Games

Outer Wilds is the best game of 2019 so far

Packed full of atmospheric planets to discover and cosmic mysteries to unravel, Outer Wilds is the first space-exploration game to prove that bigger isn’t always better

Wonder is a rare thing in video games. This medium is capable of some magnificent things – surprise, shock, fright, speed, tension, realism – but pure wonder is increasingly harder to capture. And yet, Outer Wilds has it in droves. This comparatively low-budget game, developed by a small team, is perhaps the most incredible and awe-inspiring rendition of outer space that video gaming has seen, well, ever: a space game that invokes the terrifying scope of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar while encapsulating the small, intimate moments, too.

So many games nowadays, especially space games, chase the lofty goal of ever-bigger universes. More planets, more spaceships, more things to do. Elite Dangerous has a scientifically accurate rendering of the 400 million stars in our galaxy. No Man’s Sky has a procedurally generated universe of some 18-quintillion planets – that’s 18,000,000,000,000,000,000 – but Outer Wilds is different.

The solar system you explore here is small and hand-crafted, open for you to zip between some locations in seconds once you get the hang of flight (and after you complete a brief introductory tutorial that sees you granted the launch codes for your own spaceship). It’s not a massive universe. In fact, it’s intimate in scale. And yet the daunting nature of heading out into the blackness is more prevalent than most of the space games I’ve ever played.

Your spaceship isn’t your everyday craft. Your ship is made of wood rather than the usual sleek metal and synthetic materials; it feels more like a makeshift treehouse den built by a keen 6-year-old with the assistance of their doting dad than something capable of interstellar flight. And that makes flying off into the vacuum even more thrilling – the only thing between you and nothingness is a tiny little hatch; one that you can venture through provided you’re wearing your spacesuit, which has its own oxygen supply and little jet pack.

But the solar system you’re in is special and scary in many other ways. For one, the entire thing is stuck in a time loop lasting 22 minutes. With each cycle, the star at the centre of the various celestial bodies goes into a supernova. It’s a cataclysm that sees your character reset at the small, cosy bonfire on the planet Timber Heart; the exact place where you started the game. In an adventure that requires you to figure out environmental puzzles to unravel the secrets of the solar system itself, that reset is a big deal. It means you’re constantly trying to get to the next little clue or secret before everything goes bye-bye one more time.

Meanwhile, the planets you encounter each revolve around a devastating force of nature. There’s an ocean planet caught in an eternal storm on which massive, atmosphere-high tornadoes ripple across the watery surface and rip entire islands up into the stratosphere (often taking you along for the ride). My personal favourite, a planet named Brittle Hollow, features a deadly black hole at the planet’s centre. Falling into said black hole was something I didn’t intend to do at all, but the subsequent experience was one of the most mind-bending and memorable moments I’ve had in any game for months.

Even the less violent, dramatic places in Outer Wilds have an immense charm (not to mention potential devastation). It wasn’t until I was peacefully cascading through space around the fiery glowing star, quietly admiring it, that I realised powering your spaceship through the void isn’t always that easy; once I was pulled into the star’s grip, it was absolutely impossible to get free, meaning I had to succumb to gravity and be pulled into its searing, gassy depths. Back to Timber Heart’s bonfire I went.

Powering your spaceship through the void isn’t always easy; once I was pulled into a star’s grip, it was absolutely impossible to get free

Of course, you do eventually need to start making progress. But even this is captivating – using your decoding devices and figuring out different solutions to certain problems feels achievable, even if it’s initially a little murky how you go about certain things. It definitely helps that the solar system’s time loop makes focus imperative. There’s no time to muck around deciding what to do next, so you just end up choosing something to tackle or investigate before getting on with it. I’ve played Outer Wilds in little bursts, figuring things out at my own leisure, almost using the 22-minute cycle as my own metronomic pulse to tackle one solar phase per play session.

Still, it’s in those big, explorative scenarios that Outer Wilds really shines brighter than anything else this year. The sky-high storms. The crumbling, black-hole planet. An ever-exploding sun. More secrets I daren’t spoil here for you to discover yourself. It’s a space game that knows what it means to design something truly alien by hand. Therein, I think, lies the wonder that size, numbers, and procedural generation cannot capture.

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