The World You Save Won’t Be Your Own

**WARNING: THIS POST SPOILS THE OUTER WILDS QUITE BADLY. DON’T READ THIS IF YOU INTEND TO PLAY THE OUTER WILDS**

The Outer Wilds, a relatively recent release by indie game producers Annapurna Interactive and Mobius Games, earned enough press attention and critical acclaim that I decided to spend some of my decidedly limited gaming budget (both in terms of time and money) on it. During the course of playing The Outer Wilds, there were times I found myself regretting this decision, as it could be a deeply frustrating game. Ultimately, however, I found The Outer Wilds one of the most rewarding games I’ve ever played. Reaching the end of The Outer Wilds (which I will utterly spoil here, last warning) felt deeply rewarding, like the well-earned end of a carefully crafted story.

That story begins with a simple, well-crafted hook. You are an astronaut from a cartoonish alien species living in a solar-system of tiny, quirky planets. Your mission is to use a translator device to discover the secrets of an extinct alien race that inhabited your Solar System long ago. Twenty minutes into your mission, the Sun explodes, destroying everything. You, however, wake up twenty minutes in the past, starting all over again. The goal seems clear enough, solve the mystery of the time loop, stop the sun from exploding, save the world.

That simplicity is a bit of an illusion. Along the way is a fair amount of often frustrating puzzle solving. A big driver of this frustration was the game’s stubborn refusal to engage in the usual “leveling up” mechanics of most contemporary games. You never get better, more powerful equipment in The Outer Wilds, you never learn any new skills (save one, a fellow astronaut, the only one who is also aware of the time loop, teaches you how to “meditate until the next cycle,” effectively letting the player skip ahead to the next loop without actively committing in-game suicide) you never find any crafting recipes to create cool new stuff. You just solve puzzles, often times via fairly difficult platformer-esque jumping, dodging and maneuvering.

The decision not to allow the player to auto-magically become more powerful over time was a clear rejection of the ideology of contemporary games on the part of The Outer Wilds. I respect that decision, even though it almost made me quit playing several times. The fantasy of endlessly acquiring power and gear and levels is a decidedly late-capitalist one, as it encourages the player to value a logic of accumulation and domination. That said, the pleasures of this fantasy are all the more apparent when it was taken away. As I played The Outer Wilds and struggled to complete finicky platform puzzles with my decidedly middle-aged hand-eye coordination I often found myself thinking “I struggle all day to be a good teacher, a good husband, a good father, a good adult, now I am spending my down time struggling to be good at a video game? Bring on the mechanics where I line up my cursor on a lizard man and click repeatedly to become and expert swordsman!”

But then, it’s exactly this rejection of linear progress that The Outer Wilds enacts at every turn, and the way in which this rejection connects deeply into the thoughtful underlying plot makes all that frustration ultimately worth it. You set out at the beginning of the game trying to solve the mystery and save the world. Of course you do, that’s what one does in a video game. The game helpfully provides clues that seem to lead in just this direction. Here you find evidence that the ancient aliens were experimenting with time travel, and here you discover that they built a sun-exploding device to try to power their search for something called “The Eye of The Universe,” a mysterious signal older that the Universe itself, which they apparently revere as a religious mystery.

Ultimately, though, these clues are all red-herrings, at least in the sense that they do not empower you to save the world. The sun-exploding device actually never worked. Instead, the alien scheme to hunt for the eye of the universe sat dormant for millenia, until now, when the universe’s time is at hand and the stars are going out. The sun is exploding of old age, and it’s triggered the eye search time loop in a cosmic mistake. As a player, the end of the game involves you discovering the means to travel to the eye, where you experience a moment of stillness in a game that has otherwise felt frantic (from the get-go the game offers you the opportunity to sit around a camp fire and just roast marshmallows, but during actual game play it felt absurd to take that opportunity because the world is gonna end in 20 minutes, who has time! At the eye, you get this opportunity again, and now, why not?) and then witness the death of your universe and the birth of a new one. The last moment has your alien astronaut floating alone in space, dying, watching some new thing explode into being.

It’s this subversion of the “save the world” trope that, for me, felt so satisfying and thought provoking. The notion of “saving” the world, setting things back just the way they were, is ultimately a conservative one. Moreover, it’s an impossible goal, at least for us mammals. Some sort of sentient, immortal bacterium might rightfully imagine the stasis of a saved world, but we can only ever accept that our world will end, and we will launch the next one on its way as best we can.

Stop trying to save this world, nurture the next one, and accept it won’t be ours. This seems a fitting message for 2019, and I was glad The Outer Wilds gave me a moment to reflect on it.

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