If you were to ask me my favorites of most broad categories, I wouldn’t give you an answer. Favorite movie, favorite food, favorite book, and so on will all get the same answer from me: I don’t have one. And that is the truth. I do have favorites with specific categories (my favorite caramel chocolate is made by Ghirardelli and my favorite film of 2021 so far is Pig, for example), but trying to have a favorite in a broad category is a bit daunting. With how much I have yet to experience, how could I possibly have a favorite movie, for example, if another movie I like even more is just on my viewing horizon? Plus, I’m a pretty indecisive person and I think having favorites can lead to favoritism (shocking, I know), so I mostly steer clear from favorites especially with video games for the sake of my writing “career.”
My feelings on favoritism changed a bit, however, when I first played Outer Wilds just one year prior. There are so few experiences I’ve had with video games that’s as powerful and passionate as the experience I had with that game. I still wouldn’t say it was my favorite game, but it would be the first game I recommend to people and the first game on my mind whenever I thought about favorites. Over the year, I started to question my ride-or-die loyalty to the game. No matter what, I still thought it was a great game, but was it as great as I remember? Given the nature of this game, it’s hard to go back and have the same experience the second time around, so I couldn’t really put it to the test. Recently, Outer Wilds developers Mobius Digital released DLC for the game called Echoes of the Eye, and I recently just got done playing through it. Now I cannot deny it anymore. This may not look great for my writing, and I am of course willing to change this answer if the situation arises, but Outer Wilds is my favorite video game, full stop.
Before I get into it, I would recommend checking out the blog I put out on the main game a year ago. Also, for those who haven’t played the expansion or the game as a whole, I ask that you do not read this. I would love to tell you why you should play this game more than anything else right now, but part of what makes this game so special is going into it blind. So if you do want to read this piece, I would recommend playing through the main in its entirety, reading my first blog on the game, then play through the DLC in its entirety, then give this blog a gander. If you already have played the main game but haven’t touched the DLC yet, I would recommend going straight to the DLC (don’t restart the game) then coming back here. With my paragraph-long spoiler warning out of the way, let’s get into it.
More than just play the DLC, I wanted to explore this game again. I wanted to see if my thoughts on this game held up and dive back into the main game a bit for a refresher. It wasn’t that long ago that I played Deathloop, and I think comparing and contrasting the two games with a fresh Outer Wilds experience would be interesting. Also, I wanted to see if this DLC would fit in nicely with the rest of the game or if it would stick out like a sore thumb. So, I decided to start a new save and play from the beginning.
Straight off the bat, I was nervous jumping back in. What if I didn’t like it the second time around? What if I remember too much to have any fun with it? It’s been a year, but I did watch bits and pieces of a friend play the game more recently, and even if I didn’t watch my friend play I think instinct would kick in with going through the motions a second time around. I then thought about this nervousness in regards to favoritism. Why would I be nervous about replaying a game? Well, I don’t want to rupture the incredible experience I had with the game the first time around. While I could see myself feeling this way about a couple other games, I think being nervous about something like this isn’t right. I like the fact that I’m nervous about a game in this way because it shows that I really love it, but I think it also shows favoritism. I also think this nervousness comes from the way I’ve talked up the game. I have whole-heartedly recommended this game to people, but will they like it as much as me?
This thought about favoritism led me to my thoughts on the other two time loop games I’ve played this year: Deathloop and Twelve Minutes. Was I unfairly reviewing these titles because of my favoritism with this game? For Twelve Minutes, I don’t think so because that game is too stiff and its story, while engaging and with good acting, is a bit lacking compared to Outer Wilds and Deathloop, so I don’t think the bias from favoritism quite hits this game. Deathloop could prove to be a different answer. To be clear, I still love Deathloop, so this isn’t a case of me consciously or subconsciously hating the game for the sake of keeping Outer Wilds on a pedestal, but rather if I was unfair with my assessment of the game (specifically its time looping systems) compared to Outer Wilds.
The big complaint in my Deathloop review is that it's too hand-holding, which detracts from its investigative gameplay as well as hurts the storytelling by not requiring me to take part in it. I even referenced Outer Wilds as a counterpoint to this lack of obscurity in the review. I still believe in this point for Deathloop, but has favoritism blinded me of a similar complaint in this game? In Deathloop, the game will give a waypoint that says what to do and where to go. As a result, I would just skim through documents until I found the one that the game says is the right one and follow the waypoint telling me what’s next. As I started to dive back into Outer Wilds, I found some of that to be here as well. Writings can be skimmed until the game says that your rumor log has been updated, rumor clues can be used to solve the puzzles rather than the story, and waypoints can be placed to specific locations.
While I felt a bit defeated by this revelation (again, showing favoritism) because I did use this game as an example of how to do it right when in reality it has some of the same issues, I found that the ways this game implements these mechanics versus the way Deathloop implements them are different in a way that I believe mitigates these issues for Outer Wilds. Sure, you can technically skim the story, but you are going to be missing out on a lot of context, and this game is mostly about discovering the secrets of the universe (or rather, the Eye of the Universe) rather than trying to escape. Plus, there are a ton of great reveals with the story, and while the same can be said for Deathloop, I found the reveals in this game to be much more noteworthy because they give greater context to the universe and the environment I’m exploring whereas a lot of the reveals in Deathloop are about the characters I’m trying to kill. Waypoints can only be added in Outer Wilds to places already visited, not places that have yet to be discovered, and at no point does this game ever pop up a message saying what to do. Of course there are hints to help you out, and a lot of these hints are actually cool because they teach you how to use the environment or your tools in a new way, but at no point will you see an objective indicator in the top corner of the screen. Finally, while you can just rely on rumor logs to solve everything, the rumor log can only be viewed on the ship, so unless you want to go back and forth each time you solve something new, it would be best to fully read messages and clues if they can help solve another puzzle in the same area. More than anything else, I think Outer Wilds is about using the time loop to learn more about the universe whereas Deathloop is about trying to set up a perfect day of killing, and while Outer Wilds can be victim of the same issues I had with Deathloop, I think trying to shortcut this experience can prove disadvantageous gameplay and story-wise.
Even as I wrote that last paragraph, I could see my favoritism show. I think the points are valid, but I also feel this need to defend the game from the criticisms I applied to another game of similar nature. At the same time, I’ve done this type of defense before for other games and none of those times I did it for favoritism-sake, instead doing it for clarity and for keeping consistency. I think at the end of the day, I always feared favoritism and still do to a certain degree, but through this experience I learned that it will only affect a very short list of other games, and even then I believe I can work around it when those situations arise. Does this mean I’m going to start picking up favorites for a bunch of other categories? Probably not (I’m indecisive, remember?), but now I’m not as scared of the ramifications of having a favorite.
The other thought I had when first booting up this game was excitement, and hearing the main menu theme instantly reminded me of why I love this game. It’s weird to say I was hit with a wave of nostalgia for a game I only last played a year ago, but being in that world still hit like a childhood nostalgia but without any of the negatives. The woodsy-meets-space adventure setting reminded me of the days I visited California Adventure as a kid. This mix also applies to the music that provides a sense of coziness as well as longing for exploration and memories of old. I walked around Timber Hearth again, and I felt its hominess despite never visiting it again after entering the loop even though I always start right next to it. The zero-gravity cave still shows the game’s brilliant hands-off approach to its tutorial (as well as the hands-off approach of the game as a whole), which also got me thinking about other brilliant aspects of the game like how advancement comes with knowledge rather than new equipment or upgrades. I re-entered the observatory and choked up a little bit hearing the music play again as I walked around its museum-like ground floor, wishing for a memory wipe of this game just so I could experience it for the first time again. I got a little bit of that relief when I noticed the small new DLC addition to the observatory, but otherwise I spent my sweet, sweet time walking around and thinking about the first time I played the game. I have returned to nostalgic games before, but never have I felt the way I felt when revisiting Timber Hearth; and even with all of my thoughts on favoritism, how could I not consider this game my favorite when I miss being in it by just a year (not counting listening to the soundtrack)?
Unfortunately, the next bits I experienced were expected. Since time loop games (at least the ones I’ve played) are pretty much investigation games about solving the secrets of the loop and figuring out how to navigate or beat it, they don’t really have any replayability. Unless the game adds new content or you wait a really long time for most memories of playing the game to fade, it’s very difficult to revisit a time loop game and have an equal experience with the same content a second time around. I do not criticize any time loop game for lack of replayability both because it is the result of its form of storytelling rather than a game decision and because I don’t think every game needs to be replayable. Outer Wilds is no exception. It’s only been a year since I last played, and I also watched a friend play through bits and pieces of it, so my memory of this game going in a second time was fresh enough to still remember at least some of its story beats, puzzle solutions, and noteworthy moments. So while it is unfortunate to not be able to fully experience its jaw-dropping moments a second time around, it wasn’t anything I didn’t expect. But that doesn’t mean nothing was new to me.
The first time around, I remember solving the puzzles more naturally (finding Feldspar, Orbital Probe Cannon, Ash Twin Project, The Vessel, Quantum Moon). This time around, I wanted to try something different, so I skipped straight to Quantum Moon to see if order matters. While trying to solve Quantum Moon again, I learned a few things. First is that I don’t remember every little story detail and puzzle solution, so re-learning some of that stuff was great both as a story refresher and because it allowed me to stay in the game just a little bit longer. I also learned that while starting a different line like Quantum Moon is certainly doable, it isn’t the best course of action. I think the path I originally took is the best way to play, and I found my new start a bit frustrating. After completing Quantum Moon, I decided to skip straight to the end of Ash Twin and Orbital Probe Cannon (I still remembered exactly how to do them, so I didn’t feel the need to go through the entirety of their rumor lines again), but if I didn’t have a new piece of DLC to play, then I could see myself diving back and filling out the rumor log just for the sake of it.
Along the way, I did pick up some new things (or at least things I forgot). I saw of a couple of neat new moments like watching a huge chunk of Brittle Hollow fall into the black hole (I only ever really saw small pieces before hand), and I picked up a couple of small puzzle solutions and story bits. I also found a scout launcher on Timber Hearth for the first time (it’s the one where you control the position of the cannon and the scout doesn’t leave orbit), but I didn’t get much out of it other than novelty. Either way, most of the “new” stuff for me was mostly novel, so after quickly wrapping up Ash Twin, I decided to pursue the DLC. I “accidentally” stumbled upon the DLC start (which is in the form of a radio tower) while flying around Timber Hearth only to realize the true start was in the observatory with the new addition to it. Either way, I dove right in.
While Outer Wilds did have a few moments of spooky atmosphere, I would by no means call it a horror game. When I first booted this game up after buying the DLC and reinstalling it, however, I was presented an option to turn on or off “reduced frights.” I decided not to touch the setting (which meant full frights for me I guess) and moved on. A friend of mine watched me play through the main game a year prior, so I invited him back and the two of us started up our newest journey in the Outer Wilds. After quickly solving the puzzle in the radio tower, we ended up in space next to a satellite when we first saw it: a giant circular shadow pass by the sun. Upon entering the strange shadow circle, we were greeted with a grand entrance to what appeared to be a giant spaceship. We entered, went to a door, discovered the importance of light with going through the door, found another light-based puzzle (which with retrospect was just a boat that didn’t need to be solved), and started this journey.
I didn’t know what to expect when I interacted with the cog-wheel trigger, but releasing the platform wasn’t one of them. What I expected even less was what came right after: an introduction to this ring-like world. Seeing this massive structure and the land stretch all around me was jaw-dropping, and I started talking excitedly with my friend like a little kid at Disneyland for the first time. All of my previous thoughts about revisiting this game, about favoritism, about the fear of it not living up to my own expectations immediately washed away, and I was fully entranced by this dazzling new world and what it could offer. We quickly learned about the river and the boats (which is a super neat way of traversing around the planet), and found a stop near some buildings to explore. Where Timber Hearth reminds me of California Adventure, this new world reminds me of the Norway section at Epcot with its architecture. About halfway through checking out whatever area I was in, I heard and saw a dam break, and watching that huge tidal wave wipe out the land and structures was also jaw-dropping. All it took was some new, untranslatable text to get me excited about who I was dealing with this time around. In other words, I was right back into Outer Wilds.
What followed was an experience that I wouldn’t even describe as DLC. If it weren’t for the structure of this game, I could easily see Echoes of the Eye being a separate game or at least standalone DLC. There is so much to be done here to a point that it sort of answers a question I had about this experience going in: how well would it fit in the game? It didn’t take long for me to figure out that while it fits in nice inside of the solar system, it also shows that it’s clearly DLC by having all of its rumor line contained to one spot while also being a lot larger, denser, and longer than any time spent on any other planet. It takes all of the great elements of Outer Wilds (metroidvania puzzle solving, jaw-dropping moments, exploration, non-linear storytelling, etc.) improves upon it, and packs all of it into a bottle the size of a planet called The Stranger.
Before I can go any further, I have to talk about the dream world. Alongside this massive ring world is this strange dream world, which is darker and swampier (again, using the theme park references, this is like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride). There are a couple of dream world levels connected by a river, and the truth behind this dream world reveals itself as the game progresses. Not only that, but the way this game plays around with this alternate world elevates the puzzles above simple light puzzles in a way that made each major puzzle solution feel like an incredible discovery.
Echoes of the Eye still follows the same ideals of puzzle-solving as the main game did by having none of the puzzle-solving tools or levels locked behind upgrades or items that can’t be picked up immediately. How this improves upon that formula is staggering. For starters, the dam doesn’t break for nothing, as its large tidal wave will drastically alter the level, opening and closing parts of the map. This meant we had to keep track of the pre and post dam break, and having that time crunch as well as learning the ways around it made puzzles more interesting. Where the puzzles really shine, however, is with the dream world. As the game progresses, it reveals the connections between the dream and real world, and every new discovery of those connections felt like an aha moment on the same levels of discovering large story beats in the main game. As we dove deeper into the dream world, the game began to reveal glitches to exploit. The final puzzle in the DLC is its best, as the game misleads you into thinking three codes will solve the final puzzle throughout the entire game, but in reality it’s a utilization of the glitches learned that solves it. On top of all this, this planet is structured in a way where the ship cannot enter the area, which means separation from the rumor log (unless you want to do some serious back-tracking), and I enjoyed that further level of separation for storytelling and puzzle-solving purposes. Whether the puzzle was as big as the final one or as small as learning that blowing out candles in the dream world affects the lights in the real world, every puzzle solution made me giddy with delight, both out of an appreciation of the puzzle design as well as the simple feeling of accomplishment for completing it.
Also going along with the theme of this dream world is its creepiness factor, because now there definitely is one. This new species who created and inhabited The Stranger are owl-like creatures, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that they prefer the darkness. This is especially true in the dream world where some of them roam around. Unlike other interactions with real beings, these guys aren’t so friendly, and they will chase you around no different than being chased around in a horror game. In this game, they’ll just send you back to the real world, but trying to sneak around them in the darkness is no less scary. Even outside of that, however, there are a few things I found creepy with this world. These owl-like creatures have some creepy faces when they want to look creepy, and the burned out images on the slide reels both look and sound uncomfortable in a way that I was expecting some pop-out scare on the next unburnt slide. I still wouldn’t say this is full-blown horror as I did eventually get comfortable with these environments, but there is definitely still something there.
Through its creepy levels and puzzles, there is, of course, the story that brings it all together. Just like the main game, the story is learned piecemeal. Where I think this story is better is that since this entire DLC is built for this one story about this new species, it has more room to breathe. Instead of text, the story is revealed through visual slides, though all of them have burnt slides where the juicy details are. It’s a brilliant way of setting up part of the story as well as giving out a clue to a puzzle while obscuring just enough of it to keep you interested in solving it. As the story progresses, learning about this group becomes more and more tragic, and their role in the overall story reveals itself. This story also plays upon the themes of the main game as well as adds a couple of new ones. The inevitability of death, blind ambition, inevitability, and an acceptance that the world doesn’t revolve around you can all be seen here. On top of those themes, this DLC looks at the fear of death, the dark places and things people will do out of the fear of the inevitable, and the toll of blindly following something with no regard to your current surroundings. The one small issue I had with this DLC is that I wish it had a bit more of a conclusive ending even though it doesn’t represent the end of the whole story. Also, a restart button would be nice, but they are both very minor things for me. More than anything else, though, what I love about this story is that it doesn’t just spoon-feed plot points and answers, and I love it when a story treats me with maturity by allowing me to figure out the parts that aren’t said.
Throughout all of this, a friend joined me on this journey. Normally, I wouldn’t mind if a friend watches me play a game or not, but I actually found his presence valuable to the experience. As each puzzle presented itself, we would throw ideas off each other, and each story reveal had us theorizing about what it meant and what’s to come. Plus, experiencing some of the game’s jaw-dropping moments together is simply just better with a friend than alone. Outer Wilds is one of a very short list of games I would recommend playing with someone who just wants to watch.
After a few days of playing it, The Stranger was completed. I went from worrying about it living up to my expectations to falling in love with the game even more. I had more nights of thinking about the story and more days of waiting to jump back in with my friend, and throughout all of it I had a profound appreciation for its level and puzzle design while also being left in awe and feeling like a genius.
Earlier, I talked about how experiencing parts of this game weren’t as great the second time around, but there is one exception: the ending. With a new member to the choir that appears at the end, my friend and I gathered around that campfire one last time and watched their harmonious music-making create a sphere that ended the universe. Watching this final moment made me choke up because of the finality and beauty of both the ending and my time with the game. Much like how everything comes to an end in the game, my time has come to an end with Outer Wilds (at least for a long, long time anyways). Is this game perfect? No, because no game is perfect. But with how much I’ve gotten out of this experience, I cannot deny anymore that this is my favorite game. Thank you Outer Wilds for all the great experiences and for offering something unique in an industry whose marquee releases have grown stale. And thanks to Echoes of the Eye for building and improving upon the main game as well as simply just offering more to explore. The next bag of marshmallows is on me.