Cracked Planets and Strumming Banjos in the Skies of Outer Wilds

The thing about an infinite universe is that everything is out there if you look hard enough.  The solar system of Outer Wilds is a case in point, assuming you were looking for a system trapped in a time loop while the inhabitants of one of its small planets search for a way out.  They’ve started up Outer Wilds Ventures to find a solution, sending out landers flying from world to world while solving the mysteries of each along the way, but the clock resets at a regular basis so the only things that carry over are knowledge and experience.  It’s a cute little pocket-sized solar system that’s trapped in a bubble of time, and the problems it has to solve are nowhere near simple enough for a solution to come from the barrel of a gun.

Outer Wilds is a first-person science fiction adventure with rustic villages, analog technology, massive set pieces on tiny little worlds, and marshmallows toasting over open fires. I got to play a round of a press demo and was near-instantly absorbed into its setting, to the point that I never actually got to take off and go exploring into the skies. There’s a lot to take in and the demo was inviting enough that I forgot to rush, getting caught up in playing as if I was comfy at home with all the time in the world. That time was spent getting up to speed with Outer Wilds’ toys and tech, figuring out how gadgets work while planets drifted across the sky waiting to be explored.

At the start there’s a sign pointing to either a tutorial or heading straight off into space. If you’ve already gone through a time-loop the village is just a diversion, but as an Outer Wilds Ventures newbie it seemed a good idea to see what was waiting in the houses amidst the pine trees. Quite a bit, as it turned out. The tutorial was a mini-adventure in its own right, setting the tone for the home planet and teaching each new gadget with a small puzzle. The lander you fly from planet to planet had a small remote-controlled model to try setting down on tree stumps, while the frequency scanner was used for a game of hide & seek with the village kids. Another device shot a probe from a cannon, but rather than getting a video stream you needed to hit the Picture button to receive black and white shots of whatever was in view of its camera.

The effect from all this is a feeling of wonderfully rustic tech put into service before it’s ready, like an outback version of steampunk except with fewer pointless gears sticking out of things and more sci-fi vistas.  Cracked planets and blazing comets drift through the skies, waiting for a traveler to unlock their mysteries, and if the lander’s fuel tanks are held together with banded wooden slats then at least it’s somehow spaceworthy.  Explore a landscape resting in the skeletal mouth of a giant anglerfish then light a fire and toast marshmallows, because a campfire is homey no matter how far afield you may have flown.  Then, when the clock runs out and the loop starts all over, head out again armed with the knowledge gained in the previous run to get a little bit farther, or at least survive longer on the next journey into the unknown.

If all this seems a bit familiar it’s because Outer Wilds was initially an indie freebie in its ultra-early alpha days way back in 2013.  While five years of busy development have changed the game in more ways than one could count, it’s still incredibly entertaining to compare what was to what it’s become.  Check out the 2013 alpha trailer over here (and maybe the 2015 soundtrack trailer too) and compare it to March’s trailer below to see just how much work has been done, and the surprising amount that’s still recognizable.