This review almost didn’t get written.

You see I’ve been on the wrong side of history numerous times with games that are almost universally loved. The first of these was Dear Esther, one of the first breakout games that severely blurred the lines of what a game could and should be. Return of the Obra Dinn is another, more recent example that my smooth brain failed to appreciate the nuance of. Sadly I feel like I’m about to make a lot of enemies by saying that Outer Wilds has met a similar fate with me. I slept on it when it was first released but after the extremely fervent recommendation from a friend I felt compelled to try. I’m sorry to disappoint you Rich, but after searching high and low for something to grasp me in this game I have utterly failed.

Yes, I agree, it is I who has the problem.

The day has finally come: you’re to leave your home planet of Timber Hearth to explore the solar system like many have done before you. You’re also the first who will be equipped with a Nomai translator, a device capable of making the spiral-script of the civilisation before yours readable. It’s an exciting time, for sure, as you’ll be able to further everyone’s knowledge of the Nomai whilst satisfying your endless wanderlust. Before you leave though you have a strange encounter with a statue that one of your brethren brought back recently, your most recent memories flashing before your eyes in rapid succession. Undeterred by this you set off to explore the solar system, destined to uncover the secrets that lie beneath.

Outer Wilds’ visual style is heavily stylized with low-poly models and simple texturing. Given you’ll be spending quite a lot of the game far away from things this style works brilliantly, the expansive planetscapes that you’ll see feeling extremely alive and full of detail. This all disappears when you get up close of course, but that’s done deliberately so you don’t spend a bunch of time exploring places that really have no impact on your journey through the story. Performance is good too although that’s somewhat expected for a nearly 4+ year old game at this point. It’s also one of the few games I’ve played that does planet to space transitions well, even if it’s radically simplified for gameplay purposes.

The core of Outer Wilds is its exploration, giving you a bunch of different locations to go forth and explore. Your goal here is to uncover more information about the Nomai, an ancient civilisation that came and went long before your species had evolved. As you explore and learn more about them the game’s emergent narrative starts to unfold before you, giving you clues as to what places to explore next, where certain points of interest will be and what the various structures dotted around the place are or what they (potentially) could do. Mixed into this is some rudimentary survival mechanics, namely fuel and air for your space suit, that limit the amount of time and distance you can cover when you’re not with your ship. There’s also one other mechanic I won’t mention but suffice to say that forms a key part of the gameplay and how you plan to spend your time exploring.

I will say that the exploration is done really well. The game does give you a few gentle hints about places to go initially but otherwise you are very free to point yourself in a direction and go for it. I followed the game’s gentle pushes to begin with but it didn’t take me long to pick up on a trail of interest that led me all over the place. Once that particular trail started to peter out I simply looked to a location I hadn’t been to before and headed over there to start it all over again. This, I feel, is what attracts many people to the game: the idea of unbridled exploration that will eventually (hopefully) lead you to somewhere meaningful.

It also feels pretty cool to find some random bits of information that point you to one place, which you visit and then realise that some other tidbit you picked up a little while ago means that you can do X there. The ship also handily tracks all the major discoveries that you’ve uncovered, meaning that if you (like me) often get distracted and/or just mistakenly end up on the wrong planet then finding your train of thought again isn’t too difficult.

Now reading all of this you might be wondering: what’s the issue then?

It took me a while to figure out what wasn’t working for me with Outer Wilds. On paper everything is there: puzzles, space exploration and a decent narrative to tie it all together. What I’ve come to realise, and keen eyes may have spotted it in the 2 games I mentioned in my opening statement, is that I simply don’t like structureless narratives. Dear Esther was widely acclaimed for doing this originally: throwing different parts of the game at you at random leaving you to piece it together yourself. Obra Dinn was similar, although more structured overall. The problem I’ve found here, as with other similar games, is that without an overarching narrative to drive it forward I simply don’t feel compelled to continue after a certain point.

Now, I hear you already, “What about X or Y? Doesn’t that count as the overarching narrative that drives you forward?”. In your world yes, however for me I never felt like any of those things were strong enough to keep me going. Those who’ve played the game will know where some of these screenshots were taken and what it means to get them but getting to those points simply didn’t pay off enough for me to want to continue. I truly wanted to enjoy Outer Wilds, really I did, but it seems I’ve fallen victim to the non-standard narrative structure issue again and that’s all on me.

Is there perhaps a point in which the game would finally click for me, turning it from a middle of the road experience I never finished to one of my all time favourites? Quite possibly as there’s been many games which I’ve really not enjoyed until I’m well past the halfway point on them. But, as it stands right now, I simply can’t get over my own inertia to spin it back up again. I’ve been meaning to ask others about what kept pulling them forward in it, hoping to see some spark there, but I just simply have not done so. Maybe one day I’ll go back again, when my memories of my current playthrough have faded away, and then it might click. But for now I sit in the very small minority of people who just didn’t get what Outer Wilds was about.

Rating: 7.0/10

Outer Wilds is available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S right now for $36.95. Total playtime was 3.5 hours with 3% of the achievements unlocked.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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