When Elite was first released in 1984, its simple black and white grid graphics captivated the imagination of players by literally giving them the entire universe in their hands. This was an incredible time in video game history when developers and designers dared to break the glass ceiling; RAM limitations be damned. Video games changed when Nintendo saved the industry from the brink of disaster, and while the medium continued to be entertaining and ground-breaking in many ways, very few ever tried to break the barriers and limits of available technology like Elite.
In the current hardware generation, however, the powerful technology has provided a comfortable avenue for these massive game worlds to be created with more detail than anyone could have dreamed of in 1984. Over the past five or so years we’ve seen everything from the acclaimed Elite Dangerous to the highly controversial No Man’s Sky. Outer Wilds is another one of those universe exploration games, but it takes a much different approach from the existing competition. For one thing, Outer Wilds sits somewhere between the Elite and No Man’s Sky experiences in that there is a game universe and lore with compelling substance, but the exploration of this universe is unpredictable and profoundly aimless. As the game’s tagline suggests, you explore an artistically handcrafted solar system at your whim.
What makes Outer Wilds stand out from the crowd is that you explore the universe in the same fashion as you would regional outskirts of a Country Western setting. Imagine if you had a spaceship in Red Dead Redemption and that’s pretty much how Outer Wilds presents its universe. I don’t know if there is a term for it, but let’s call it “Countrypunk Sci-fi” for the sake of labels. As an alien camped in nothing but a sleeping bag on your woodsy home planet, it doesn’t take long for you to get the launch codes needed to explore the universe on your own terms. There is a lore to the game, and from the opening moments Outer Wilds very swiftly immerses a player into its breathing world and then slowly allows them to unravel the rest. Outer Wilds generally does a great job at world building, creating enough mystery without being presumptively vague.
In terms of universe exploration, Outer Wilds stays consistent with its premise by leaving the universe in the player’s hands… literally. There is a solar system to explore which is mapped to an extent, but then there are literal rabbit holes to fall into where you discover things you’d least expect. The mysteries are akin to Stonehenge, where there are more questions than answers, and yet these questions are what makes exploration in the game so fascinating and rewarding.
Yet while it is meant to be a relaxing game for the most part, the exploration isn’t always a peaceful stroll with friendly strangers as the many celestial locales are filled with hazards and even horrifying hostiles. There is one thing players need to get used to very quickly when exploring the hauntingly subdued worlds of Outer Wilds: dying. Thankfully, death is an interesting paradoxical construct, as players will quickly learn that they are stuck in an infinite time-loop where each death brings them back to their humble campfire. This isn’t like Groundhog Day, because your ship will log all the areas you have explored in all those timelines… or is it lifespans?
There is a lot of attention to detail, from the way the many planets are presented to even the smallest interior details of your spaceship. There are also a lot of little things to interact with and discover. For the most part, this is a satisfying and engaging experience but there are several glaring issues which can really take the player out of what Outer Wilds actually intended. For one thing, the fascinating locations you explore are very erratically and haphazardly designed without any rhyme or reason. This makes basic navigating less of an intuitive challenge and more of a confusing mess which is just not fun. The discovery element is still strong, but the navigation is an absolute nuisance for the most part.
The cumbersome navigation is further confounded by the controls, because although Outer Wilds is far from a first-person shooter demanding precise movement and control, the basic controls are still less than ideal even for passive exploration. The protagonist moves sluggishly and jumping almost never goes the way you want it to. Still, some aspects of gameplay work better such as the spaceship control which has a super-useful auto-pilot function, and the spacesuit in general, pretty much functioning as it should. Speaking of spaceships and spacesuits, Outer Wilds really restricts the player on how much they’re able to do given the resource constraints of space technology, whether it is fuel or oxygen levels. This isn’t necessarily problematic in of itself, but the cumbersome controls and incoherent level design only make matters worse.
Outer Wilds on Xbox One truly excels in its music and sound design, and creates one of the few occasions in modern gaming where you can’t help but enjoy the title screen theme music. The soundtrack and sound design in general are strong and really complement the mysterious universe-spanning exploration, even more so when you discover other characters in the solar system by detecting their musical instrument and songs (mostly an acoustic guitar fair). Although Outer Wilds does well in presenting interesting artistically inspired set pieces, the core graphics are rather bland and tend to give off a rather unfinished vibe. Still, one thing it achieves extremely well is how it overwhelms you with chemical elements and gases as you enter new planets for the first time.
Regardless of whether you want to label it as art or entertainment, a video game still must, even from a ludological standpoint, be mechanically sound enough for the player to engage with the visual and aural elements. Outer Wilds provides an incredible and imaginative solar system to explore, one that is filled with genuine mystery and wonder, immersive music and an imaginative sci-fi lore. Still, the issues in control, gameplay, and level design hamper the intended blissful exploration which it tries to build its premise around. If you’re willing to wrestle past glaring gameplay and design issues then this unique “Countrypunk Sci-fi” universe is quite literally your oyster in Outer Wilds.