Just a heads up, the last section of this article contains spoilers for Outer Wilds. You can safely read up to the spoiler warning, but don’t read beyond that if you plan to play the game. You really need to experience Outer Wilds firsthand, so please don’t ruin it for yourself!
Last week saw the PS4 release of Outer Wilds, the first game from independent developer Mobius Digital. Outer Wilds is difficult to place in a genre, but it shares a lot of its DNA with first-person games like The Witness and Firewatch, combined with the planetary exploration of No Man’s Sky. You take control of an alien astronaut, about to be the latest of its species to be sent into space to explore strange new worlds, as well as look for several missing astronauts from previous expeditions. The galactic exploration doesn’t last long though, as 22 minutes into the game the planet’s sun goes supernova, ending the lives of everyone in the galaxy. You find yourself back where you started, but armed with all the information previously collected. You then have another 22 minutes to add to that information before the galaxy explodes again. The game continues in these 22 minute chunks, allowing you to investigate why the sun is going supernova, how the previous inhabitants of the galaxy are involved, and the whereabouts of your missing astronauts.
This time loop mechanic makes Outer Wilds the experience it is: you simultaneously have infinite time and not enough time. 22 minutes is not long when you’re exploring an entire galaxy and, coupled with the fact that there is no on-screen timer, you’re likely to literally run out of time at a crucial moment. The opposite is also true, since you’ll convince yourself you have seconds left, when in reality it’s much longer. You could time it yourself of course, but you’d be robbing yourself of part of the experience. You might also have your time cut short through your own stupidity, such as flying into the sun or forgetting to put your spacesuit on (yes, I was guilty of both).
Outer Wilds joins a growing list of games centred around time loops. At E3 we saw Microsoft announce 12 Minutes, in which players repeat the same 12 minute time period to prevent their wife’s murder and solve a mystery, and Deathloop, a first-person action game featuring two assassins who murder each other over and over. Also upcoming is Pixel Maniacs’ Escape the Loop. In 2018 time loop games included Into the Breach, Omensight, Minit and All Walls Must Fall, and in 2017 Sexy Brutale used the device. The time loop idea is not without precedent in gaming (in particular we can look back to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask), but it does seem to have gained a new level of popularity in recent years.
In some ways time loops can be seen as a narrative representation of the foundation of game design, the gameplay loop. All games generally work in a loop; the cycle of input – update – output that informs how the game plays. This loop is what keeps you playing. Sometimes it’s obvious to see, like the repetition inherent in a roguelite or the repeated matches of a multiplayer shooter. In a linear story-driven game it can be less obvious, but still recognisable. You see, for example, the acceptance – completion – reward loop of RPG quests. Often games will have multiple loops (there is a really good article explaining this here). As a narrative representation of this time loops do not seek to hide the repetition of the gameplay loop, but are instead pointing directly to it and making it an integral part of the story itself.
Popular culture has always been attracted to the idea of using a time loop to correct a wrong or avert disaster. One only has to look at films such as Groundhog Day, Source Code, and Edge of Tomorrow, as well as TV episodes from the likes of The Twilight Zone, Doctor Who, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek (both TNG and Discovery), Stargate SG-1, and Legends of Tomorrow amongst many, many others. What is it about the time loop that is so compelling? Perhaps it’s that time has always been a commodity, and the idea of having the time to correct every mistake is appealing. In this era of perceived political and social uncertainty, time is perhaps more precious than ever. If games are about wish fulfilment, then maybe the time loop is the ultimate expression of this. Who amongst us has not wished they could have a do-over on something, with more knowledge of how things will turn out?
SPOILERS FOR OUTER WILDS BELOW
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
HERE WE GO
Outer Wilds though, does something different. Unlike most of the examples cited above, there is no solution. You explore the galaxy, you solve all the mysteries, and at the end you are left with nothing to do but sit and wait for the end of the world one final time, sharing that final moment with your friends. It’s a massive gut punch, and while it is an end, it is not the end, since new life springs from the ashes of your galaxy. Just as the player character’s civilisation was built on the ruins of the previous one, so will the galaxy become a home for another future species. Life itself is a loop.
Through this reveal, the game becomes less about wish fulfilment and instead a game about accepting the inevitability of death. In games, death is usually meaningless, it’s merely a mechanic for restarting the gameplay loop: throughout Outer Wilds it’s been used in that exact way, and the time loop makes it even more obvious. By drawing attention to it, however, it is so much more impactful when the final end comes. The game does give you a way of avoiding the end, of living forever, but in many ways it is a worse fate, one that leaves you outside of time and separated from everyone and everything you hold dear. It robs you of the chance to peacefully witness the end with the friends you’ve made along the way. It strikes me that this is a message for real life as well. Death is a terrifying concept, but it’s a part of life, so what’s important is how you live that life and who you live it with. As Gandalf once told us, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”.
Every so often a game comes along that does something you never expected a game could or should be able to do, and Outer Wilds is one of those games for me. I never thought a cartoony game about funny aliens would make me consider my own mortality. It’s why the experience of the game will stay with me for such a long time, and it’s what makes the game so truly unique.