Outer Wilds sounded like a really neat game. Heck, it still sounds like a neat game to me! A tiny solar system, and a ship to explore it; a mystery or two to seed your curiosity, growing as you explore the planets in the system; and then, after 22 minutes, the sun goes nova and you have to start over, keeping only the knowledge you’ve gained from previous loops. That sounds like a great concept; and, from what I’ve heard from people who have finished it, it can be very rewarding.

I wasn’t one of those people, though. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like I was spending nearly enough of my time uncovering mysteries, or at least banging my head against mysteries; that got frustrating. And, honestly, open-ended puzzle games are already frustrating enough; that’s part of what makes them good, because if you always know what to do next, then you’re not getting enough puzzle! But that also lowers my tolerance for other forms of frustration: I want to spend my time doing something potentially slightly unpleasant but ultimately rewarding in the form of banging my head against mysteries; having to spend my time in other unpleasant ways while I’m trying to reach my chosen unpleasantness makes that feel a lot worse.


The first form that this takes is traversal. You fly a ship, and it has to make its way through full 3D space, trying to land on or otherwise navigate moving objects at various orientations. There are a bunch of controls to help you handle that (it’s not just pointing a joystick and going); a reasonable map to the problem space, and one that could be fun. Except that it’s not the problem space that I’m interested in exploring: if what I want to do is “poke around in that region over there, in hopes that it sheds light on the current mystery that I’m exploring”, then I want to spend my time poking around, seeing what I can find and thinking about it, not doing fiddly execution stuff layered in front of the poking around.

And the other problem was the time loop. Or rather, the time loop combined with the changing / decaying nature of the environments combined with the lack of time manipulation ability combined with the difficulty of navigation. For example, there’s one world that has sand falling on it; as that sand rises, it makes it impossible to access certain areas. And, the first time that happened, that was actually kind of neat: I knew that there was an area that I wanted to get to on the other side of those passages filling up with sand, and figuring out how to get there under time pressure was a pleasant enough experience, so I didn’t mind the fact that I had to take two time loops to figure it out.

But then there were more mysteries past there; and they were also affected by the sand. So, if I wanted to explore this area during a given time loop, I had to re-navigate that initial area; then get to where I’d left off my exploration; then poke around some more, hoping to find some ideas of what to look at next; and then hope that I can look at that thing before that area fills up with sand. And if some section had filled up on sand, I’d have to wait until the next loop to explore that; so my choices are either to context switch and hope I can find something else worth exploring that isn’t in an area filled up with sand, or else to exit the current loop early, taking an immediate multi-minute penalty of getting back to that world and then going through the initial sand passages and getting to wherever I’d left off. And none of that is what I want to be doing.

So I stopped playing. I’m sure there’s a core to the game that I would really enjoy; I just wasn’t able to spend enough time in that core of the game.


Mostly, Outer Wilds gave me even more respect for Return of the Obra Dinn. In Obra Dinn, you’re banging your head against a mystery, trying to figure out what on earth happened on this ship, to uncover the fate of every single crew member and passenger. And that’s hard, there’s a lot there to bang your head against!

But the game knows that, and so that’s exactly what you spend your time doing: you’re spending the entire game staring at stuff and trying to figure out what that’s telling you. Usually staring at frozen scenes in the ship’s past, sometimes wandering around the ship in the present and trying to get a broader picture, sometimes looking at your notes and trying to make connections. However it manifests itself, the game is always focused on giving you the context to make progress in the puzzle.

I wish Outer Wilds had had that sort of focus on its mysteries.

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