The magic of Outer Wilds — and it is magic — doesn’t come from unprecedented building blocks. The pieces it is constructed from are full of familiar parallels and influences; it’s like The Arrival, or like Groundhog Day, or like 2001, or like a variety of other recognizable touchstones. It’s a photo negative of No Man’s Sky, where instead the universe is cozy and gorgeously hand-crafted. It’s the tactile feel and believable, dangerous pull of Solar Jetman or Kerbal Space Program. It’s a Half-Life 2 physics puzzle sprawled out over a whole solar system. It’s the loop of Majora’s Mask or Minute. It’s Myst if you could dive into every still frame and climb through the gears or Gone Home if the old letters were written in an alien dialect and reading them meant grappling with a limited oxygen supply and, always, time. It is all of those things and countless more, but the sum total is that, while you have almost certainly played, watched, or read things that it will remind you of, to agree with Austin Walker, I don’t know that I have played anything else quite like this game.
That magic is also not a constant or the product of some unimpeachable design perfection. Outer Wilds includes, for example, a cinematically gorgeous, low-gravity leap across a chasm, that requires traveling to a planet and waiting until a certain point in the timeline to access. Though it shouldn’t be particularly difficult, I choked, missed the landing, and fell to my death on probably a half-dozen attempts. Each time I had to sit through that full cycle again. The less flattering references in this case are the infuriating sewer jump from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the painful day/night cycles of Castlevania II, or the most frustrating, repetitive aspects of the Demon’s Souls lineage. This was far from the only exhibit of the game’s recurrent time constraints, which are often used ingeniously, turning certain tasks into an extended drag.
But those lulls and frustrations aren’t enough to damper the wonder, and magic isn’t always the result of singular innovation or a flawless end-to-end experience. Here, to start with, it’s delivered through the game’s brilliant larger structure. Sometime shortly after completing the tutorials and lifting off for your inaugural flight to the moon, it becomes apparent that there are precious few constraints on where you can go, what you can explore there, and in what order. The entire game is the “You see that mountain over there?” trope, but for an entire section of the sky, flaming asteroids, black holes, alien artifacts, and all. Almost everything in that process operates under the scope of the physics systems, so if you find yourself asking “Is it possible to…?” there’s a decent chance the answer is “Yes.” It’s just a coin flip whether the result will unveil new potentiality or a sudden, horrific death.
There is no combat, there is no leveling, there are no upgrades or new gear to unlock beyond what you are provided with in the introduction. You have all the tools that you need and that you will ever have from the start. What you are exploring for is information: about how your solar system operates and how you can safely traverse it; about what the species that came before you understood and how their technologies function; and about the nature of life and death. There’s a smooth UI that tracks many of the important discoveries with bullet points, and the whole system creates a fascinating form of progression. It may not be as lizard-brain satisfying as unearthing a +2 weapon or opening up a new dungeon, but finally solving a stubborn puzzle or wrapping my head around the nature of how something works often felt like a genuine epiphany.
There is also the gorgeous attention to detail, the wonderful music used in ways I’ve never seen attempted before, the care and character put into the writing of NPC conversations and the alien messages in the Nomai language that you spend so much time translating throughout. But these are all in the service of the discovery that constitutes the heart of the game, and at its best, over and over again, it made me gasp. The reason Outer Wilds falls into such a difficult space for spoilers is that the issue isn’t with spoiling a plot point, one big twist, or a surprise appearance, it’s that the entire thing is built on collecting knowledge through fascinating new encounters. That discovery — coupled with the incredible craft that the developers employed to put it together into a celestial, planet-spanning Rube Goldberg machine with an inspired story with philosophical and emotional heft that actually feels good to play — is what fuels a series of extraordinary, stunning moments.
The first time you successfully set your ship down without slamming into the surface of your target; the first time you don’t, and it’s catastrophically ripped apart in ways that make you appreciate its construction. When you punch into the atmosphere of Giant’s Deep and take in the climate that is waiting there. The sequence of sometimes abrupt revelations as you begin to understand the threats in the Dark Bramble. When, maybe after already putting down your controller in defeat, a stumble or miscalculation leads not to death but completely new possibilities you had not even considered. The slow comprehension of what the Nomai were doing, what might have happened to them, and what might be happening to you. Floating placidly in the black void, mesmerized, watching a satellite whip around the Sun, or a column of sand transfer between the Hourglass Twins, marveling at the beautiful ingenuity of it all.
Increasingly, these moments are what I find myself wanting from games. There’s something to be said for the reassuring nature of formulas that work, another new installment in a years-long series with a few new features or higher resolution coat of paint. But there’s also an argument for taking what people have done well before and reimagining it into art that swings for something weird and unconventional and new, and when it hits makes you involuntarily mutter something aloud. Even when it misses there’s a chance that it will find instances to deliver a kind of novel awe that you can’t create by retreading safe successes, over and over, until they are stripped entirely of their heart and soul. This doesn’t have to involve inventing an entirely new genre, ignoring decades of conventions, or manufacturing a hundred straight hours of sustained excellence. It just takes doing what Outer Wilds does so spectacularly: giving the player something unique and worthwhile to discover.