Space exploration on a deadline — a first look at Outer Wilds

Have you ever been a child at summer camp, staring at the sky and wondering what it would be like to break free of gravity and explore the cosmos beyond? Get ready to do just that, complete with the campfire motif, in Outer Wilds. Combining the interesting mechanics of exploring an open world inside of a very narrow time frame, Outer Wilds is a huge, constantly changing, open-world space exploration game filled with fascinating secrets, strange technology, unexplored planets, which kills you every twenty minutes. Fortunately, your home solar system just so happens to be trapped within a time loop, so death doesn’t necessarily mean game over.

You awaken under the stars as a blue-skinned alien in a small village which more closely resembles a summer camp than a space station. “The aesthetic we’re going for is kind of camping meets NASA, and the art style is [inspired by] national park posters. Timber Hearth … where your species is from, is very specifically inspired by Sequoia National Forest and Yellowstone,” Alex Beachum, the creative lead who began working on Outer Wilds for his Masters Thesis at USC. Because we were playing an early build, the graphics were not completed and several characters hadn’t yet been fully animated, but it hardly mattered, as Outer Wilds is already oozing with charm. Each character was cute, and the strange twig-and-branch version of Nasa which Hearthians have built was incredibly charming.

Outer Wilds is filled with mysteries, and the more you explore, the more of them you uncover. Upon opening your eyes, you see a flash of light from something in orbit around the planet, right before something very large breaks apart. In little time, you’re blasting off in your tiny spacecraft, breaking free of the atmosphere and into the frictionless vacuum of space. While space is vast, it’s not empty. The solar system is alive and constantly moving. Planets orbit in real time, some breaking apart while others spin blissfully around the sun. While the team at Mobius has made space travel pretty forgiving, you’ll still have to compensate for the movement of planets, keep an eye on your auto pilot, to ensure it doesn’t chart your course right through the center of the sun, and learn to lay off the jet propulsion button, as it’s pretty easy to build up too much speed in zero gravity.

“Space flight is fairly realistic, there’s no friction, gravity works the way that gravity works. So it’s sort of simulation-y in a sense, but we wanted to make sure it was accessible,” Beachum explained as I broke free of my home planet’s gravity. “So, you can lock onto things, and if you hold the A button, you’ll match velocity with it, and you can auto-pilot to things. You do have to land manually, but we have a landing mode that keeps the planet in your view, so you can kind of rotate around and find a landing spot. You control your descent, that’s about it.”

Fortunately for my rather shaky piloting skills, you can set your ship down just about anywhere, and your spacesuit ensures you can survive whatever atmosphere or lack there of, your dissertation has in store for you. Some planets have more gravity and require you to use your jet pack to boost your jumps if you want to go anywhere, other areas are in zero gravity, and require you to make use of other technology in order to keep your feet on something resembling terra firma. Some areas were inaccessible early on in the game, however it was not because of invisible walls or NPCs who stubbornly blocked my way; I couldn’t yet access areas simply because I had not yet learned how. Exploration allows you to learn more about the solar system and its history, which in turn allows you to access even more of the world.

Hearthians are not the only species to explore space, however. The Nomai, an ancient race which long ago vanished from the universe, have left fascinating ruins and writings behind. Fortunately, you’ve got a custom-made Nomai translator which will allow you to dig into the mysteries of the past to try and uncover what’s causing a time loop in the present. Outer Wilds does not demand that you follow any set course, but it does provide plenty of strange things to pique your interest and draw you into the mysteries of the game.

It also has a number of other interesting features. In my short time playing, I managed to slam my spaceship into some debris hard enough to damage a light and crack my windshield. Oops. Fortunately, I was able to climb out and repair the damage. Many others of your kind have taken to the stars and have settled on other bodies within the solar system. They’re easy to locate thanks to a special signal scope you carry around, and their propensity to music. There’s something profoundly cool about hovering in the blackness of space, waving a scope about, and hear a banjo playing out there, somewhere, in the darkness.

Death is an inevitable and frequent part of Outer Wilds, both because of the time loop and because space is dangerous. The solar system is constantly changing; a dying planet collapses in on itself, gas giants hide violent oceans just below the gaseous surface, and the Hourglass Twins orbit around each other, trapped in a destructive orbit as they exchange matter, revealing clues on one planet as they hide them on the other. Secrets wait in every corner of the system, from monsters lurking in the darkness to wormholes, to bewildering ancient technologies. Discovering how to survive long enough to explore a ruin site, or uncover a new clue is just as important as finding the clues themselves, Beachum explained. “It’s not just about exploring. It’s not like ‘Oh yeah, go out and walk around and find text and decipher clues,’ it’s like… do that while nature’s trying to kill you.” Death may be inevitable, but it’s far from game over. After each death, regardless of the reason, you’ll be sucked back through the time loop and wake up back to your home planet. You and your ship remain your memories and logs of where you’ve been, allowing you to continue your investigations into this fascinating world.

“Why do people go into space?” Beachum asked as life once again flashed before my character’s eyes, returning him, once again, to the beginning of the time loop. “It’s not a place humans should be, but we do it out of curiosity. What’s out there? What are we gonna find?” There’s certainly a lot to find inside Outer Wilds. This moving, changing, breathing world is just ripe for exploration, and does an excellent job at stirring up that explorer ember which lies within us all. Rather like Majora’s Mask meets No Man’s Sky, it offers an expansive open world solar system filled with dangers to avoid, secrets to uncover, and planets, moons, space stations, and anomalies to explore. Outer Wilds will be coming to PC and additional platforms this year. You can learn more by visiting the Outer Wilds website.

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