“Outer Wilds” begins with your character opening his eyes and gazing at the stars. Training your vision forward reveals one of your fellow four-eyed Hearthians seated before a campfire. If you so choose, the first action you can perform in the game is to roast a marshmallow and eat it. Before you can access your ship, which rests on an elevated platform nearby, you must acquire launch codes from your Outer Wilds Ventures supervisor. Making your way to the observatory, you’ll notice wooden houses with right-triangle frames, and a scattering of Timber Hearth’s inhabitants who are happy to chitchat for a spell.
On the ground floor of the observatory there is a small museum that contains artifacts from a long-vanished civilization called the Nomai. These fur-clad, three-eyed beings left traces of themselves throughout the solar system, but no one knows where the Nomai originated or what led to the collapse of their civilization. Recent advances in technology, however, have led to the manufacture of a tool that can translate the Nomai’s spiral script. And in a head-scratching display of confidence, this precious tool has been entrusted to you for use on your maiden voyage.
There is a tweeness to the game’s aesthetics that put me in mind of Wes Anderson’s movies — Timber Hearth looks like a summer camp, and the Hearthians’ ramshackle spaceships resemble children's toys. But such cuteness belies the fact that “Outer Wilds” asks a fair amount from the player in terms of conceptual thinking. You are given remarkably little direction as to how you should proceed in the game apart from the advice to go forth and explore. As such, for the first several hours I found myself irritated that I was at a loss as to how to proceed in the most efficient manner. Questions like, “in what order should I visit the planets,” and “am I remotely on the right track with what I’m doing” nagged at me because, of course, as a critic I felt the pressure to not futz around. While I found it mildly interesting that I could, say, land my ship on a comet, there is no way I would have guessed that I could access the comet’s core by waiting for it to fly close enough to the sun without consulting the Internet.
Eventually things began to coalesce as I found and translated more samples of Nomai writing. I don’t want to share too much of what I’ve found since fumbling in the dark is an essential component to how the game operates. I will say that after spending more than twenty hours with it, its mysteries revolve around something that is older than the universe itself.
As I’ve chipped away at “Outer Wilds,” my appreciation of it has grown exponentially. I admire how it plays with scientific concepts like quantum matter that can appear and disappear when you look at it, then look away, then look back. Also, I liked how different places in the game are only accessible when a planet — which is small and easy to navigate around — is in a certain phase of its orbital rotation. I’m not used to entertaining such thoughts in a video game, which makes doing so a pleasure.
Approached with patience, “Outer Wilds” offers quite the adventure.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.