Expectations are a hell of a thing. As I sit here, the day after finishing Outer Wilds, trying to wrap my head around the game, and my thoughts, I just keep going back to one thing: How did everything I've read and heard about the game in the months between its initial release (only on PC and Xbox One) and my actually playing it impact my time with it? Did it really have that big of an impact, or would my feelings as the credits rolled have been the same either way?
It's one of those things that doesn't really matter, but once it sneaks into my brain, it's in there. Either way, I'm going to guess that you follow the opinions of professional video game players and talk-about-ers like I do, thus you know how highly acclaimed this game is, and you can thus piece together where I'm going if I started this talking about expectations. Funnily enough, that's appropriate given this game, how much it's built around discovery, and piecing things together.
Anyway, I'll stop beating around the bush and get to it: I like Outer Wilds, but I don't love it. It has some fantastic moments, and the early hours especially it feels like truly anything is possible, and only the stars are the limits. That's a magical feeling that many games don't even come close to doing at all, so part of me thinks achieving it in the first place is an accomplishment. Only trouble is keeping that feeling throughout the game, and the further in I got, that feeling waned. The slower the big discoveries came, and the more I uncovered of the game's story, the less interested I became. I still had those great "aha" moments, but fewer and farther between, and the game's ending left me cold.
It's a weird game to put my thoughts into words for. Those early hours were incredible, they really were. I had a whole star system of planets and moons to explore, ruins of an ancient alien civilization to comb through, fun physics to play around with in the spaceship (plenty of gravity related mishaps that ensued), other weird gadgets, and a cool time loop premise. Every new place I landed was another mystery to unravel. How do I get into this building? What's the purpose of this structure? Does it even have a purpose in the first place, and does that help me in any way, or just flesh out the universe? How do I get past this seemingly impossible natural barrier? Can I get this one thing done before the "end of time loop" music finishes, and I have to go back to the beginning?
And almost every time I had that moment of discovery, whether it was through my own trial and error, or finding some key piece of information from a translated document, it felt great.
At least at first.
There were points where I had only half the information I needed, and it turned out to be the wrong half, which led to me banging my head against something until I got so frustrated I gave up, and went elsewhere. At least until I eventually found that other piece of information, which revealed how simple the thing I was supposed to be doing was all along.
As much as I did get a laugh and a "D'oh!" at myself in a few key moments as I had those revelations about what I'd been doing wrong, it didn't undo the frustrations I'd already had. Partly because those revelations didn't come from me having a flash of inspiration, they came from me translating something that just spelled out what to do exactly, or bumbling my way into it. Telling myself, "This is a bad idea" before doing something anyway, doing it, having the idea not work but show me how obvious the real answer was...again, laugh worthy, but didn't leave me feeling smart. I'm not saying a game needs to do that, or that my bumbling here was the game's fault, necessarily.
But it was my experience with the game, and that can't be undone. No time loop in real life. Then again, even if there was, I'd still remember the bumbling. That's what the game is, honestly. Bumbling your way through discoveries, slowly optimizing routes, and eventually getting things down. That part was enjoyable in a "this seems adjacent to what speedrunners do" kind of way. I'm curious what the record for a speedrun of this game is. I bet it's fast.
Then there's the story itself, which is probably the thing I liked the least in the game. This feels like a weird thing to say, but if I had to put my finger on the one thing I'd say is wrong with it, there's too much of it? Or rather, this is a game where the story is told both through the physical environments, but more directly through text left behind by the Nomai (ancient aliens). At first finding their texts was exciting, it was a new insight to what happened before, and I ate it all up. I stopped and read every last bit of it that I could find, ravenous for more.
But the deeper I got, the more I unearthed about what was going on, I just lost interest. Part of it was the narrative itself, especially after I developed a theory about what the ending of the game was going to be (and given the somewhat abstract ending, I think there's still reason to believe my theory wasn't wrong), but part of it was just the writing itself. This isn't something I usually critique about games, especially as a writer myself (even though no one seems to ever read my fiction stuff), because I know writing takes a lot of time and effort. But something about some (not all) of the writing style just felt off to me. Not off in an intentional way. Just... I dunno, especially when contrasted with the writing for the Hearthians (the nameless main character's people) felt good. Lots of jokes about explosions and fire.
So maybe it was intentional, trying to make the writing feel a little stilted, like it got translated (which it was). But I dunno. Part of it was definitely the weirdness between the Hearthians always using 'they/them' pronouns and then the Nomai text using 'he or she,' just odd stuff like that.
Then there's the ending itself, which... I'm not going to spoil. I even went and watched a video about the game to try to understand what happened, but I think that just made me like it even less. I'd say that maybe it was just too abstract for me, but I also found out this year that I liked the end of Evangelion (but not The End of Evangelion, that movie is trash, don't @ me), and that's certainly abstract in its ways. I need to stop myself there before this turns into a blog about Eva because literally no one wants that from this.
But I think the larger point I'm trying to get to about the story (in Outer Wilds) is I would've liked it better if instead of unsatisfying answers, it'd left me with more mysteries. The act of uncovering what was going on was so much more intriguing and fun than what I actually uncovered. As I write this, I think about some of the other games I've played this year. I think Sekiro suffered in its story for being more explicit about what was going on than the Dark Souls games, or Bloodborne. And Control, which I just recently played and wrote about, left me wondering and pondering about so much, and so excited for what's to come in that universe, whereas Outer Wilds just left me...cold.
What I'm writing here is intentionally obtuse, because as much as I was frustrated with parts of the game, as much as I didn't like the ending, and much as I do feel kinda disappointed relative to my expectations, I still think it's a great game that's worth playing. So I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't played it yet, or even tempt them by tucking it away in a spoiler zone. I'd just recommend going in telling yourself it probably won't be "one of the greatest games of all time" for you, like I've heard people say it is for them. That way you'll either avoid disappointment like me, or if you do truly fall in love with it, you might just end up loving it that much more because of lower expectations.
Unless most other people don't put so much into expectations.
But I don't want to end this on such a downer note. So instead I'll end by writing about the mood of the game, which is something I think it generally got right, throughout. The game opens by a campfire, staring up at a starry sky (never mind the neighboring planet and odd blue explosion in space), and one of the very first things presented to interact with...is roasting a marshmallow.
In this game, you have INFINITE MARSHMALLOWS.
Sure, your space suit might only hold a handful of minutes worth of oxygen, and only so much jetpack fuel, but marshmallows? It's got enough of those to last until the end of days... Which might only be twenty-two minutes from now, but hey, that's more than enough time to enjoy some nice, burned to a crisp marshmallows. Just sitting beside the fire with an old friend, letting the time drift by as that warm music plays in the background, and you ponder the universe, your place in it...
As always, thanks for reading.