As an Indie developer, it’s hard sometimes to advance through the stages of game development, especially when compared to the pace of the AAA and AA powerhouses on the gaming scene. So, even though the alpha version of Outer Wilds was able to take home the 2015 Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival at GDC 2015, it’s not really surprising that its developers decided to go quiet for a while in order to focus on building towards an inevitable release. Well, just about three years after that landmark win for Team Outer Wilds—now a part of developer Mobius Digital—and on the heels of a publishing deal with another relatively fresh face on the scene in Annapurna Interactive (What Remains of Edith Finch, Gorogoa), Outer Wilds was ready to be shown off again. Thus, I happily headed down to Mobius Digital’s LA-based studio to go hands-on with Outer Wilds and see first hand just how far it had come.
Outer Wilds is a stellar space mystery with a Majora’s Mask time-repetition mechanic that will have you racing against the clock as you try to piece together various conundrums around your solar system before the day resets. You start off as a humanoid creature on your home planet, the latest brave astronaut in the early days of your species’ space program. Everything has a fitting cobbled together feel—like a cross between the Wright Brothers and NASA—but it’s more than enough to get your little one-man ship hopping around the solar system in pursuits of knowledge. As you visit each new planet, you’ll uncover relics from a lost civilization, as well as converse with the handful of other astronauts in your program as you try to better understand your little slice of the universe and what caused the extinction of those that came before you.
All this happens while also trying to figure out what triggered a time loop that only you and a couple other astronauts are remotely even aware of. Fortunately, because of this, every clue you find is recorded on your ship’s computer, and you can begin connecting the dots in the galaxy’s biggest mysteries in hopes of finding a way out of this Groundhog Day in space.
Although it sounds simple enough on the surface, Outer Wilds has so many moving pieces that it might be hard to wrap your head around where to start at first. Abandoned space stations and moons orbit around the system’s several planets, which themselves are explorable right from the get go and filled full of secrets to uncover. They’re also extremely diverse, ranging from your Earth-like home to sandy desert worlds, barren rocky landscapes, and even a gas giant with a liquid core that you can splash around in. (Oh, and pro-tip: be sure not to forget your spacesuit before you try any of those moonwalks—atmosphere is important, kids.) Playing the role of part-astronaut, part-detective allows you to approach everything with a patient methodology as you take on each new challenge, testing your analytical skills as you uncover more clues and begin to realize how small you really are even in this fictitious slice of cosmos.
Though I only got to play through a couple of “days” in Outer Wilds, it already started to suck me in. After fiddling with the controls and getting a grasp for how my one-man ship maneuvered in space, each new discovery filled me with a childlike wonderment I haven’t felt in puzzle games since maybe the original Myst way back when. Adding in the ticking clock before the galaxy reset also instituted a sense of urgency at first, but I learned quickly how to use it to my advantage (along with how not to panic). After all, everything would end up just where I originally found it—and the knowledge I had accrued would stay with me.
My brief time with Outer Wilds only reaffirmed why this game was an award winner back in its alpha phase. If you love mysteries, exploration, and have an affinity for time loops, this is looking like it might be a game for you. I can’t wait to hop back in my spaceship again when Outer Wilds finally launches onto our PCs sometime later this year.