What’s the difference between finding something and discovering something? On the surface “find” and “discover” are synonyms of each other, almost interchangeable within different contexts but if there’s anything my degrees have taught me it’s that the English language is full of stupid bullshit so I’m going to tell you that I think there’s a fundamental difference between the two of them.
It’s a difference I think gets lost on a lot of game developers as they attempt to convince you that you’ve discovered something when you’ve merely found it. Okay, enough of all the babbling and rambling: I think to discover something holds within it an element of revelation; something that makes you think about your perceived world in totally new and original context whereas finding something…well, it’s merely determining the location of something. A lot of games want you to feel like you’re discovering something when you’re merely just arriving at a location that has some arbitrary collection of stuff. On the other hand, Outer Wilds handles this difference with such an understanding of what it means to discover that it might just be the best game you’ll play all year.
I’m not going to talk about the story of the game, largely because it’s difficult. To both explain and summarise in a way that does justice to a narrative that deals with issues of colonisation, civilisation, fate and the existential dread only understandable by those aware of the ever-present and constantly escaping notion of time. An element of narrative intrinsically woven into Outer Wild’s gameplay because at its core there’s only one thing challenging you, the player, as you explore your little solar system: Time. See, Outer Wilds is built around a time loop.
Whenever you die, you wake up back at the place your journey started but it’s not a simple respawn. You retain all the knowledge you’ve learnt, remember all the conversations you’ve had and the places you’ve seen but everything is reset. If you survive long enough, the sun explodes and wipes out everything, sending you back to the start of your journey anyway. Your job is to figure out…everything. Why is the sun going supernova so suddenly? What’s causing this time loop? How is my spaceship able to exist in space when it’s seemingly made out of wood?
I’ll admit, that last one was imposed by me, not the game.
Given your spacecraft in the first few minutes of the game, Outer Wilds sets you free into the wasteland of space and explore the orbiting planets in whatever fashion you want. You’ll touch down, maybe pick up a strange signal and track it down. Or just ignore it and follow that bright blue beam shining into the sky. While having a very simple mechanical bases, Outer Wilds is intent on letting you explore and, back to the intro, discover. Walking around the planets and translating languages of ancient races long since dead always feels important because of what it does for the universe.
Every bit of text, every abandoned vehicle or strange door gives your hints as to what exactly is going in your little slice of galaxy. With so many discoverable threads, it’s a wonder that Outer Wilds so deftly ties them all together into a narrative that not only makes every revelation engaging but consistently keeps you poking for more. That’s the sign of exploration done well, I think. Not a feeling of satisfaction in finding something, but the feeling of excitement you get when you want to look even deeper.
Elephant in the shuttle, I admit that we’re late on this one. Outer Wilds initially came out towards the beginning of this year but we thought we’d check it on PS4, considering it recently made its debut on the console just last week. While Outer Wilds has consistently impressed me with nearly every facet of its design and aesthetic thus far, I can’t help but be slightly disappointed with its performance on the PlayStation. I can’t speak to the other systems, but I encountered numerous graphical hitches and drops in performance even during events that weren’t graphically intense or complicated. While certainly not unplayable, it draws one out of what is meant to be such a wholly immersive experience when you have to pause for a second to wait for the frame rate to catch up with you. Performance aside, I also encountered a few bugs that forced me to quit out to the main menu; stuff like getting stuck in-between rocks or falling through a planet (that wasn’t the elusive Quantum Moon) that put a damper on the experience as a whole.
Those technical aspects aside, Outer Wilds is a monumental game. A plucky exploration of space and time in a manner that’s seemingly rooted in some very realistic science (don’t quote me on that, ya’ll don’t even KNOW about my science marks in school), it’s a game that sets its sights on truly evoking what it means to become lost in a world and the stories of the people that inhabit it. I haven’t been sucked into a game like this in a very long time; Outer Wilds is the sort of game that demands to be played but not in a way that begs for attention like so many big-budget releases. It’s confident that what it offers is something totally unique and special and you can almost feel it getting excited with you as you piece together the narrative it’s so proudly built for you.
Last Updated: October 24, 2019