The Importance of Melancholy: An Analysis of Outer Wilds

A Video Game Analysis by Daniel Alexander

            When I first started playing Outer Wilds, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. I milled about Timber Heart for a good half hour before making my way to the Observatory, talked to everyone, learned about my village and the space program – typical video game stuff. Eventually, I got around to getting the launch codes – at which point a freaky antlered statue opened its eyes and stared into my soul. It was odd, but I figured it would be explained later in the story.

            My first stop off planet was pretty close – the Attlerock, a moon to Timber Hearth. There I learned how to locate other Hearthians by following their music and found another member of the space program by locating his whistling. I also learned how to replenish my oxygen by standing next to trees – a game mechanic that I absolutely love, scientific accuracy be damned. After gathering some information, I proceeded to blast off once more, eager to keep exploring.

            And then the sun exploded.

            This, I soon realized, is the key element to the gameplay of Outer Wilds – you’re trapped in a time loop that sets you back approximately 22 minutes, to the start of your journey. It’s up to you to get to the bottom of what exactly is going on, learn more about the ancient Nomai civilization that used to live in your solar system, and crack the puzzle of why the sun keeps going supernova.

            This mystery forms the core of the game’s story, and you’ll spend most of your time either directly or indirectly trying to figure it out. Most of what you learn involves the Nomai as you learn how ages ago, they came to your solar system looking for something called the Eye of the Universe. They never managed to find it, but their efforts to do so become increasingly dramatic as you learn more and more about them. Ultimately, you find out that they constructed the Sun Station for the sole purpose of causing a supernova. The idea was to use the power generated from the supernova to send data from a probe into the past, where they could then use that information to locate the Eye. Once found, they would make the decision to not blow up the sun, thus ending the time loop.

            When I learned this, I immediately made an easy assumption – those darn Nomai, messing with forces they didn’t understand, were responsible for destroying my perfectly good solar system. Clearly, the Sun Station was causing the supernova, which meant that it could also be used to prevent the supernova. I just had to figure out how to reach it, which (after crashing my ship into the Sun multiple times) I finally figured out how to do.

            I was not prepared for what I found there. After so much difficulty just reaching the place, and then a further challenge in navigating the damaged sections of the station, I was expecting a solution. What I discovered instead were logs recorded by the Nomai who worked on the project explaining that the Sun Station was inoperable. Despite all their efforts, they had never been able to create an artificial supernova.

            Rocked by this news, I examined some of the information I had previously learned, and I came to the realization that it wasn’t anybody’s fault – the sun was just dying. It – and, it seemed, the rest of the universe – had reached the end of its lifecycle and there was nothing I could do to stop it. All my plans, all my hopes, all my arrogant hubris in believing that I could singlehandedly fix the death of a star – they all came crashing down.

            And that, I think, is what makes the story of Outer Wilds unique among nearly all other games. Over the years, we’ve been conditioned to view games in a very specific way – a series of problems to which we are the solution. No matter what the threat is, whether it’s the Nazi invasion of Europe or a biological weapon about to destroy all life or the death of the Sun itself, we believe that we are capable of fixing it. After all, why wouldn’t we be? Games are all about empowering the player to make choices and solve dilemmas, no matter how grand the scale.

            Outer Wilds reminds us that some things are just out of our control. We can’t always fix everything – that’s just not realistic. Sometimes things end, much as we wish they wouldn’t. The way to handle this is not to fight against it, but to accept it and adapt to it. The game concludes not with you saving the universe, but finding the Eye. There, you are witness to the birth of a new world from out of the embers of your old one. You won’t get to experience all the wonderful things this fresh universe has to offer, but you get to witness its creation. You get to peek at what comes next, which is more than can be said for most things.

            Outer Wilds is a game about the melancholy that comes when we confront the cosmos. It is about the feeling of insignificance we get when we stare up at the stars on a clear night. But alongside this sense of being adrift in the galactic sea is the reminder that it’s okay to be small. You don’t need to save the world or slay a dragon or earn your place in the universe. All you need to do is exist, and that’s enough.

©2019 by Daniel Alexander