slowly chip away at the world around you. You’ll die over and over again, leaving your physical body drifting lifelessly through the vacuum of space, though you’ll always be safe in the knowledge that everything you've learned up to that point will stay with you when you begin another of the game’s 22-minute loops anew. While playing Outer Wilds, you are a time traveler, an explorer, a pioneer, and a scientist all at once. Simply put, you are an adventurer.
Outer Wilds begins with somewhat of a red-herring. You wake up, a new recruit in a long line of space explorers, ready to take your maiden voyage into the stars above. Things go pretty well at first, as you make your way around the starting area, taking in canny tutorials disguised as museum exhibits. Though you might feel apprehensive, you climb into your distressingly ramshackle rocket ship and blast off into the skies above. From here you’re free to explore the bite-sized universe offered up to you, though it’s not long before Outer Wilds finally shows its hand. Just as you’re starting to get to grips with the haphazard handling of your ship, and the feel of gravity clawing at it as it struggles and strains its way through space—the sun explodes. You’re killed, and awaken back where you started. Now the real game begins.
Outer Wilds is an adventure game in the purest sense. Once the time loop is established, you are free to explore a handful of exquisitely designed and charmingly dainty worlds at your leisure. You can tackle the planets in any order, each operating around a central hook or oddity that sets it apart from its brothers and sisters. You can do this until the sun goes supernova once more, killing you and resetting the game.
Outer Wilds doesn’t penalize you for dying, in fact it actively encourages trial, error, and risk taking. There's no XP bar to grow, no upgrades to strap to your ship; only an ever-growing mind map of discoveries tucked away in the dusty wiring of your ship's onboard computer. The goal of Outer Wilds, then, is to unravel the game's central mystery: uncover the truth behind the extinction of a mysterious alien race called the Nomai, and locate a seemingly universe-breaking astral body called the Eye of the Universe.
Naturally, Outer Wilds' real currency is knowledge. You'll use an alien scanner to decipher runes, come across the charred skeletons of other ill-fated Adventurers, and seek out distant broadcasts with your trusty Signalscope. You'll learn something new with each loop you set off on, ultimately helping you inch closer to a complete understanding of the world around you. There are six planets to explore, each a unique puzzle-box to be mastered. There are also a few moons and other celestial structures to poke around. One planet has a constant sea of rising sand to contend with, another is built around a collapsing black hole, and perhaps the most intriguing is a mess of fog and brambles where time itself seems to unravel and warp as you explore.
Much of your time in Outer Wilds will be spent planning your descent onto a planet and then exploring it for new clues to add to your ever-growing compendium. Nine times out of ten, you'll be unsuccessful, either crashing your trusty ship into a planet's surface or accidentally being pulled into a black hole and being left to drift endlessly until either the loop resets or you run out of oxygen. Death is as important in Outer Wilds as in RPGs like Dark Souls or rogues like The Binding of Isaac, though instead of a stock of freshly reaped souls to spend, you're simply left with a better understanding of the world at large.
At times, Outer Wilds suffers from the 22-minute time loop that sits at its center. The path ahead is often fairly unclear, and you’ll need to do a lot of exploring and set aside some time to read your ship logs to work out the next step. When you factor in the looming heat-death of the world around you the pressure of making progress before the next reset can start to overwhelm the urge to explore freely. This decision anxiety is mostly alleviated by the fact that you can reset the loop at any time by stepping out of your ship sans-spacesuit, as dying will take you back to where, and more importantly when, you first woke up. Given how small Outer Wilds’ universe is, making it back to where you died can take mere seconds, so you never really lose any real progress you’ve made on one of your expeditions.
Outer Wilds' influences aren’t what they may seem initially. You might be tempted to draw comparisons to space exploration sims like No Man's Sky or perhaps even time-trial adventure offerings like Majora's Mask, though it might just pull its core ideas from another medium entirely. The classic sci-fi themes of Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, and Frank Herbert are most evident throughout. With echoes of Wells’ 1895 novel 'The Time Machine' oozing from Outer Wilds' every frame. The protagonist, even, seems modeled after the Time Traveller from Wells’ groundbreaking novel. They are mostly nondescript, grey and merely a vessel by which the reader/player experiences the world.
Regardless of where Outer Wilds may or may not draw inspiration from, it largely manages to present a fresh take on the time-traveling sci-fi genre. The elusive Nomai people feel immediately tangible and real. They have a history, a specific manner of speaking, and even a unique way of organizing their sentences in the runes that they plaster the walls of their living quarters with (think of a tree of life with each branch representing a different speaker). Each astral body has a defined orbit, and there’s even a set of fundamental rules that the Universe adheres to. These Quantum Rules each offer a new perspective on objects you’ve already seen a hundred times before, and are ultimately the final piece of the puzzle allowing you to trigger the end of the game.
The few side missions in Outer Wilds are all linked in one way or another, though each is its own sci-fi vignette, more often than not punctuated by tragedy. One of Outer Wilds’ many star-crossed tales stands out above the rest, and to experience it you’ll need to land on an icy comet hurtling around the sun at a blistering pace. The story of the ill-fated Nomai explorers and the Interloper Comet is one that hammers home perhaps the main draw and core message of Outer Wilds: while the Universe may be extremely dangerous to explore and largely oblivious to the ambitions of a single lowly adventurer, it is endlessly intriguing for those willing to risk it all. I’ve never felt more fragile in a game as in Outer Wilds, never so aware of the ever-encroaching presence of death. This draws some pretty obvious parallels to our own species’ attempt at space travel thus far, nailing just how bloody terrifying it must be to find yourself in an environment as hostile as the dark expanse of space.
Outer Wilds is easily my game of the year thus far, and continues to move up the list of my personal favorite games of all time. It’s an experience I genuinely cannot stop thinking about, managing to encompass everything I love about the adventure gaming genre and the smart sci-fi musings of my all-time favorite authors. The few negatives brought on by the time loop at the game’s core are universally outweighed by the pioneering spirit cultivated throughout. I urge you to seek out Outer Wilds if you can, if only to try out what is surely one of the greatest adventure games ever created.