This year has had its fair share of great games, but it has been seemingly devoid of the type of era-defining classics that made 2018 and especially 2017 such amazing years. Fortunately, this recession to the mean trend was bucked by the mesmerizing sense of adventure and call to exploration provided by Outer Wilds, the most memorable game of 2019 by far. While unraveling the mysteries of the universe on both macroscopic and quantum levels in between countless rounds of hilariously dying in unfortunate space mishaps or being engulfed in the Sun going full on supernova every 22 minutes, Mobius Digital’s adventure game for the ages captivated my gaming senses by empowering me with the freedom to craft what feels like my very own adventure, unique from what anyone else will experience.
Note: for maximum effect play the outstanding soundtrack while reading
From the outset, you only really have one directive – explore. Will you be the kind of heroic explorer haphazardly dashing into the most treacherous realms without a second thought, or will you be methodical and scholarly? Maybe you just want to get to the heart of the central mystery of why the Sun seems to have doomed your people, or maybe you want to find the other members of Outer Wilds Ventures to learn from their travels. However you choose to approach your first launch and all the subsequent journeys is entirely up to you. Just let the swelling, masterfully crafted music inspire you as you go.
After the brief tutorial on the home planet of Timber Heath, I found myself in the cockpit of an unwieldy spaceship with no clear direction of where to go next. So, I decided to travel to the most interesting thing I could find nearby, a set of twin planets seemingly attached by flowing sand, and then I promptly crashed into the more obtrusive of the twins and was forced to begin my second loop. Then I died, like a lot more, but it was ok because I was learning and growing as an adventurer with each death or completed loop. Within a few hours, I was deftly piloting my spaceship inside of planets and using the instruments at my disposal to locate new exciting signals to investigate. At the other ends of those signals could be anything from a long lost pilot to an escape pod that provided a glimpse into the fate of a long dead civilization or a strange rock shard that revealed important truths about quantum mechanics and transported me back to my days as a grad student sitting in the lecture hall at UCLA solving eigenfunctions and getting into the weeds of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
This truly is a game to be experienced and not spoiled, but it is also something that absolutely deserves to be talked about with friends or really any human you can find who donned a space suit and repaired busted landed gear on an alien planet. Finding out how others solved key puzzles or discovered major pieces of lore is endlessly amusing and really hits home the uniqueness of each person’s time in the game. Even choices like the first planet to visit can be vastly different and set a player on an entirely distinctive timeline of exploration.
Sometimes I would spend hours trying to figure out how to solve a puzzle only to accidentally stumble upon the answer several planets later, well past the when a solution was needed, and I would have no choice but to laugh. That was my adventure, occasional scholar and part-time hopeless brute force fool tripping into success, and I wouldn’t trade those revelations and accomplishments for any amount of prior knowledge that would’ve saved me some trouble.
For those who have played through, feel free to view this next spoiler filled section for some highlights of my adventures. Otherwise, proceed to the final paragraph or stop reading this and set sail among the stars of this wonderful exploding universe.
I recall one night of cycles particularly fondly. After following what appeared to be a meteorite strike the rapidly degrading surface of Brittle Hollow and falling into a black hole, I found myself transported near a strange, glowing and foreboding planet. Upon my inevitable space death, I returned and uncovered mystery after mystery hidden deep within the depths of the Dark Bramble’s fog culminating in finding the recklessly heroic adventurer Feldspar, who I had spent most of the game up to that point wanting to meet. We shared stories of travel and discoveries, and I uncovered his hilarious yet helpful tips on not eating jellyfish. As the music swelled indicating that the Sun’s demise was once again near, I pulled up a seat alongside my fellow Venturer and toasted a marshmallow while basking in the sheer magnitude of all I had just accomplished. As our marshmallows got decidedly more toasted by the exploding sun, I couldn’t help but think about how this game had just provided me with a truly perfect gaming moment.
Space explorations finest moments didn’t end there, however. My favorite triumph came toward the very tail end of my playthrough. After untold hours learning this universe’s rules for quantum mechanics including observation and entanglement amidst the mind-numbing majesty of towers hidden inside of water cyclones or others that were only accessible via black hole, it was time to visit the Quantum Moon and embark on the sacred pilgrimage the long extinct Nomai had undertaken long before my people existed. By combining all the rules, I was able to locate the wandering celestial body and slowly made my way from the moon’s South Pole to the North where I was able to speak with a Nomai in an encounter that had been 20+ hours in the making and truly felt like a culmination of my growth as an explorer. Afterwards I just sat in my chair in silence for several minutes letting the magnitude of that brush with the past and the inner workings of the universe wash over me. Truly rewarding payoffs are definitely among this game’s strongest suits.
Even now, having rolled credits on this game that I loved far more than anything else I’ve played this year, I have no desire to go back and explore a few key locations I missed along the way. That wasn’t my journey, and going back to see something outside of my completed time cycles would just be wrong. Despite my love of the game and the indescribable nights of wonder it brought me, I knew in my heart when it was time to end things and solve the final mystery. Sure, I found some of the things, and I missed out on others. But above all else, I charted my own personal path in the stars that will stick with me for a long time and pop into my head the next time I hear a banjo or harmonica’s melody. Now all that’s left to do is gather around the online campfire and hear the stories of others’ journeys.