AND THE DEFINITIVE 2019 GAME OF THE YEAR ACCORDING TO ME GOES TO....
I'm scared to write anything about this game. Scared that I won't do the game justice or that I just won't be able to stop and the whole thing will be an incoherent mess. There was a lot of praise for Outer Wilds floating around the internet, especially as it got closer to the end of the year and many sites were beginning to compile their "best of 2019" lists. At the beginning of December I decided to dig into it before I got spoiled on too much because the one thing I kept hearing about the game is that it was best experienced fresh.
I put a few hours into it, here and there over about a week and while definitely intrigued by what it was doing I found myself distracted by other things. I thought "this is really good, but I don't think it's grabbing me the same way it has others" and I put it down for a couple of weeks. During my time away from it I found the game still occasionally entering my thoughts, something was drawing me to it. After returning I couldn't be happier that I decided to push past some of the game mechanics that were initially giving me pause because finishing the game gave me not only the best gaming experience I had in 2019, but one of the best I've ever had. Outer Wilds is one of the best games I have ever played.
So, that might read like hyperbole, and it feels almost silly to type it, or to say it out loud as I have to friends in conversation. I think it's true though. I love video games, and play as many of them as I can, but there haven't been many that have occupied my brain the way Outer Wilds has, even long after finishing it. As I'm typing I'm trying to figure out how much of the game I should talk about because the thing I heard was true, the game is best experienced if you haven't had anything spoiled yet. So, go watch a trailer for it, and if at any point during that, or while reading this you feel the game may interest you, just go play it.
Outer Wilds is a game about exploration. You have a spaceship and can travel freely around a small solar system and learn things about said solar system. In typical sci-fi fashion there was an ancient alien race that left technology behind which you can use and study. Examining the alien ruins and devices reveals a mystery about the solar system and things that have happened/are happening/will happen in it/to it. There is not much of an inventory and no levelling up of your character, the only thing you gain as you explore the various planets is knowledge. Gaining knowledge of the ancient aliens, what happened to them and the nature of your surroundings is how you progress. The game starts you off with little direction, only hints of where to go or what to do which is a concept I struggled with at first. But I forced myself to explore, and learn, and as I did my skills developed. The solar system in Outer Wilds is a challenging place to explore, especially early on. Your ship obeys basic physics laws like momentum, which can make flying and landing a challenge at first. Your spacesuit only holds a limited amount of oxygen, the same goes for your its thruster fuel and you'll have to manage both to survive. Normally survival mechanics like that would push me away from a game but they never felt very punishing in Outer Wilds, especially as I became more efficient at exploring. After a short time in the game, flying, landing and spacewalks became second nature, so if you're struggling with those I implore you to press on.
Now, a lot of games take place in space. Like a lot. It's not a new thing. Outer Wilds might be the only one I've played though, aside from maybe No Man's Sky, that gave me a sense of awe while exploring space. The scale and physics are exaggerated, the planets are tiny and it takes very little time to travel between them but the clockwork way that everything moves is both mesmerising and terrifying. Nothing stands still in Outer Wilds, the game world is not a static thing that waits for the player to interact with it. Planets rotate about their axes and fly around the sun at alarming speeds, massive storms shift around floating islands, a comet hurtles through the system and gravity enacts its force on you as you explore. It's one of the few games that has given me the sense of a living, breathing world even though the art style, while beautiful, is cartoony. It also has some fun uses of concepts like quantum physics, which make me want to dig out that book I bought years ago but never read. Where is that anyway?
Even though exploring the solar system can be challenging I was propelled by the story. In all of the sci-fi stories that have some sort of ancient alien race I've never found myself caring about that race. However, messages you find on walls written hundreds of thousands of years before your character was born let you get to know the people that wrote them, their relationships, their fears, and hopes. What is revealed is a sad, yet hopeful story of a race of explorers and scientists that came so close to finding the thing they had searched for their entire lives, but failed and were wiped out. I won't spoil any more of it but suffice it to say I loved the story and it led to one of the most satisfying endings I've seen in a game. I expected to enjoy Outer Wilds from a gameplay and exploration aspect, I did not expect it to affect me emotionally in the ways it did. (I'm listening to the game's soundtrack as I write this, which is excellent by the way, and it's making me feel things.) Outer Wilds made me think about death, loss, grief and failure in an almost hopeful way. Maybe one day this will all end, but that doesn't mean we can't continue to try to better ourselves along the way.