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Why Outer Wilds stuck with me

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SPOILER WARNING – If you haven’t played Outer Wilds I strongly suggest you do not read any further.

I first played Outer Wilds a year ago and I still regularly think about it. I began to feel this strongly about the game only an hour in which isn’t the norm for me. Slow starts, heavy handed tutorials or simply a steep learning curve can be taxing on my enjoyment of the early hours of a game.

Outer Wilds was different in that after quickly getting to grips with some of the basics I looked up into the sky and saw a moon pass overhead. A fairly common sight in games however here it was clear that the moon was a fully explorable place and that it was truly operating within the same space (pardon the pun) as myself.

This realization took me aback because even though Outer Wilds takes place in a pint sized solar system with tiny celestial bodies compared to reality, they are still relatively large places for a player to explore, to see one of these locations move at such speed, to blast off and land on it, to see these planets drastically change over time like Brittle Hollow collapsing in on itself was simply satisfying to behold and thankfully still is. Outer Wilds has a much talked about low replay value however upon returning to the game recently I can say that just drifting through space and observing the solar system remains a pleasure even if the joy of discovery is never coming back.

So many games make interacting with moving objects or levels either extremely restrictive or incredibly unstable, often two physics objects bumping into one another can produce wildly unrealistic results.

Which is why games that achieve a degree of non static environments or physical interactions with the games world are often celebrated, think of Uncharted 2’s train ride or Half Life 2’s gravity gun, there’s a reason players find these noteworthy.

Many games impart the feeling that not much is happening outside of your field of view and in many cases due to culling this is largely true but not so much in the case of Outer Wilds. Sure less complex models are swapped out for distant planets but their presence remain interactable, your probe and ship can be affected by them even when you are on the other side of the solar system. Suffice to say this is technically impressive but it also imparts the feeling that the player isn’t the centre of the solar system further enhancing the sense of discovery.

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All of this would simply be a technical accomplishment but a subpar experience if it were not for the seamless nature of the minute to minute play experience of Outer Wilds. You can run to your ship, blast of, explore a neighbouring planet, deal with it’s changing environment, damage your ship to the point it breaks apart and you are left enveloped by the vacuum of space before witnessing the sun go supernova and knock you back into your sleeping bag. This is all done without the concessions or slights of hand many games rely on through cutscenes or a more instanced design where a wider world is implied and segmented rather than fully realized.

And this is why I find Outer Wilds noteworthy, spaces that would normally be fully rooted in one place instead orbit, change over time with minimal smoke and mirrors, the player is then left to freely explore with barely any hitches.

What I have outlined above is what I think Outer Wilds standout achievement is however other elements like puzzles being integrated with the environment, those same environments being devoid of visual clutter in order to expertly guide players to key locations which avoids making players feel like they have to comb over every inch of a planet to find clues. The incredible soundtrack that perfectly harmonizes with the games themes of melancholy, wonder and mystery. The story is fed to the player via the breadcrumbs of an endearingly earnest long gone species. All this combines to make Outer Wilds a truly captivating experience to play and elevates the game far above it’s humble origins as a University thesis project.

My goal here wasn’t to imply most games should be built like Outer Wilds (that would be impractical and counter productive in many cases) nor was it to gloss over it’s flaws like some clumsily hidden or unintuitive puzzle solutions. My goal was to try and illustrate what makes Outer Wilds special and personally try to express my own feeling on a game that has played on my mind for so long. I don’t write very often so I hope it wasn’t too painful to get through but for what it’s worth thanks for making it to the end.

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