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Outer Wilds

Videogame (2019). Mobius Digital. Published by Annapurna Interactive. Designed by Alex Beachum and Loan Vernau. Platforms: Win (2019); XBoxOne (2019); PS4 (2019).

A cute 3D Adventure game of surprising depth, Outer Wilds is reminiscent of Portal (2007) in that it was a student's university project expanded into a professional production.

Outer Wilds puts players in the shoes of an amphibious Alien astronaut. It is the day of your inaugural Space Flight, and there is a solar system of five miniature planets to explore, each littered with the artefacts of an extinct Forerunner species, the Nomai. From your cosy wooden Spaceship, you the player are free to travel this system at will; until after twenty-two relaxing minutes the sun explodes and kills you.

When you wake back on your home world, free to start the game afresh, it becomes clear that you are locked in a Time Loop. Able to explore only in twenty-two minute segments, the player gradually pieces together the mysteries of what happened to the extinct Nomai, why the sun is exploding, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

Outer Wilds has no violence, item collection, or experience points. Its universe functions as a maze in the vein of the Metroid series, but one where progress is limited only by the player's knowledge, rather than in-game character progression. In theory, the game could be completed in its initial loop, and indeed, it can be done without a spaceship. This focus on learning, with its emphasis on hand-crafted experiences rather than randomly generated content, makes Outer Wilds a refreshing change from most independent games of its era.

Every object in Outer Wilds' miniature universe is in constant motion, and the machinations of its clockwork universe can produce wonders reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – as when, for example, the sun crests over an alignment of the five planets. The game's aesthetic is an incongruous, but successful, mix of cosy boy-scout camping adventures with the nightmarish indifference of the cosmos. Beneath its cartoonish graphics, Outer Wilds is a Hard SF experience in which, to the twang of a banjo, players can explore a planet eternally crumbling into a Black Hole, a Pocket Universe stalked by giant angler-fish, or a quantum moon that both does and does not orbit around each planet simultaneously. It is rare that a depiction of universal Entropy comes so suffused with joy.

Outer Wilds was released only months apart from the much higher-profile sf Role Playing Game The Outer Worlds, which garnered gamers' attention while also sowing a fair amount of confusion. The sedate pace of Outer Wilds was not for everyone, but it is a notable piece of science-fiction art, and won the 2019 Game of the Year award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. [JN]

Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 23:18 pm on 2 July 2022.