We did not deserve Outer Wilds when it released in 2019.
It is a game that creates experiences unparalleled in my lifetime. Each game I have played, while attempting to explore one mechanic well, cannot hold a candle to the way that Outer Wilds not only manages to succeed gloriously in each design philosophy it is attempting, but it has placed itself in a position of being discussed in hushed tones from this point forward.
It has become a “founder of discursivity”.
The phrase is a mouthful, but it comes from Michel Foucault’s 1975 essay “What is an Author?” to describe the phenomenon of a writer standing in not just for themselves as individuals, but for entire philosophies and ideas:
They are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts. In this sense they are very different, for example, from a novelist, who is, in fact, nothing more than the author of his own text.Michel Foucault “What is an Author?”
In other words, we are not speaking here about just one game. We are speaking to an entire movement.
There have been games that have tried to do what Outer Wilds does in piecemeal. The most well-known versions include The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask where the entire game functions in relation to a moon which is hurtling toward the land of Termina and threatening to destroy it every three days. As Link is privy to the song of time, he is able to bring himself back to his origin in the land and start the cycle anew, but with all the memories and awareness of his previous loops.
The citizens of Clock Town have routines of their own, and throughout the 54 minutes of real time gameplay, the player can find them in all sorts of places, creating a dynamic and “alive” world. The haunting atmosphere slowly inveigles its way into the world, and as the horrific moon looms larger and larger over the horizon, the people of Clock Town descend into their own levels of madness unprecedented at that time in gaming. But the constant dread of the game, and without knowledge of the ability to slow down time, and the popular response to the game bifurcated the community. Either you were a fan of Ocarina of Time‘s straightforward adventure mechanics in a newly realized three-dimensional world, or you preferred the esoteric and atmospheric design of its experimental sequel in Majora’s Mask.
The original Dead Rising from Capcom, released in 2006, was another attempt at time travel, where the original story took place over three days at Willammette Mall, which led to a total of a six hour session in real time. Frank West jumps from a helicopter to investigate a zombie outbreak in Colorado. As he progresses through the mall, new survivors make themselves known through the security camera footage, as well as new threats. The player has to navigate a similar geometry in the mall’s many separate districts, but must adapt to an ever-changing set of people and events that keep the gameplay fresh and challenging for new players and veterans alike. The game was unforgiving, but Frank West kept his level and abilities with each playthrough, making the game the most difficult the first time a player enters, a routine problem for video games to this day. Yet the strange controls and poor AI pathfinding for West’s allies combined for plenty of opportunities for frustration. Since the first game, each subsequent release in the series has reduced the time mechanics (as well as other important physics features) to render the IP wholly unrecognizable to its foundational underpinnings.
Most recently, the Hitman series has seen a resurgence for its ability to create Bond-like exotic locations that Agent 47 has to maneuver to assassinate high-value targets. Each location offers a timeline of “opportunities” or ways for Agent 47 to get closer to an enemy or isolate them from the public entirely, in order to go in for the easy kill. All throughout the levels, a great sense of motion and simultaneity creates a living fashion show in Paris, or a Formula One race in Miami. And hardly anything can top the satisfaction of a well made plan.
But these games are simply opportunities to use time as a feature for emergent gameplay, or to create an atmosphere. Outer Wilds does each of these and more. In each of these other examples, time and space are itemized and separable. Each location in Hitman stays relatively static; otherwise the player would have a hard time sneaking into a fortress that is constantly changing. In Majora’s Mask, it is the moon that is closing in, while the geography of Termina largely waits for the arrival of its terminus. And the player is given a map in Dead Rising to navigate its mall.
In Outer Wilds, a map would be impossible to construct and would be anathema to the design of the exploration. Nothing in Outer Wilds is, strictly speaking, staying still. When the player looks left and right, the relative direction of “left” and “right” is contextualized to wherever they are on a planet. Looking up and seeing the sky change and morph to one’s relative location is so stunning that it makes even the best skyboxes created by the likes of Bungie for Destiny seem cardboard and silly.
While in the game loop of Outer Wilds’s 22 minutes, one witnesses whole islands lifted into space in the cruel and indifferent storms of Giant’s Deep. Fragments of Brittle Hollow are blasted apart by its pair, Hollow’s Lantern, and fall into a black hole. The Ash and Ember Twins trade gravity readings and sand as they spin, causing the player to become trapped in cave systems and crushed horrifically if they are not careful. And the ominous and static silence of Dark Bramble hides a cosmic horror all its own…
Outer Wilds is a founder of discursivity for time in the same way that Super Mario 64 was for space. Before it, polygonal space was difficult to apprehend. Sure, games had existed that made navigating three-dimensional space possible, but few games handled maneuverability quite like Super Mario 64, which is usually the game I recommend to be the first game anyone plays. The reason has to do with its key ability to scale difficulty and ease the player into becoming acclimated to moving about a three-dimensional world, something that many games take for granted.
And now, in 2020, we have largely dealt with the issue of space. Since Super Mario 64, games have ballooned in size, from the open worlds of Ubisoft games like the Assassin’s Creed series, to the procedurally generated galaxies of No Man’s Sky, providing spaces for players to interact has been made simpler to the point of absurdity.
But time. Time is the new frontier. Every development tool usually points away from time as a mechanic, because it is easier to imagine space, objects, and players as within a contained and finite understanding of location. But Outer Wilds is so beautiful, so foundational a text for the development of video games, that every game that attempts to use time will be either in homage to or in reaction against the results that came from the game from Mobius Digital.
Outer Wilds is not only successful for what it does do, but it also succeeds thanks to what it leaves out. The game will stand the test of time, our time, for a variety of reasons.
First, the game is a whole product. With no downloadable content, no extras, and little to get in the way of its cohesiveness as a marketing gimmick, the game is an art installation all its own. Play the game in 2050, and the 22 minute timeloop gives itself over to the player just as it does now in 2020.
Second, the art style is realistic enough to enable navigation, but stylistic enough to hold up. Many players tend to favor the art style of cartoonish polygonal color like those found from Nintendo and Blizzard, and a slight tip in that direction is present in Outer Wilds. The matte finish of textures helped to create a pleasant experience for constantly changing lighting conditions, but it also allowed performance in the game to be simple to make out “noise and signal” in a game which relies on exploration and puzzle solving.
Third, there are no load times. Plenty of excited players bought next generation consoles, the Playstation 5 and the Xbox Series X/S, imagining a future with no load times. Ironically, we have been living in that world for some time. While some narrative driven games like God of War have managed to pull loading behind cutscenes and walking by the player, that adventure game has a hard time managing multiple playthroughs, as a player already knows the story they are being forced to listen to. Outer Wilds has no such problem. The only time a player stops playing is in the rewind mechanic, which manages to reset the loop in less than thirty seconds.
Fourth, the game only offers one rationale for exploration: curiosity to learn more. There are no upgrades (save the ability to “meditate” and reset the loop), no experience points or level grinding. When playing Outer Wilds, one realizes that every time a game uses dice rolls, or experience points and leveling, it may represent a liability or weakness in design more than it benefits the game itself. Make no mistake, there is a learning curve to Outer Wilds‘s navigation, as space is an unforgiving sandbox for you and your ship, but the rewards are more knowledge to the player, and nothing else.
Fifth. The story is told in a nonlinear exploratory fashion through text. Text! At first glance, Outer Wilds seems to be a sterile game due to a lack of set pieces, cutscenes, or voice acting. But the trade off for this decision means that text survives. It outlasts the quality of voices, the recording equipment, and the idiosyncratic nature of the actors who play them.
The end result of all this cutting away is authenticity. And it was done with a small indie team! What the player learns in playing Outer Wilds is that video games as an art form already exists right now, with current technology, and the failure of game developers to take up the mantle has little to do with a lack of better technology or more artists and technicians. It is in a failure of ideas. It is in a failure to expect more from the player. If Christopher Nolan can create high-concept movies that attracts a wider public, why can’t game developers? And Mobius Digital proved that games as art can exist from now until forever, and like Tetris, Outer Wilds succeeds not only for what it was able to add, but for what it was willing to leave out.
Play It As It Lays
If “all the world’s a stage” as Shakespeare said, then each game presents its own version for us to play out. In each game, we are given over to the terms and conditions of the universe it provides. Even in Minecraft, we have little choice but to play the game according to its standards.
The final and most important reason for time to be explored further in Outer Wilds concerns its indifference to the player.
Games tend to be reactive to decisions by our avatars. Even the most dynamic games are responses to our actions. But the most compelling moments in video games tend to be when events happen outside of our knowledge.
An excellent example is the appearance and disappearance of NPCs in the Dark Souls series. As you return to the hub world in Firelink Shrine, all sorts of characters you meet along your journey appear or disappear without the faintest hint as to why. It makes subsequent playthroughs that much more enjoyable to see the world activate and respond without you.
Outer Wilds features an entire solar system that is very indifferent to your actions. You are merely a repository of knowledge, and you must brave the harsh conditions of each planet in order to collect it. Compared to other games, the player feels a sense of isolation, loneliness, and existential crisis as they explore the solar system.
Indifference to the player may become one of several methods by which we give the highest accolades in gaming. And we should. For what could be more important an educational feat than in proving to the player that empathy can only arise when we realize our place exists in just as meaningless a context as those around us. Even speaking Shakespeare’s name in modern company is likely to produce either groans or abject silence. One of the best writers in human history, certainly a “founder of discursivity” and the only thing we can muster about him is the frustration we recalled from our time in secondary school. Outer Wilds as a game will likely over time fade into the darkness, despite the positive aspects that will make it last.
But this is part and parcel what the game’s mechanics are designed to show off. One of the key questions of the Nomai, the race you track down throughout the game, concerns the “Eye of the Universe”. It is said to exist before the universe was created. Yet there is some ambiguity about the Nomai’s response to its “call”. Did it call them? Does it recognize their race at all? Does it call, or is the frequency only a subset of its being?
The player experiences the same knowledge of a timeloop as Gabbro does, a fellow Hearthian space explorer on Giant’s Deep. Is there something special about you both? Or is it luck that both of you were shown the powers of the Nomai statue?
The questions yield broad answers and yet the planets keep revolving. The storms on Giant’s Deep continue to rage just as much as the sand from Ash Twin falls through space to its Ember Twin. When the universe is this large, and the questions this profound, what do we mean when we speak of concepts like “progress” in a video game? What does a “level” mean?
We need video games like Outer Wilds not only for their mechanics, but their implications as well. Perhaps our institutions stand to gain from players who understand their small plight in the universe. Perhaps our interpersonal relations could stand to gain from the power of creativity in its own right. And maybe we can stand to gain from what physicist Richard Feynman called as simply “the pleasure of finding things out”.
If for no other reason, Outer Wilds is a philosophy made manifest, and it is worth our response.