Outer Wilds: Thoughts, Spoilers, and Unfair Comparisons

I bought Outer Wilds because people recommended it to me. These were not normal “hey you might like this” recommendations. More than one person who knows my tastes pretty well mentioned they thought this could be one of my all-time favorites. It didn’t happen in conjunction with some other game they knew I’d played, either. Dudes were not all “Oh hey, Brick said he liked Death Stranding, if that’s the case he’ll love this other thing!” I checked online to price the game on Steam and noticed that Limited Run Games were going to be doing a PS4 pressing, and I figured if the game really were as special as all that, it might be nice to have a hard copy. So I pre-ordered then waited like eight months.

It was worth the wait, and I’m glad I will have Outer Wilds‘s physical spine staring at me from my shelf, because this is one I’d like to be reminded to go back to from time to time. A kind of warm, familiar reminder you can only get by glancing at a shelf, and not from, say, a massive digital list of titles in tiny sans-serif font.

Outer Wilds was fantastic, and exactly the sort of game I needed right now. I went into it completely blind, and that’s how you ought to go into it, too. That said, it is not the life-moving incomparable experience I was maybe expecting after close to a year of self-imposed radio silence. I think it would have been okay for someone to tell me what genre the game was in, so that’s what I’m going to tell you: it is an adventure game, in the tradition of Myst, Riven, and Obduction.

I think this is important to say up front, because often when I encounter these “you have to play it completely blind!” games, the advice is trying to preserve some genre-defying new gameplay secret, or is one of those wink-nudge meta storytelling jobbers that’s all the rage these days. Outer Wilds is neither (thank goodness). The reason to go into this one blind is, while it is a fairly conventional adventure game, the breadth and direction of its exploration-based gameplay is quite unique. There are games I can point to and say, “Outer Wilds is kind of like that!” but you’ll have more fun if you don’t know anything about the specifics of what you’re getting into.

One thing I will say, by way of review, is that this game’s controls are very bad. They start out feeling quite cumbersome and a lot of the early game is spent getting used to them. The game is pretty short, so there’s not enough time to really master them over the course of your adventure. Even if there were, this isn’t the type of game that really rewards mechanical mastery. There are arguments to be made that bad controls have a point, and there may even be a smudge of merit to those arguments. I really dislike bad controls, though, and one of the things I love about adventure games is they’re usually designed without reflex challenges. People can play them who are bad at Mario or Doom or whatever. This game departs from the Myst template in that you have to be considerably more “in the moment” than just walking around and engaging with things intellectually; sometimes you have to also be good at playing the video game, and if you’re not, you could end up losing a lot of state.

SPOILERS FOR OUTER WILDS BEGIN NOW

I don’t feel like I want to break down the story in Outer Wilds, although it really was quite good, and the game was quite good at telling it. I also don’t have much to say in the vein of pointing out gameplay problems and possible fixes for those problems, like I usually do. What I want to do instead is contrast Outer Wilds against a few other popular adventure game archetypes to examine 1) what makes Outer Wilds so unique in this field, and 2) why Outer Wilds kind of almost broke as a gameplay concept.

I like to get stuck in adventure games. I love to solve puzzles, and I am incredibly stubborn, and I have a reputation as someone who will stay stuck on a puzzle far, far longer than what is usually considered reasonable. There are heights of euphoria to be had here, in that moment of finally figuring something out you’ve been stuck on forever, that cannot be reached outside this genre. It’s not like banging your head against a boss fight for six hours in Dark Souls, because that’s just a disconnect between designer intent and player skill. And it’s not like that moment where some badly-conveyed gamaplay quirk clicks with you, as happens sometimes in combat-heavy games with lots of fiddly controls. In a well-crafted adventure game, the designer knows you’ll be stuck and probably has a good idea of where, and engages you in a battle of wits. (And observation, and experimentation, and maybe a bit of trudgery. But mostly wits.) When pushing through these kinds of barriers in other games it often feels like a relief. An end to frustration. And I think that’s the difference: in a really well-designed adventure game I don’t get frustrated. I have faith the thing I’m missing is out there, somewhere, and the designer has pointed me at it, if only I can see the sign.

(It’s possible, of course, to lose faith in this process, but Outer Wilds didn’t do that, at least not directly.)

I completed Outer Wilds over the course of five play sessions. Three quite long ones, then one short one to wrap up the story, then one even shorter one to try out a few weird things I thought could get responses. (And did! Much to my delight!) The second of these sessions was actually pretty awful as a gameplay experience. It was seven hours long, and during that time I did not discover anything at all. I didn’t make any progress. The state of my game knowledge at the end of that seven hours was the same as at the start of it. I eventually did think my way through one of my barriers, but the thing I found on the other side also didn’t advance my knowledge of the world at all, so it didn’t feel rewarding.

So I shut the game off that night and spent some time laying in bed thinking about the comparisons I’m about to make.

An adventure game is, in the most abstract, a set of doors you have to unlock. There’s a big door at the end which completes the game, and it’s locked, and the path between your starting location and the big end door is frought with smaller doors with smaller locks. The various subgenres of adventure game differentiate themselves by changing the actual shape and configuration of these doors and locks.

At one extreme you have something like Monkey Island. The doors and locks in this style of game (which sits outside of the general concept of Mystlikes, but is still useful for illustration) are linear and tangible. You can’t open Door A without finding the corresponding Key A, and you can’t reach Door B without first going through Door A. You advance in this game by using the correct object from your inventory on the correct object in the game world. The puzzles usually “make sense” in terms of Monkey Island being a comedy story, which is to say, they kind of suck from a logical real-world interaction point of view. When you get stuck the game is often reduced to just trying every inventory item on every game object. The game tries to prevent this by giving you a lot of inventory objects, but there are never so many of them that this method becomes impossible; the possibility space is never bigger than maybe 30 things. This is boring and stupid but it eventually does work, just by pure chance, and you make progress.

Monkey Island: getting unstuck is BORING but making progress is GUARANTEED.

As you might expect, Outer Wilds is at the opposite end of this spectrum of “how do I get unstuck” and “does getting unstuck help me progress” from Monkey Island, but let’s look at two more data points along the way.

The next step is something like RHEM. The doors and locks in RHEM are usually very literal; they are physical doors locked by physical objects, and you have to move those physical objects in some manner in order to remove the door. There is no physical inventory in RHEM (at least, not in the first game), but you still do collect “keys” for the locks you encounter. Many of the physical locks involve entering combinations, and you learn what the combinations are by finding diagrams or working machines elsewhere in the game world. Once you figure out the proper way to use a machine and you write down what it tells you, identifying the corresponding lock and entering the combination is often trivial. The keys, therefore, are often intangible. If you have good notes from a previous playthrough of RHEM, you can skip a lot of the game because a lot of those “keys” are already “collected”. You can’t skip all of it, though, because there are still actual physical doors, and their movement changes what you can do and where you can go. Getting unstuck in RHEM involves trying every physical combination of pieces you can reach and making sure you see them from all angles. You’re working with the knowledge of where you’re stuck, though, so you have a generally good idea of where you should be applying your efforts. Like Monkey Island, though, getting unstuck always involves moving forward, because it means you can reach a new area, or you’ve gained some new knowledge you can now apply elsewhere, or both.

RHEM: getting unstuck is REASONABLE and making progress is GUARANTEED.

The original Myst would be the next step along this line. Myst has many puzzles but very few of them involve physical motion; they’re almost all knowledge-based doors and locks. The possibility space is too enormous to experiment with, here. Two of the first puzzles in the game involve picking three individual star charts out of a library of millions, or playing the proper sequence of notes on a 36-key piano. Like RHEM, opening any door is trivial once you know how to unlock it. Unlike RHEM, actually reaching a given door is also trivial, since the only things in your way are other doors you’ve already trivially opened. Famously, the big last door in Myst is reachable from the beginning of the game, and you can complete the whole adventure in minutes if you know precisely what to do. Which you will, after a single playthrough. The puzzle areas of Myst are also small and self-contained. Getting unstuck involves interacting with things in that specific area until you figure out what they’re doing and what that means for you. Once you know that, you’re off and running again to the next thing.

Myst: getting unstuck is QUITE REASONABLE and making progress is GUARANTEED.

And now we land at Outer Wilds. By necessity, the game is every bit as open as Myst is. Every inch of the game world has to be reachable inside of just a minute or two, because of the 22-minute cycle that drives the game’s central conflict. There’s no inventory and only two examples of what I’d call a physical lock. If you have your notes from the previous run you can not only go win right away, you can do anything in the game right away. Also, you don’t even have to take the notes yourself; your spaceship does that for you. These notes end up being the keys you collect. Bits of crucial information are scattered across the solar system, and as you begin compiling them, knowledge about how to find new areas or traverse certain obstacles is gained. Once you know how to reach the ocean planet’s core you can travel there whenever you want, but you’ll (probably) never figure it out without helpful clues from elsewhere in the system, several of which are themselves locked behind other knowledge keys from elsewhere.

This ends up being the gameplay loop of Outer Wilds: go explore some new place, stack up all the clues now available to you, sift through the ones that seem to point to other places, go get the clues from there, and then repeat this process until you have the small handful of clues which enable you go open the big door at the end. (Which, again, is something you can do from power on, if you know the exact sequence of actions.)

In my first play session this went really smoothly. There are so many “easy” places to explore that you will spend many hours just stacking up clues and chasing down leads and generally blowing through locks and doors without thinking much about it. At first it seems like there are a dizzying amount of loose story threads, but as you work these start to connect to each other and dwindle down to a single common goal.

The problem with having an “inventory” made up of intangible clues became apparent during my second play session, that gross one in the middle where I batted the game around for seven hours without getting anywhere. See, physically reaching and reading a clue is one way to get through a door in Outer Wilds, but another way is to reach the door first and then experiment with ways to open it. Sometimes the door yeilds and you have an amazing moment of discovery. Sometimes the door remains steadfast and you decide to revisit it later, when you’re really stuck in all directions. I had unlocked many doors without finding their keys, but those keys were still out there, often hidden behind other doors I hadn’t unlocked yet.

When you’re stuck in Outer Wilds, it often can help to continue experimenting with whatever you’re stuck with. But it’s just as likely that you won’t grok the solution without finding the key. There’s no strong correlation between where you find a key and where you find the door it unlocks, either; the nature of the game involves clues being left in every corner of All Over The Lovin’ Place. And when you do get stuck, and push against all the locked doors you have left, it becomes increasingly likely that the key you find inside unlocks a door you’e already opened.

Outer Wilds: getting unstuck is ESSENTIALLY UP TO CHANCE and making progress is NOT GUARANTEED.

This happened to me with the anglerfish.

I visited Anglertown before I had seen any of the clues that related to how to get through it. Of course, on my first visit, I got eaten. But I had work to do there, so I flew directly back, and this time I decided to look for clues on the anglerfish themselves. They have big glowy dingle-dangles, and enormous fanged maws, and cold dead eyes. You can actually get a pretty good look at them, since they’re larger than your ship and don’t aggro right away, even when you’re close. Since proximity didn’t trigger getting eaten, and it appeared that they were blind as well, the only other thing that made sense was sound. The only sound you can really make in this game is by blasting your thrusters. I tested this out by pointing my ship directly at an angler’s face while far away, firing slightly, then drifting toward it. The thing didn’t aggro until I’d literally bumped into its butt, and it immediately spun around and ate me, but this time I had a solid idea: if you knew where you were going you could just drift toward your destination without alarming any nearby fish. This got me to where I needed to be, but it felt like a kind of kludge-y solution. It felt like the kind of gameplay you might cobble together when you don’t know the real solution. There was one location in Anglertown I hadn’t reached yet, and it didn’t seem possible to reach it without using my thrusters near a fish, so I reasoned that I had stumbled upon about half of the solution and that I’d come back later once I learned the rest.

In a city elsewhere in the game, some NPCs left a helpful note about Anglertown. As children, in another part of the solar system entirely, they used to play on a huge dead anglerfish skeleton, and they thought the rules of the game they used to play could help them reach the Anglertown location I was trying to get to. So now I had a lead: go back to that area and find the skeleton. The skeleton is in another NPC town and reaching it involved actually learning the layout of the town (which was a non-trivial task!), solving a minor puzzle, then traversing some platforming challenges in a dark maze on a time limit. It took three tries to reach the skeleton (see “bad controls”, above), and when I finally did I learned…

…that anglerfish are blind.

Which I’d already intuited.

The actual solution I was “missing” is that the physics in Anglertown just so happen to “always work out” so you drift past the main gauntlet of them in the final area without firing any thrusters. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does, and if your destination in that area were somewhere else, or if the anglers had a different starting configuration, it wouldn’t work at all. So that’s lucky! Once I did it correctly the first time I realized the skeleton clues were saying a little more than just “lol they blind tho”, but decided I still didn’t like the solution because drifting slowly through a large area is dull. (And there’s even a reason this portion of the game needs to be time-consuming, which made sense in retrospect, which also didn’t improve my opinion of the solution.)

There were other areas in the game where I invested a great deal of time and elbow grease just to happen upon a piece of choice info I’d already figured out. As a matter of fact, as the game’s various plot threads and daisy chains begin converging, there seems to be maybe three or four Really Big Clues you need. One of these is a Myst-style combination that unlocks the big door at the end. Another is an incredibly specific clue I imagine completely defies intuition, but the possibility space around the door that clue unlocks is… well, not small but small enough that I could have stumbled upon the rules after an hour or two of playing with them. (And I spent longer than “an hour or two” reaching the Really Big Clue in question.)

The other Really Big Clues were things I figured out by experimenting with the game, sometimes quite early on. The doors that held the clues to these last few things were harder to get through than the doors the Really Big Clues opened, which meant I spent a lot of the second half of my time working on things that… ended up not mattering. So they didn’t feel good to discover, and didn’t help me progress.

This has an effect on the state of euophoria I mentioned. When you take down a tough puzzle in Monkey Island, it’s usually because you brute forced it, but it feels good because you immediately get some funny dialogue and then you progress on to the next thing. In Myst and RHEM the tough puzzles all open new areas, or reveal new information you can’t progress without. That doesn’t always happen in Outer Wilds. Sometimes I cracked a tough puzzle only to keep standing still. The list of stuff I could work on now was the same as the list of stuff I already had, minus the thing I’d just cracked.

I think there’s a lot of merit to this style of information-only progress gating, without constantly falling back on the old standby of writing down combinations to punch into button pads. (Although, there are a few locked one-way doors in Outer Wilds I kind of wish just gave me a combination to open them from the outside, the first time I reached them.) If there are other games like this, I imagine they have the same issue. And it’s a large issue. I mean, no matter how much I praise this game, or how much I enjoyed all the other parts of it — including all the parts outside the scope of this article — there’s a seven-hour black hole in the middle of it where I didn’t learn anything and wasn’t able to apply what I already knew.

It’s the first adventure game I can remember with well-designed puzzles where I did not enjoy getting unstuck. If nothing else, it was a new sensation for me.

I think I may have one more spoileriffic Outer Wilds post in me, where I break down how effective the story was, but we’ll wait and see if Next Week Brickroad wants to write it.

Thank you for reading!

1 comment to Outer Wilds: Thoughts, Spoilers, and Unfair Comparisons

  • Drathnoxis

    I love Outer Wilds! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I never really got very stuck in the game, though, and I never looked at the ship notes. Guess I just got lucky. Angler town does kind of suck though. I have a story I want to share about my final run through the game, but I think I’ll wait until your next post about the story to do it.

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