I'll never forget the first time Outer Wilds made me say "holy shit."
I'd gotten the launch keys to my spaceship for the first time. Still confused, still a little bit unsure. What's happening here? What is this video game about? How does this all work? Where am I supposed to be going?
Still, I followed the prompts. I approached my spaceship -- a rickety wooden shack of a thing. I pushed some buttons, and soon I was afloat, soaring effortlessly into the darkness of space. Still confused. Still unsure. What the hell is going on here? I don't get this at all.
Then, in the distance, a planet. A vivid green dot splotched in the void. "I'll head there I guess," I said to myself, more out of confusion than anything else.
Struggling against the controls of the ship, I headed toward the green planet, eventually hurtling into its dense green atmosphere at top speed. "I can't see shit," I whispered, but then I emerged from the fog.
I couldn't believe my eyes.
I only had a split second before I splashed headfirst into the ocean, but I saw it. This was a water planet, toylike in size. But that didn't startle me -- it was the whirlwinds. Six of them at least, competing with one another in an otherworldly storm on the waves. As I floated back to the surface, water streaming down the windows, my eyes turned into saucers.
The wind whipped as the competing whirlwinds galloped across the surface, so powerful they launched entire islands into the atmosphere -- literally into space -- before they crashed back onto the planet. I'd never seen anything like this in a video game. I'd never seen anything like this before, period. But this was Outer Wilds. In Outer Wilds, the blisteringly imaginative becomes normalized.
Outer Wilds is a video game about exploring space, but it's also a mystery to unravel. Following in the footsteps of the Nomai, an alien race that perished thousands of years ago, Outer Wilds is a game that has you playing space detective, investigating the ruins of an extinct civilization in an attempt to find exactly what the hell happened? The twist: Outer Wilds is centered on a Groundhog Day-esque time loop. You have precisely 22 minutes to investigate before the sun implodes, taking your entire solar system with it. All that remains: The knowledge you acquired during those precious few minutes.
Outer Wilds is a mystery that reveals itself in a traditional video game manner -- through audio logs, written notes and so on -- but the execution is so inspired you barely notice the tropes. Through its inventive locales and subtle puzzles, Outer Wilds consistently inspires a level of awe unlike any video game I've ever played.
Outer Wilds has you traveling back and forth to a handful of different planets, each more bizarre than the last. Each is laden with strange advanced technology left behind by the Nomai. A clue found on one planet might lead you to a new locale in a planet you visited previously. Slowly you worm yourself deeper into these dazzling environments, and into a deeper understanding of the mystery you're trying to solve. There's no shooting, no complex platforming. In Outer Wilds the currency is knowledge, knowledge players use to figure out their next step and, consequently, solve this strange mystery on a meta level. The result: a constant, revelatory joy, a series of "holy shit" moments that make Outer Wilds unforgettable.
Outer Wilds is constantly evoking awe. There's Giant's Deep, the aforementioned planet with its competing hurricanes, but there's also Brittle Hollow, a world collapsing before your eyes. Descending deep beneath the surface you watch as entire sections of the planet are swallowed by a black hole vibrating at its centre. One false step and you yourself could fall through it.
And what happens when you fall through a black hole in Outer Wilds? Well, it would be rude to spoil the surprise. But it's as mind-bending as you might expect.
Outer Wilds is punctuated by its holy shit moments. A quantum moon that disappears when you stop looking at it. Technology that allows you to warp instantaneously between two far-flung points. Twin planets connected by a pillar of sand that flows endlessly back and forth, dramatically reshaping both planets like a complex hourglass.
But unlike the cool, clinical sci-fi of, say, Interstellar or Arrival, Outer Wilds is a homely, almost acoustic invention: a small-scale snow globe of a universe, precisely imagined and executed. As if it expanded wholesale from the collapsing atoms in Bon Iver's beard. That's part of its charm. Its most outlandish moments inspire awe because they're grounded in a world that's familiar to us, almost anachronistic.
You sail into space in a craft made of wood, wearing a spacesuit that looks like it was built in the 19th century. Your home planet is a hipster's dream, like a shrunken vision of the Canadian wilderness or a Grizzly Bear music video. Outer Wilds' unique cast of characters swing on hammocks on alien planets and play the banjo at campfires as the universe collapses around them.
It all leads to this overwhelming feeling: You're trapped in a universe where your traditional ideas don't make sense. Where gigantic sci-fi ideas of space travel feel just beyond your primitive brain. All you can do is stare -- in awe -- as the sun implodes in a brilliant blue flash, your time loop complete. Before you awake once more with a gasp, ready to explore the strange universe of Outer Wilds all over again with fresh eyes.