Exploring the final frontier in Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds 1

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In Now Playing PC Gamer writers talk about the game currently dominating their spare time. Today, Sam explores the final frontier in Outer Wilds.

Here’s everything I knew about Outer Wilds before I started playing: it won a slew of IGF awards and the alpha is free on the developer’s site. That’s it.

I start in a crudely-rendered, bowl-shaped alien world, next to a spacecraft launch site. To take off, I need launch codes, available at the observatory on a hill opposite. A moon orbits above.

On my way to the observatory, I speak to a few of my fellow aliens, who are all interested in seeing what lies beyond the stars but know little about it. Oh, one more thing I know about Outer Wilds before I go any further: I have 20 minutes until the sun explodes.

I enter the observatory. A number of objects displayed here hint at worlds beyond this one. The most interesting is an artefact that changes shape every time you look at it. I don’t really take in the rest of the exhibits, to be honest, because once I’ve got the launch codes, I want to use the bloody things.

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Back where I started, there’s a console where I enter the codes, and next to it, a wooden lift that takes me to my little round spacecraft. The ship looks like it was was cobbled together in Wigan by Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. There’s a small cockpit, a furnace thing that’s presumably the engine, a screen for cataloguing stuff and no built-in toilet. I love it. I get an immediate feeling of ownership, probably because it’s a bit lame to look at. Like my flat, only mobile.

I pop on a space suit, sit down and take off. The sky turns from blue to black – I’m in orbit, and the scale of Outer Wilds becomes clear. The bowl I just launched from was one tiny part of an entire, functioning solar system that now surrounds me. There’s something in every direction. At close proximity, the moon I saw from the ground earlier; a mighty sun; a cluster of dark rocks ominously shrouded in fog, a giant watery-looking blue planet, and various small craft, comets and odd structures leaving a light trail. Huh. This is space, presented in a moment not unlike arriving in Columbia in BioShock Infinite, or leaving Vault 101. The production values aren’t quite there but there’s a comparable sense of wonder.

I have a feeling that I’m about to go beyond my world and break new ground – Outer Wilds perhaps captures this feeling better than any game to date. Elite: Dangerous gives you the scale of a galaxy, but Outer Wilds makes space travel feel precarious, and also oddly real. It might be simply because the spaceship is so crummy, but regardless, I began Outer Wilds as a dreamer on the ground and became an astronaut.

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I go to the moon, where a fellow space traveller sits by a fire. I set a course for the big blue planet and ram through its watery surface, spying weird sea creatures before being thrown out again by the pressure. I try and fail to land on an odd free-floating structure that resembles a frigate from Star Wars. Instead I badly damage my craft.

I head into the arrangement of rocks covered in fog and nervously fire a camera drone into it, earning me a snapshot of what’s waiting within. I glimpse what looks like a tentacle in the distance and change course. I eventually come across a circular rock cave, and a small fire. I land and swim over in zero-gravity. Sitting next to the fire is a guy listening to music. Pretty much the last thing I expected to find here. Shortly after, I clumsily fly into a giant alien space mouth and die. I never get to see the sun explode.

When the game resets, I take off at once in search of new stories.