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.
A long time ago, your solar system was visited by an ancient civilization known as the Nomai, who left behind much of their work and findings 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.
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.
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.
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.
That's an accurate, literal description of the game. Unfortunately, it doesn't do it any justice.
Outer Wilds is about much more than just exploring space—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 similar space exploration games like No Man's Sky, you're charting an infinite universe, blasting space cops to bits, mining planets for their resources, and building bases. In Outer Wilds, there are no guns. 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.
You're given the following equipment and tools for your expedition:
- Your ship, for navigating space. Its computer logs everything that you learn on your journeys.
- 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, but there's really no point in doing so, unless you want to unlock one of the secret achievements (and get cancer).
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 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?
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. You feel your stomach drop as you brace yourself for the end.
There are similar experiences in Outer Wilds that leave you just as breathless. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the Sunless City, built by the Nomai in the underground caverns of Ember Twin for survival, as well as to carry out experiments at the High Energy Lab.
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 for the first time, 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 process! 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 curiosity. You quickly backtrack, only to find that the entrances you came through are now sealed.
There's nothing left to do but wait—to eye the level of the sand as it inches its way closer and closer to your doom. You climb to higher platforms, but it's futile—you are 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 getting there using your jetpack, but you'll run out of fuel before you even make it halfway. At that point, your suit will begin using oxygen as a propulsion mechanism. You are thus left with two choices: either quicken your death, or wait it out. Your suit reminds you that none of it matters:
60 seconds of oxygen remaining
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 (with the one exception being Solanum, who interacts with you through Nomai projection stones and writing).
Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not. 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.
The sounds you do hear are limited to the world itself—the distant sound 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 charm. And it's all thanks to the work of Andrew Prahlow, who's also credited with composing the fantastic Outer Wilds soundtrack—without which the game would completely lose its identity.
A review of Outer Wilds would be incomplete without a look at those big floaty things in the sky. I'll omit the Attlerock, as it's more or less dull.
It's basically Earth. From its playful audio track to its colorful vegetation and log cabins, Timber Hearth is radiating with comfort. It's a place that you and the other Hearthians proudly call home, a nice little corner of the world 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.
You enter through one of the openings in this planet's exterior and feel a sense of unease wash over you. An eerie track accompanies you. You're essentially blind—a thick fog envelops everything, with jagged spikes protruding from the walls to make navigation that much more of a pain. The only things that guide you in here are the glowing orbs of light far off in the distance (Finding Nemo vibes, anyone?). You think to check your map, but it's useless—your location can't be pinpointed. Your scout is also in two places at once. How is this possible?
There's one word to describe this planet: 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?
Dark Bramble offers a terrifying slice of the brilliant level design behind Outer Wilds. It also houses the Vessel, which the Nomai used to arrive at your solar system. As the game progresses, you learn of the crew's terrible fate. Two escape pods managed to survive the Bramble, carrying the remaining passengers to the other planets. And that's how it all began.
Ah, the iconic duo. The closest planets to the sun, they're 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.
There is plenty of lore to unearth from these two planets alone. The Ash Twin Project is especially important, as it defined much of the work that the Nomai carried out across a number of planets—to perfect their warp technology and generate enough power to discover the Eye of the Universe coordinates.
Without exploring these two thoroughly, you simply won't unlock the Outer Wilds ending.
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 exhilirating yet terrifying experience—a recurring theme in Outer Wilds. My jetpack simply didn't provide enough power to resist the pull of gravity.
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, aply named Hollow's Lantern, fires off volcanic rocks that give the planet its reputation for falling apart.
Fun fact: Once Hollow's Lantern shrinks a bit, you can actually get inside of it and safely land on some cooled magma rock—not that there's anything to see there.
You've seen Giant's Deep from the trailers, but it's even more impressive in game. Cyclones continuously ravage this stormy planet, occasionally lifting whole islands from the sea and tossing them out into space.
The first planet you always see when you wake up, Giant's Deep 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!
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 death.
After you reach the Eye of the Universe and make your way towards the windy chasm that lies at its end, you're teleported to what seems 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.
There, 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.
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.
It isn't exactly clear where you are, though, and what happened after you exited the Eye. It can't be Timber Hearth—you witnessed its destruction by the supernova. So is any of it 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.
I see this ending as a reflection on life in general. 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?
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 and built—will most likely turn to dust.
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.
When will we meet the same fate? Probably never in our lifetime. We're used to only relatively small measurements of time, so it's very difficult to imagine what life will be like in a few years from now, let alone in 14.3 billion.
The saddest part is knowing that there's absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. When the universe exhales its last breath, the lights will go out, and there will be nothing left. The ending of Outer Wilds teaches you that there's no use in dwelling on this—it's just a fact of life that you must learn to accept.
"It's the kind of thing that makes you glad you stopped and smelled the pine trees along the way, you know?" — Gabbro
Life can suck sometimes, but it's guaranteed to suck more if you keep dwelling on all the bad things.
If you've been playing the game blindly and experiencing it for yourself, the quote above from Gabbro will ring truest. The ostensible "curse" of the time loop was really a blessing in diguise: 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.
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.
"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." — Riebeck
Comforting words of wisdom from my favorite NPC in Outer Wilds—this nearly had me tearing up. It's honestly the sweetest, most innocent thing I've ever heard a video game character say. And it's true.
The ending of Outer Wilds takes you through several stages of grief in a matter of a few minutes. It's mostly a mixture of sorrow, anger, and acceptance.
The whole ride was an emotional experience for me—it's very rare that a game touches me on such a level. It's even rarer that I find myself sticking around throughout the entire end-game credits. Those last few minutes are definitely worth treasuring. Because what follows, for those patient enough to wait for it, is a reminder that life will always go on, even if it's without us.
A gorgeous ending to a gorgeous game. 10/10 would fly straight into the sun again.
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