Outer Wilds is an award-winning video game with a number of tricks up its sleeve. When you jump in initially, it can feel a bit like a poor-man’s No Man’s Sky: a space exploration game that’s limited to one solar system worth of planets, moons and comets. But give things a little time—22 minutes to be exact—and everything changes.
Into The (Not So) Great Beyond
We start out on the rustic and heavily wooded planet of Timber Hearth, a medium-sized orb that’s home to a race of gangly little folks with four eyes and bird wing-like ears. And it’s apparent we’re one of their sit-by-a-campfire-and-toast-a-marshmallow number. But we’ve got more on our first-person agenda than simply enjoying sweet treats and campfire tales. After a few conversations with our neighbors, we learn that we’re expected to pilot a little spacecraft into the great beyond to explore the planets and space around us.
It’s also evident that there’s something mysterious in the mix: we find statues with glowing eyes and unreadable messages scrawled on the walls of buildings and caves—remnants of an (ancient?) civilization called the Nomai. In fact, although no one actually says as much, it might just be that the space tech we’re supposed to pilot is a hand-me-down from those mysterious predecessors.
With a bit of local exploration you discover the launch codes for your ship and a universal translator to decipher those wall scrawls and other missives. And then it’s off to visit your first planet and discover its secrets.
Then the sun explodes.
And everything starts over.
That’s when this game’s true nature becomes a bit more apparent. This is indeed a game of exploration, but it’s not the ambling, rambling adventure you might have thought it was. This is a space-going time-bomb version of Groundhog Day that plays out in a system of planets sprinkled with secrets and mysteries.
As you solve environmental puzzles, discover and decipher hidden writings, and find items of unique value, you slowly start to see how the true story’s pieces all fit together. And every 22 minutes the time loop resets. Your tiny ship keeps a log of all you’ve discovered, but each restart sends you back to the beginning: to find a new tack, another clue, and the next step on a path to hopefully saving this universe from permanent extinction.
When it comes to gameplay, Outer Wilds can be equally exhilarating … and frustrating. It all comes down to your mindset. The clock is always ticking, but sometimes just waiting and being patient is the best course.
One sand-covered planet has secret passages to reveal, for instance, but if you rush through before the sand slowly ebbs away, you’ll never find them. A seemingly insignificant written message on one world might be a vitally important key to unlock the secrets of another. The choices you make, or don’t make, have an impact.
Those patient, thoughtful gaming demands are probably the biggest challenge here for younger players. They run into some references to drinking, too, and one planet holds the skeletal remains of a lost civilization, but by and large there are no real content issues to navigate.
Young or old, though, your gaming pleasure will depend on how much you enjoy tricky exploration, unique storytelling and obtuse puzzle solving. For some it will be a, uh, slowly acquired taste. For others … it’s the stuff of grand space adventure.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.