What Makes Outer Wilds Great – and Why I Gave Up On It
There are plenty of 2019 “Game of the Year” lists out there that contain Outer Wilds. It was even nominated for the GDC Game of the Year. Mobius Digital’s unique take on exploration and discovery is undoubtedly one of the most appreciated titles of last year. While I don’t want to cast doubt on a sea of critically acclaimed awards, after spending 11 hours bouncing around this universe, I can’t say I’m as impressed.
I come from a long history of being a science fiction fan. I especially love when great stories are woven into the genre, whether it be in books, movies, or especially games. Most of my favorite games are in this category and feature notable stories – such as Homeworld. This is one of the main reasons that I sought out Outer Wilds and assumed I would love it as much as others do. It wasn’t long after I started the game, however, that I realized it may not be everything that I’d hoped.
Outer Wilds does many things well. The incredible originality in the design of the planets is second to none. The way that you can extensively explore each one to unlock story details is memorable and enjoyable for the most part. Then, of course, the music is beautiful and evocative of the entire aesthetic of meeting high-tech tasks with low-tech equipment. Even the story, told almost entirely through text translations, has so much intrigue and thematic growth that I felt shameful watching the ending on Youtube.
I don’t want to spoil this for anyone, so I won’t go into any details here, but I really don’t need to. The issues that I have with Outer Wilds are almost entirely related to mechanics. While I can appreciate all of the aforementioned qualities and their positive impacts on all sorts of games even in lesser quantities, I value gameplay greatly. Without gameplay of at least “decent” quality from my perspective, motivation to complete the game quickly fades. This is what happened with Outer Wilds.
From the start, I assumed there would be more interactivity. The vast majority of interaction, beyond navigating your ship to planets, is simply translating runic text on walls. Without divulging any details, you get a translation device and you point it at the runes and press the “translate” button. Occasionally you do get to solve some puzzles, but the nature of the constant “resets” makes it impossible to implement any noteworthy puzzles.
That brings me to my next point – the supernova. One of the core components of the game is that, after you start, 22 minutes later the sun goes supernova and you wake up to start again. There’s obviously more to all of this, but again I don’t want to spoil anything. This mechanic fits the narrative and is woven into the planets themselves, but it can be frustrating when you’re trying to accomplish something or figure out how to get somewhere only hit the reset. If a certain area were to lock or unlock at a particular time in these 22 minutes and you fail some part of exploring it, you’ll be waiting for that same moment in the next round.
I do find some of the planetary design associated with this to be exceptional – and if you asked me in the first few hours I’d marvel at its execution. However, after dozens of times dealing with this, I just wanted it to stop. It is possible to enable an option to freeze this timer while you’re reading which is great if you want to absorb the story without added stress. Yet, it did little to make the game feel less frustrating.
My biggest issue, however, was the lack of overall direction in Outer Wilds. It’s rare for any character or piece of dialogue in the game to actually tell you what you need to do. It was rewarding, for a time, exploring freestyle from planet to planet, but the more I unlocked, the fewer options I had to try. By the time I got to what I assumed was the end of the game, I had no clue where to go. I ultimately looked up the solution as I couldn’t discern it from what I had explored thus far (a shameful act in a game about discovery). However, even after learning what to do, executing it in the 22 minutes proved to be my downfall. After failing three times, I said “screw it” and watched the last 15 minutes of the game online.
I wanted to like Outer Wilds so much. Even after watching the ending, the game has such a rich and impactful story that I feel stupid for missing out first hand. Having to repeatedly scramble between those beautiful planets made them lose their luster. Searching high and low to try and discern a path that hardly existed left me jaded with what blew me away at first. I can definitively see how so many fell in love with it, but for me, what’s there isn’t enough to carry me through to the game’s end.