Outer Wilds: Stop and Smell the Pine Trees

A wall-mounted in-game photo showing the four founders of the Outer Wilds space exploration program huddled together. The photo lacks color, with only shades of brown and tan revealing the subjects. The caption reads: 'Outer Wilds Ventures was founded by Feldspar, Gossan, Slate, and Hornfels to explore a solar system at the end of the universe.'

What originally began as a thesis project more than six years ago between two university students—Alex Beachum and Loan Verneau—is one of the best games released so far in 2019. And it’s certainly come a long way, with much of the art, audio, and gameplay receiving polishes that have allowed it to shine.

Produced by the talented creatives at Mobius Digital, Outer Wilds is an indie space exploration game that thrusts you into a hand-crafted solar system full of intrigue and wonder. Your mission? To sate your curiosity as you brave the unknown of outer space.

What Is Outer Wilds About?

Long ago, your solar system was visited by an ancient civilization known as the Nomai, who left behind much of their work, findings, and settlements when they perished. Now, as a budding astronaut, you’re tasked with uncovering their past—and, in doing so, learning more about your universe and its fate.

Riebeck, an NPC, comments on the Nomai. Her dialogue reads: 'An alien race lived in this solar system long before our species even existed! How could I not want to see what their civilization was like?'

There’s just one catch: Your solar system is trapped in a time loop of 22 minutes, after which the sun goes supernova in what can only be described as the most beautiful way to die in a video game.

A violent supernova of bright blue and white light engulfs the screen as the sun explodes. Nothing else remains except the black void of space between the approaching supernova and the player.

Is the time loop a curse or a blessing? Who were the Nomai, and what were they searching for? Should you finish what they started? The truth is out there—and it’s up to you to find it.

What Do You Do in Outer Wilds?

At its core, Outer Wilds is a space exploration game with puzzling and 3D platforming elements. To progress through the story, you translate pieces of lore and writing—conversations between key Nomai characters—that can be found on several planets.

A stone wall etched with swirling, purple carvings in a branching pattern, representing conversations between Nomai. This particular stone is in a tutorial area and reads: 'Although this text is linear, Nomai text often branches off from a central point. Interestingly, each branch tends to be written by a different author.'

That’s an accurate, literal description of the game. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do it any justice.

Outer Wilds is about much more than exploration and platforming—it’s about tracing the footsteps of the Nomai and piecing together the few clues that remain about their mysterious past, as well as endeavoring to finish what they in their lifetime could not. It feels like navigating pre-historic caverns, illuminating walls etched with writing and paintings with your torch—eyes wide with wonder—and trying to make sense of it all.

The key gameplay element in Outer Wilds is acquiring knowledge. In other space exploration games, you’re charting infinite universes, fighting off enemies, mining planets for their resources, and building bases. In Outer Wilds, there are no weapons. There’s no combat, actually. You’re also not building any structures or collecting physical resources. Instead, you’re using the few tools at your disposal to learn as much as you can in the limited time that you’re given in each expedition.

Any knowledge you acquire is cumulative and is recorded in your ship log. At first, it isn’t really clear where you’re supposed to go and what exactly you’re searching for. You’re a detective, tying together seemingly unrelated strings of information and following up on leads. Eventually, the pieces begin to fall into place.

The ship log, consisting of photos of in-game items and locations. These tiles are connected to each other with lines. Each tile represents a key piece of information in the game. Some tiles have a question mark as their image, representing information the player has yet to uncover.

You’re given the following equipment and tools for your expedition:

  • Your ship, for navigating space. Its computer logs everything you learn during expeditions.
  • A flashlight. It… does exactly what you’d expect it to do.
  • A scout, a device that doubles as both a camera and a light source. Use it to illuminate dark rooms, explore unreachable areas, or avoid ghost matter.
  • A signalscope, which can be used to pick up radio frequencies like distress signals or music.
  • Your jetpack, for traversing the uneven terrain of planets by foot.
  • A translator, for deciphering the text left behind by the Nomai. You’ll be doing this a lot.

Oh, and you can’t forget the stick. You can roast marshmallows at campfires and eat them to regain health—but be careful not to burn them, unless you want to unlock one of the secret achievements.

The player roasts marshmallows over a campfire at the starting area of the game. Another NPC rests on a log opposite the player.

Curiosity Killed the Hearthian

What makes Outer Wilds so compelling is its ability to convey a sense of palpable vulnerability—the exact kind you’d expect from space exploration. Just the sheer scale of the planets themselves is enough to leave you in awe, fully aware of how fragile you are by comparison.

The sun in Outer Wilds, a massive, bright, orange ball of fire and light. A moon is partially eclipsed by the sun.

The game doesn’t hesitate to remind you that the world beyond the planet you call home is an extremely dangerous place—make one wrong move, and you’re dead.

Beyond the immediate threat of dying, you face a number of limitations. Your oxygen capacity isn’t enough to last you an entire trip without restocking. Your fuel, though it seems plentiful, will eventually run out. You will frequently get separated from your ship. And of course, you only have so much time, arguably the most valuable resource in the entire game.

Fortunately, Outer Wilds recognizes what’s important—solid story and world-building—and doesn’t burden itself with unnecessary survival elements, like managing hunger or anything of the sort. The closest it gets to this is allowing you to repair your ship, which is perfectly justified because it fits in naturally with the rest of the gameplay.

Even in the face of death, one force continues to guide your expeditions: unbridled curiosity. What happens if I set my bearings for the sun? How do I reach the bottom of Giant’s Deep? What awaits me when I arrive? What, if anything, is on the other side of the black hole at the core of Brittle Hollow?

Do I really want to find out?

Riebeck, an NPC, comments on Brittle Hollow, the planet she inhabits: 'Oh wow, where shouldn't you explore here? Um, not the black hole, actually. That's... very no.'

A Race Against Time Itself

Each expedition plays out against the backdrop of the sun’s impending explosion, something that never gets old no matter how many times you witness it.

You have lots to see and do and learn. But you must squeeze every drop of value out of those precious experiences in a mere 22 minutes. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself in the middle of an important exploration when the End Times soundtrack kicks in. Your stomach drops as you brace yourself for the end. If you’re like me, you’ll park your ship and take in the gorgeous view.

There are similar experiences in Outer Wilds that leave you just as breathless. One that comes to mind is discovering the Sunless City, built by the Nomai in the underground caverns of Ember Twin for survival, as well as to carry out experiments.

The Sunless City, built in the reddish-brown caverns of Ember Twin, one of the planets closest to the sun. A tall column of sand pours at a constant rate into a deep pit in the center of the cave. Lights dot walkways that circle around the pit, passing by makeshift homes that were once inhabited.

Unfortunately, this underground oasis, ripe with knowledge and secrets for you to uncover, is also quickly being buried in rising sand. Once you realize this, you find yourself immediately overwhelmed by a greater sense of urgency unlike anything you’ve experienced so far.

Your brain scrambles to prioritize the tasks at hand. There are so many districts to visit and so much to learn! Do I visit the Anglerfish Fossil? The High Energy Lab? There’s so much writing to translate! The melancholy music of the Sunless City quickens its pace to match your frenzied thoughts. I’ll never finish in time.

Unless you find your way to the High Energy Lab, you’ll die—crushed between sand and rock. It’s one thing to fear the end of your solar system, an unavoidable fate to which you’ve become accustomed with time. But it’s an entirely different, more dreadful feeling to realize that your death will be a consequence of your own curiosity. You quickly backtrack, only to find that the entrances are now sealed shut.

When the sand rises, there's no escaping the Sunless City. One of the doorways is partially blocked off, preventing the player from leaving their current room.

There’s nothing left to do but to wait—to eye the level of the sand as it inches its way closer and closer to your demise. You climb to higher platforms, but it’s futile—you’re only prolonging the inevitable. At long last, you hear a bone-chilling crack. Your helmet shatters under the pressure, and your vision dims.

But there is perhaps no more terrifying fate than death in the void of outer space itself—you become separated from your ship, drifting like a lonely little feather. There are planets off in the distance, but they’re out of reach. You can try propelling yourself toward them with your jetpack, but you’ll run out of fuel before you even make it halfway. At that point, your suit will begin using oxygen for fuel. You are thus left with two choices: quickening your death or waiting it out. In the end, your suit reminds you that none of it matters:

60 seconds of oxygen remaining

Dialogue and Audio Done Right

I was initially disappointed when I realized that the NPCs in Outer Wilds are, for the most part, static—they remain in the same spot and loop through the same actions, such as observing their surroundings or playing musical instruments. Notably, the game also doesn’t have any voice acting—you cycle through each NPC’s textual dialogue trees.

However, as it turns out, this is one of Outer Wilds’s greatest strengths. The game’s fantastic writing more than compensates for its lack of traditional player-NPC interaction. Outer Wilds is a story-driven game done right. Voice acting would’ve killed the experience by introducing human elements that simply don’t belong in its world.

Riebeck, one of the NPCs, comments on one of your discoveries. Her dialogue reads: 'AHHH! That doesn't make any sense! I don't understand! I am very excited for you, though! P-please stop yelling!
Riebeck is adorable, and proof that you don’t need voice acting to convey emotion and… well, voice!

The sounds you do hear are limited to the world itself—the distant echoes of music, the howling cyclones of Giant’s Deep, the bubbling heat of the sun, or the deafening roar of an approaching column of sand on Ash Twin. The audio breathes life into Outer Wilds and gives it its unmistakable charm. And it’s all thanks to the work of Andrew Prahlow, who’s also credited with composing the fantastic Outer Wilds soundtrack.

Venturing Into the Outer Wilds

An in-game map created by the Outer Wilds Ventures, titled: 'Planetary chart of the Outer Wilds.' All of the game's planets are shown in a typical horizontal arrangement of increasing distance from the sun, which appears on the far left.

With a gasp of air, you awake on your home planet, ready to embark on a new expedition into the outer wilds of space. Excitement, danger, and knowledge await on a number of planets beyond your home. Where do you go, and what do you find?

1. Timber Hearth

Timber Hearth, the player's home planet. The sun shines brightly overhead, with a clear blue sky in the background. Two large towers can be seen in the distance. Pine trees surround the planet's main encampment, at the center of which a geyser shoots a jet of water into the air.

From its playful audio track to its colorful vegetation and log cabins, Timber Hearth is radiating with comfort. It’s a planet that you and your fellow Hearthians proudly call home—a nice little corner of the universe in which to retire after a long career of space exploration.

There are also plenty of secrets packed into just this one planet. It’s a taste of what’s to come throughout the rest of your experience—minus the comfort, that is.

2. Dark Bramble

The player begins to enter Dark Bramble aboard their ship. The planet's interior is shrouded in a thick, dark mist that makes it difficult to see. Orbs of light glow faintly in the distance.

You glide through one of the openings in this planet’s exterior and feel a sense of unease wash over you. An eerie track of white noise accompanies you. You can’t see a thing—a thick fog envelops everything, with jagged spikes protruding from the walls to make navigation that much more of a pain. The only things guiding you are the faintly glowing orbs of light far off in the distance. You think to check your map, but it’s useless—your location can’t be pinpointed. Your scout is also appearing in two places at once. How is this possible?

Dark Bramble offers a terrifying slice of the brilliant level design behind Outer Wilds. The planet is extremely unsettling, and in more ways than one. Beyond the fear of being swallowed whole, you’re also initially faced with the fear of the unknown. Until you discover the secret of this planet and how to navigate it, you’ll be drowning in confusion. Haven’t I been here before?

3. The Hourglass Twins (Ash Twin + Ember Twin)

Ah, the iconic duo. The closest planets to the sun, the Hourglass Twins are mostly uninhabitable due to the searing heat. They’re also locked in a never-ending struggle of gravity, with the Ember Twin siphoning much of the sand from the Ash Twin.

Two planets, named the Hourglass Twins, revolve about one another. The Ember Twin is siphoning a column of sand from the Ash Twin. As the Ash Twin diminishes in size, various manmade structures can be seen exposed above the surface.

There is plenty of lore to unearth from these two planets alone. Without exploring these two thoroughly, you simply won’t unlock the canonical Outer Wilds ending.

4. Brittle Hollow

The first time I arrived on this planet and ventured beneath the surface, one of the wooden platforms broke off, and I came face to face with the black hole at the core of the planet. It was an exhilarating yet terrifying experience—a recurring theme in Outer Wilds. My jetpack simply didn’t provide enough power to resist the pull of gravity.

The player falls into the core of Brittle Hollow, where a black hole can be seen.

There’s not much to see above ground—most of the discoveries you’ll make here are down below. Tread carefully, though, or you’ll meet the same fate that I did.

The fiery moon that circles above, aptly named Hollow’s Lantern, fires off volcanic rocks that give the planet its reputation for… well, falling apart.

5. Giant’s Deep

You’ve seen Giant’s Deep from the trailers, but it’s even more impressive in game. Cyclones continually ravage this stormy planet, occasionally lifting whole islands from the sea and tossing them out into space.

The player flies just a few feet above the ocean of Giant's Deep, a planet ravaged by storms and water spouts.

Giant’s Deep is the first planet you see when you wake up during each expedition; it houses secrets that are key to reaching the Quantum Moon, as well as the Eye of the Universe itself. To think that all the knowledge you needed was just a current and a cyclone away!

The Ending

On the surface, Outer Wilds is “just another space exploration game.” But peel back the layers, and it’s a captivating and philosophical story about life and the universe.

After you reach the Eye of the Universe and make your way toward the windy chasm that lies at its end, you’re teleported to what appears to be a parallel version of the Observatory back at Timber Hearth—except it’s much darker (both literally and figuratively), and all of the text has changed. Here, you learn that it wasn’t just your sun that went supernova—many others like it have also reached the end of their lifetime. The entire universe is dying a slow and painful death.

An exhibit at the Observatory describing the death of the solar system's sun. A model of the sun is captioned: 'At the end of its lifespan, our sun collapsed under its own gravity and then exploded in a violent supernova.'

Later, you’re transported to a forest, where you meet your fellow Hearthians once again. You and the gang get together for one last chorus around a campfire. Everyone appears to be at ease and not in the least bit worried about the end of the universe as they know it.

All of the game's characters sit in a circle around a campfire in a dark, wooded area and play their instruments.

It isn’t exactly clear where you are, though, and what happened after you exited the Eye of the Universe. It can’t be Timber Hearth—the supernova destroyed it. So is any of this real, or have you already died? Is your spirit just clinging to the physical world and refusing to let go?

Whatever it is, it’s a beautiful series of events and leaves you with more questions than answers. Outer Wilds manages to capture those last few moments elegantly.

A Lesson on Impermanence: Accepting Your Fate

I see the Outer Wilds ending as a reflection on the impermanence of life. Will this be our fate one day? Will we, like the Nomai, pursue some great feat because science compels us—because we see it as our defining purpose—only to fail and wither away before we ever learn whether it’s possible?

A wall-mounted statue at the Eye of the Universe depicts a Nomai inhabitant. The caption reads: 'The Nomai never got to see it for themselves, but thanks to their efforts and technology, a Hearthian was able to reach the Eye of the universe.'

It’s a depressing realization, but it’s true: At some point, life will cease to exist, not just in our own solar system but also in many others like it. All of our progress—everything we’ve learned, built, and struggled to preserve—will turn to dust. When the universe exhales its last breath, the lights will go out, and there will be nothing left.

The Exploratory in the Eye of the Universe houses an Anglerfish model in a glass case. The caption reads: 'Of all the lifeforms who will perish in the oncoming death of the universe, we will miss the anglerfish the least.'
Amen to that!

But in Outer Wilds, your fear of the end is eventually replaced by somber acceptance. In a sense, it’s comforting to have such a predictable future, even if it’s a grim one. The ending teaches you that there’s no use in dwelling on this—it’s just a fact of life that you must learn to accept.

Make the Most of What You’re Given

The player speaks with Gabbro, one of the NPCs, who says: 'It's the kind of thing that makes you glad you stopped and smelled the pine trees along the way, you know?'
It’s the kind of thing that makes you glad you stopped and smelled the pine trees along the way, you know?

If you’ve been playing Outer Wilds blindly, this quote from Gabbro will ring truest. The ostensible curse of the time loop was really a blessing in disguise: an opportunity to enjoy life—and to discover what the Nomai could not—before it all comes crashing down.

The Nomai failed in their mission to locate the Eye of the Universe. But they never lost hope, even though everything suggested they would never succeed in their lifetime.

A quote from a translated piece of Nomai writing that reads: 'Is the hardest part of this tragedy not knowing who we may have lost? OR will the hardest part come later, when we learn? (Be well, Aunt Melorae...)'

They learned to cope through humor and love—not only for each other but also for science. You learn this by piecing together the messages they left behind for each other. They remained curious until the day they died. They never stopped trying to make things work. And maybe that’s all that any of us can really do.

Every End Is a New Beginning

The player speaks with Riebeck, one of the NPCs, who says: 'The past is past, now, but that's... you know, that's okay! It's never really gone completely. The future is always built on the past, even if we don't get to see it.'

Comforting words of wisdom from my favorite NPC in Outer Wilds—this nearly had me tearing up. It’s the sweetest, most innocent thing I’ve ever heard a video game character say. And it’s true.

The canonical ending of Outer Wilds is a celebration of life and a lesson on fate and learning to let go when it’s time. The whole ride is an emotional experience—I can’t think of any other game that has impacted me so profoundly.

It’s even rarer that I find myself sticking around throughout the entire end-game credits. But those last few minutes are definitely worth the wait. Because what follows, for those patient enough, is a reminder that life will always go on, even if it’s without us.

The ending screen of The Outer Wilds depicts a universe born anew, from the perspective of what used to be Timber Hearth. Two figures huddle over a campfire in the bottom-right corner, with thick walls of pine trees enclosing the planet. The sky is dotted with colorful swirls of purple, blue, and black, with new planets emerging in the distance.

A gorgeous ending to a gorgeous game. 10/10 would fly straight into the sun again.

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