Maybe you heard about Outer Wilds from Mobius. Perhaps you saw an article somewhere about it. I didn't. It just popped in Game Pass one day. I downloaded it believing that I was about to play the new Obsidian's title: The Outer Worlds. What a surprise. From time to time a title appears that makes me remember why I love videogames.
The premise: You're an astronaut. Your mission to explore the solar system.
At the begining of "Outer Wilds" everything feels like a toy. A space program with 4 astronauts and a couple technicians. Your ship is made of wood and tomato can grade aluminium. For guide and orientation, a radio akin to a Smell-O-Scope. And a tiny solar system with a handful of planets ready for exploration, waiting for you. But before takeoff two interesting things happen: a psychotropic encounter with the remnants of an old alien civilization and, even more important, you get an alien-to-English translator.
Only that translator is the core of several science fiction works. It's an intriguing thought exercise: what if we meet peaceful aliens but we're unable to communicate with them? Stanislav Lem's Solaris explores it. Or more recently and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Arrival depicts the massive endeavor that would be to communicate with a truly alien life form. It's such a common theme that appears even in pop literature such as Warhammer's Horus Heresy.
But Outer Wilds is not hard sci-fi. Without any guidance you simply pick a planet at random and thrust your way there. Protected by your space suit made of leather, a fish bowl and some judiciously applied duct tape.
My first expedition
With little motivation beyond: go fly and explore, maybe look for the stranded astronauts, I venture forward. The soundtrack is playful and feels like family campings and mellow hillocks. The navigation feels clunky at first, I pick a destination at random, Brittle Hollow, and I'm on my way. Distances and sizes in Outer Wilds are minimal, everything is compact. I reach the place quickly, almost too much. When I arrive to the planet surface I'm greeted by a desolate plain of ash and rock and I notice an angry moon that spits magma rocks that fall around me. Exploring the surface I find some ruins and some alien texts that I can read using my auto-translator and soon an entry to what I think it's a cavern. It's not. It's a full alien city. I'm still an amateur astronaut and I botch what it looks like an easy jump, I'm falling to the planet core, except there's no core, it's a black hole and I'm transported somewhere else. The Sun fill the whole screen and I'm floating stranded in space, just another satellite orbiting it. I don't believe Outer Wilds is trying to be a terror game but I'm scared. I'm expecting the universe to behave in a certain way but this one doesn't. The music has changed and now it's closer to Jerry Goldsmith's Alien.
Everything ends with a flash of light and I wake again, I'm at the begining of the game. What was that light? Where does it comes from?
Spirals and Fragments
This game loops over itself. The character dies a hundred different ways: burnt by exotic matter, squashed by a tornado, landing too fast or getting devoured by a space fish monster. After every death you wake again, by the launching pad bonfire, ready to roast a marshmallow and liftoff. Beyond the exploration of the system and the challenge of navigate the space ship, you try to understand what's going on. Who were the super-advanced aliens that inhabited the system prior to your people and more importantly where did they went or why they disappeared. But that search is limitted to 20 minutes period. The Sun will explode and everything will be reset.
The fragmented narrative
The UI element in the ship ... one of the best graphical representation of how knowledge is formed, and somehow connected with Dark Souls approach.
Outer Wilds was published by Annapurna interactive. Publishing videogames and profit on them it's not an easy bussiness. But it seems like this American company has been part of some of the most interesting (to me) games released recently. What Remains of Edith Finch by Giant Sparrow is a game with powerful family moments that remind me to Gabriel García Márquez novels. It's so short and packed with so many great moments that it's difficult not to recommend it.
I wish the best to Annapurna. I believe they're doing something good for the videogame as a medium. And I'll look forward for the next projects they're involved with.