Note: This post was originally published on facebook on December 15, 2019
I want to tell you how beautiful the sun looks when it explodes, how it fills the sky with blinding blue light. If you stand on a planet far enough out, you can watch death incandescent approach you like a wave.
I want to tell you about the travellers I met before the world ended. How I followed the sound of their music to where they'd landed, sat beside their campfires, and roasted a marshmallow or ten with them. I did not have the heart to tell them they were doomed. But then, I expect that to explore space as they had, in rickety ships bound together with packing tape and rope, with nothing more than a banjo or a harmonica with which to signal home, is to make peace with death.
Outer Wilds is a murder mystery in which the victim is the sun. You play as the unlikeliest of detectives, an explorer sent into space by your home planet's nascent space program. They have no inkling that their world is about to end, but it is. In 22 minutes, the sun will go supernova and everyone will die, including you. Only, through a trick of fate, you will awaken again, 22 minutes earlier, with your memories in-tact.
To play Outer Wilds is to have dozens of small adventures as you puzzle out the workings of its terrifying, bizarre, sublime, clockwork solar system. You might spend one 22-minute cycle as I did, simply trying to land on a comet as it speeds on its orbit toward the sun, waiting for it to draw close enough that the sun's heat melts the surface ice, granting you access to the tunnels inside.
There is an answer to why the sun is exploding, and why you alone are resetting each time, and why it's 22 minutes, and an ending that caps the experience with incredible beauty and hopefulness, but progress is not about growing in power or even saving the world: it's about exploring and understanding, until you can use that 22 minute cycle to reach undiscovered places.
For a game where you only ever have 22 minutes to get something done, it's rarely frantic. Its contemplative score invites you to sit a while and take in the vast, stunning beauty of the unknown. It is, often, a profoundly spiritual experience.
It is also, often, a terrifying one. Because your death by supernova is inevitable, Outer Wilds's designers are free to populate their little solar system with all manner of ways to die. There's the planet whose brittle surface gives way and drops you into a the black hole at its center. The planet whose maze-like foggy interior is populated by anglerfish capable of swallowing your ship whole if they hear you. The planet whose surface cyclones can lift an entire island heavenward.
I have died of asphyxiation in the void of space, crushed by my own spaceship, eaten by an anglerfish, buried alive in sand, crashed into the sun, been stranded on a planet when my ship was deposited on that planet's twin, electrocuted beneath the surface of the ocean, smashed my ship to pieces countless ways, had strange alien matter liquefy me instantly, and been spiked by alien flora.
Each new planet in Outer Wilds tests your courage. If you were not doomed already, some sense of self-preservation might compel you to turn away from your journey. But the sun is going to explode, so you might as well fly directly into that cyclone, or try to drift silently past those anglerfish. Either way, you're not getting out of this alive. But if you succeed, then you will know something you didn't before. And isn't that, in the end, worth it?