These are some brief impressions of the Outer Wilds Alpha demo that was released in 2015, as I’ve had it banging around in my hard drive since it was released. While the demo is no longer publicly available (it can be found through some not-too-difficult internet sleuthing), you can learn more about the final release here.
The Outer Wilds Alpha opens with a view of the night sky. Planets, comets, moons, all pass over at a rapid pace, fast enough for the player to trace the path of each in their head. The sun dips below the horizon almost as soon as it entered, making a day on this planet less than a few minutes. This kind of moment happens a lot in the opening of Outer Wilds; A larger mechanic or concept that governs the whole of the game is introduced early on in a smaller, more bite-sized context, like a toy remote control ship to play with, or a slide projector teaching you how your space probe will work. But that first lesson, right when you wake up and see the solar system passing overhead, is probably the most important one: This world functions like clockwork, and it will keep moving with or without you.
This revelation isn’t immediate, though. After taking off from your backwater planet inhabited by curious-but-probably-too-curious-for-their-own-self-preservation aliens, Outer Wilds sets you loose in a fairly compact solar system, free to explore in any direction. What becomes clear early on is that this is not a huge sprawling world a la Elite or No Man’s Sky. It takes a maximum of a 3-5 minutes at full throttle to get from one end of the system to another. You’re free to see anything you would like from the start, and if you feel so inclined you could visit everything in the span of one playthrough. But Outer Wilds isn’t so much interested in spatial exploration and discovery, but rather temporal. The clockwork nature of the game is due to the solar system dying, the star at the center on the brink of a supernova ready to swallow everything in its final death throe. Everything in the solar system is rapidly changing as the ending approaches: one planet’s oceans are rising and falling thousands of feet, two planets in binary orbit are slowly being smashed together, and another is disintegrating into a wormhole at it’s center, among other sights. And secret areas and messages can be found in these spots at various stages of their calamities. It doesn’t matter so much where something is but rather when you are seeing it. In this way it feels akin to something like Sleep No More, a space that will move around you as much as you move through it.
During an E3 demo of the game, creative lead Alex Beachum compared Outer Wilds to Myst and called it a mystery adventure game, and this couldn’t be more true. Both game worlds are small but dense, meant to be observed, rotated, picked and poked at to uncover what is within. During my time with the game I found everything from giant Anglerfish and collapsing black holes to a banjo plucking explorer marooned on an ocean planet. But whereas Myst is a static world, only shifting when the player chooses to interact, Outer Wilds is undergoing constant change that you’re tasked with seeking out. It has a fantastic balance of dynamic, interactive systems and bespoke content to discover. In a couple hours I got a sense of the greater mystery of the game, which is figuring out why the world is stuck in a repeating loop of destruction. But it was the pure spectacle and exploration that made it so enjoyable. The world is unraveled at the player’s pace, and the answers feels more inferred by the player than stated by the game, similar to something like Her Story‘s narrative unfolding organically through exploration. In this way, it doesn’t feel like Outer Wilds is making any promises to me that it can’t keep upon release of the final version, as the journey is inherently satisfying. I’ll be more than happy just to revel in the oddities and eccentricities on offer. If there is a greater secret to uncover, great. If not, Outer Wilds will have won me over anyways.