One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
One of the biggest differences between computer games when I first started playing them, back in the 1980s, and modern computer games is scope. Open worlds of the kind that we’re used to nowadays didn’t exist on the 8-bit and 16-bit computers of yore, but these days it’s not rare for a game to feature a world many square kilometres in size. In 2001, Grand Theft Auto III let us rampage in a Liberty City that measured 9 km2 in real-world terms; Grand Theft Auto V, which came out in 2013, covered an area of 127 km2. Things get even more insane with the possibilities of procedural generation, so that we got a 1:1 scale simulation of the Milky Way galaxy in Elite Dangerous (released in 2015). As game worlds get bigger and bigger, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to fill them with meaningful content, and arguably Elite‘s in-game universe is several light years wide and a nanometre deep. Which is one of the reasons why the toy-box solar system of Outer Wilds is so engaging.
Outer Wilds is an indie production and its homespun aesthetics are a large part of its appeal: you play an astronaut who sets out on their first journey, leaving their home of Timber Hearth in a rickety-looking but surprisingly sturdy spaceship that seems a cross between the lunar landers of the Apollo missions and what a talented kid might produce in handicrafts. Compared to the millions of planets of Elite, this solar system first seems tiny: apart from the earthlike, wooded Timber Hearth and the sun, there are only five more planets as well as a number of moons – and a comet named the Interloper. But as you land on these celestial bodies, you discover forests, islands and deserts, ruins and ancient machinery and secrets – and you gradually become aware of the mechanics that govern your solar system. Giant’s Deep, which from a distance looks like a gas giant, is actually an ocean planet whose surface is churned up by giant tornadoes. Brittle Hollow, as its name says, is hollowed out and highly unstable, its rocky surface collapsing and falling into the black hole at its centre as time goes on. Then there are the Hourglass Twins, binary planets orbiting each other as they also orbit the sun, generating a gravitational pull that slowly draws the sand that covers the Ash Twin’s surface to the Ember Twin. Over time, these places change, they’re alive.
The solar system you explore is clearly not realistic, strictly speaking. The planets are roughly the size of those in The Little Prince, and as you put on your space suit and exit your vessel, you can generally get from one pole to the other and back again in minutes, the same time it takes the planets to spin around their axis or orbit the sun. Due to its scale and the simple, clean visuals, the world does feel like something of a toy at first – but at the same time it feels coherent, not realistic but real. It is a solar system governed by physics and other rules that allow you to learn more about the world as you observe it. Most open worlds in games offer less of a simulation than an imitation of reality, but even when this imitation is high in fidelity, it is shallow and it doesn’t take much to discover its limitations. It all looks and feels real as long as you don’t look at it too closely. The developers of Outer Wilds, by comparison, decided on a small number of systems that can be understood – gravity, inertia, light, but also more mysterious systems such as quantum materials whose state depends on whether they are currently being observed. If X happens when you do Y, then the same will happen when you try elsewhere. If the sandy surface of the Ash Twin is pulled to the Ember Twin, then the circumference of one body diminishes while that of the other grows. If falling into the black hole at the centre of Brittle Hollow results in you falling out of the white hole at the edge of the system, then the houses built on the interior of the planet will also emerge there as the planet’s crust collapses inwards.
In games, exploration is usually a question of going places and seeing things. Outer Wilds is one of the few games where exploration is about understanding the places and things you observe. It is about testing these observations and drawing conclusions. The game is also about many other things – transience, mortality, acceptance, loneliness and companionship, amongst others – but first and foremost it puts you in the role of an explorer and a scientist, not by dressing you in a white lab coat or by giving you the option to spout pre-written, smart-sounding lines of dialogue, but by asking you to follow your curiosity. You are not a tourist hoping for snazzy snapshots, you’re hoping to gain understanding. As a result, and differently from the millions of planets in Elite, the celestial bodies of Outer Wilds don’t just exist on the screen in front of you, they come into being in your mind and imagination. Compared to some of the behemoths of open-world gaming, the world of Outer Wilds may be quaintly small – but there are few game worlds that have expanded in my imagination as completely as this one.