Games have long focused on humanity’s aspiration to become a colonist, conqueror, or anthropologist, and they have learned to control everything beyond our own horizons.
But Outer Wilds delivers one of the most ambitious discovery stories I’ve ever seen in gaming, with no focus on violence or dominance. It is a triumph that we at Polygon honor our game of 2019.
(And to make a long story short, this article will remain spoiler-free since I want more people to find all of these fantastic discoveries themselves.)
GOTY # 1: Outer wilderness
For our Guide to 2019 the best games of the yearPolygon counted down our top 5 on each day of the week, ending with our top selection and full list of our top 50 favorites from 2019. Later in the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos and essays, and surprises!
Start with the Outer Wilds Space program
Outer Wilds is the story of a technologically primitive alien species called Hearthians, which is located on the outer edge of the known universe. The Hearthians live in a diorama-sized solar system that is easy to navigate with their simple wooden (!!) spaceships. The first generation of explorers have already searched these planets and returned with intercepted technology from the long dead Nomai, the former inhabitants of the galaxy. Now I have to make my first start as a young pilot, equipped with the first Nomai-to-Hearthian text translator to hopefully finally understand why this technologically advanced breed has died out. The mission is not about controlling someone or collecting something, but about understanding. Understand what happened and why. And maybe we’ll learn how to prevent my people from experiencing the same fate.
Surviving 22 minutes after the first start is a challenge. The solar system is loaded with deathtrap planets. Then I experience the first twist of Outer Wilds: a time loop that plays all my memories in reverse order before it wakes me up next to a campfire game. I will live in a couple of interesting, accidental, or catastrophic ways, die and repeat myself before I find out what exactly kills me at the end of each cycle.
The first death and the many, many subsequent deaths give me knowledge of the tiny solar system. There is no way to visit all of the planets in a 22-minute loop before resetting. Therefore, each run must be aimed at reaching a set goal or trying to solve a single puzzle to learn something new about the galaxy’s greater mystery.
Image: Mobius Digital / Annapurna Interactive
You are only armed with a little extra knowledge if you launch your ship into space over and over again. It could be a simple experience that teaches you an important lesson: “Don’t be so excited to get to your destination if you leave your ship without a space suit!” These mistakes are sometimes, perhaps usually, your own fault, such as the time I knew about the dangers of drawing a straight course in space. My autopilot was just too happy to follow my instructions … which brought me straight through the sun. I didn’t notice that it was between point A and point B.
There are bigger lessons too. The only way to know the fate of the nomai is to understand the navigation techniques of the galaxy’s greatest secrets. For example, Outer Wilds teaches you some of the concepts of quantum physics, and you need to apply them appropriately to solve other puzzles. Other things you should learn could be to overcome your fears of giant, monstrous animals. And it is crucial to master the shaky wooden ship. After crashing it over and over again, I made a close connection with my spaceship. Still, it was always ready to take me to my next 22-minute run.
And in this round, Outer Wilds feels like they have learned so much from other games of this decade: roguelikes, nonlinear MMOs, and even Battle Royale games have clearly influenced the design. Saying otherwise can reveal too much, which is another reason why Outer Wilds is a little frustrating to write about.
Each planet contains enough secrets to complete multiple visits, but the time loop’s limited time window precludes any sense of aimlessness. If you don’t know what you want to do, you’re running out of things to do. And that pressure increases when you find that nothing stays the same for even 22 minutes in the solar system.
If you want to sit idle during a loop, you can be rewarded by uncovering a puzzle as sand flows from one planet to another that is involved in a common orbit. Sometimes doing nothing has its own impact on the solar system, in other words. But this also means that you may have to run to a target before its status changes, making your current target impossible. It’s all connected and the loop never changes … at least not until you intervene, and the results can be unpredictable. In any case, you are never more than a few minutes from recovery, even if you cause an accident.
The story of Outer Wilds is distributed drop by drop across every planet. You can discover newer Hearthian documents – star maps, diaries – as well as flourishes of the old back and forth between the nomai scribbled on scrolls and walls. The former is obsessed with myths and legends about the latter, while the nomai chase a great, mysterious force through the galaxy. Only when I put the game mechanics, Nomai insights, and current Hearthian observations together can I really understand what’s going on, and even then Outer Wilds will keep important information until I can discover it myself.
When I learn more about everything around me, I’m exposed to some of the greatest wonders of science fiction. My stomach almost left my body the first time I fell through a black hole with trembling feet. Or when my ship was catapulted through the atmosphere by a terrible gargoyle. Or when I accidentally tinkered with the old alien technology long enough to unexpectedly get to the surface of another planet without knowing where I was or why someone wanted to travel to that place right away. So many discoveries and surprises answer my old questions as they reveal an additional layer of hidden secrets underneath.
Outer Wilds delivers so many moments that are beautiful and perfect, although I just want to point out most of them. Even when I thought I had put together the fate of the nomai or understood why I was stuck on this interstellar marmot day, Outer Wilds still hadn’t shown me all of its secrets. Not only did my jaw drop while playing Outer Wilds – in some sections I felt like it just stayed on the floor permanently.
Image: Mobius Digital / Annapurna Interactive via polygon
The game’s coda builds on all of your discoveries, making this journey a harrowing journey, followed by an haunting masterpiece of an end. I watched it again on YouTube before I sat down to write it, and I’m not ashamed to say that I cried a second time. But don’t bother to see the end before you play the game yourself. The journey is more than the destination and gives so much more weight to the resolution of the story.
The latest revelations from Outer Wilds have left a trail that stays in my soul much longer than any discussion about the game of the year that attracts me every time I hear their simple, gripping themed music. In fact, I could play again and start over while sitting next to this fire and ready to go into space for the first time. The game would of course be the same; It hasn’t changed since the first game.
But I have.