They say space is the final frontier, but the word “final” holds very little meaning in Outer Wilds, an open-world exploration game from Developer Mobius Digital. Set in a star system on the verge of supernova, players must hunt the secrets of a long-lost race called the Nomai in order to figure out why the sun undergoes a stellar explosion every 22 minutes.
At the beginning of each session, the player finds themselves waking up on Timber Hearth. This is the protagonist’s homeplanet, where a race of alien scavengers pull together various parts and trinkets in order to explore the solar system. Spawning next to your ship, players must travel and search the condensed galaxy in order to uncover the secrets of the Nomai.
Each planet within Outer Wilds acts as a conventional level with puzzles and secrets to find. Outer Wilds circumnavigates typical level design with overarching narrative plot points that span across numerous planets. This is further developed via the 22-minute lifecycle of the nearby star as each play through behaves differently from minute-to-minute. When you consider the scale of Outer Wilds and what it manages to achieve, it’s hard not to be deeply impressed with what Mobius Digital has achieved.
The most visually obvious example of this at play is with the Hourglass Twins. These binary planets – titled the Ember Twin and the Ash Twin – orbit one another. Across the 22 minutes, the Ember Twin starts pulling the sand into its core from the Ash Twin. As one starts the fill up, the other empties, meaning players must be quick if they are to find the deepest secrets lurking within the Ember Twin.
Each of the planets across the galaxy changes throughout the 22-minute cycle, meaning players must explore in dynamically shifting environments against a strict time limit. Brittle Hollow – the third planet from the sun – houses a black hole in its core. As players explore the planet, large areas of the planet’s surface are sucked in. If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself sucked as well.
What makes Outer Wilds so special is its use of the environments and conditions on each planet to inform exploration and puzzle solving. Many of the main puzzles are directly related to the specific conditions of planets, forcing players to think outside of the box in order to progress.
It’s really hard to talk about Outer Wilds’ narrative without spoiling it. What I can say is that this is a story filled with genuine wonder, written around a constant drive for discovery and advancement – motivations we can especially relate to as humans. The Nomai, who died out long ago, and the race of scavengers, are both motivated by the solar system around them and this theme is consistent throughout the 15-20 hour journey I took.
Even though the story is heavily focused on astrophysics and alien races, the narrative has a surprisingly human feel to it. Through the text scribbled across the walls in the game, you get a real sense of the individual characters, their thoughts, feelings and even their aspirations. This helps soften the more theoretical text across the game, making the narrative much more approachable.
A few of the puzzles in the latter half of Outer Wilds do verge on the obscure at times, which I think some may find a bit frustrating. The trial and error element of the puzzle design clashes with the game’s time-loop at times, meaning you are potentially forced to wait for the time reset if you’re trying to solve one specific puzzle.
These complaints are few and far between though, because Outer Wilds is one of the most fascinating games I have ever experienced. Every inch of this condensed solar system is drenched in mystery and discovering it all is as engaging as it is entertaining. This mystery is built on in the way it presents itself. There is lots to be found in the visual and audio design and the developers honestly did a great job in purveying this to the player.
The fantastic animations and art style play an important role in helping players find and identify important areas of the world. The audio cues also provide an excellent marker for the changing environment, making you aware ahead of time when any impending weather and conditions are heading in your direction.