If I try to trace back to the moment my gaming fade began, I think it starts with my brother’s acquisition of an N64. I simply never loved that machine. Goldeneye was okay, but I couldn’t get into 3D Mario, and Starfox 64 was finicky. But the worst of all was Ocarina of Time. I don’t know why I disliked that game so much, but as I watched my brother pour dozens if not hundreds of hours into exploring every nook and cranny of that game I found myself utterly bored.
I have felt that boredom several times since when I halfheartedly tried some popular, “all-time-great” games, trying to see if I could get my love back. Morrowind. Skyrim. Minecraft. Witcher 3. Arkham City (even though I loved Asylum.) I even felt it toward the end of my beloved Dragon Quest XI and had to take a six-month break in the middle of the endgame.
I have come to associate that feeling with the words “open world.” Nothing makes me doubt whether I will like a game more than those words.
And so I started Outer Wilds with some hesitation. This game is as open a world (well, solar system) as you can get. No quests, no clear objective, just a tiny bespoke solar system, a spaceship, and in-story immortality. In the end, I’m glad I played it.
My favorite thing about Outer Wilds is the environments, a series of insanely weird planets that are, honestly, awe-inspiring. A hollow planet with a black hole at its center, slowly collapsing as you try to explore it. A water planet with cyclones so large they can propel you, and the island you are on, into space. Double planets where sand is slowly moving from one to the other, for unknown reasons, covering things on the second and revealing things on the first. Each of these, and the four or five other planets, planetoids, and space stations you explore, bring their own challenges, accidental deaths, and moments of genuine awe. This game makes me want a better gaming PC more than any other game ever has; 1600x900 and 30fps usually doesn’t bother me, but this game cries out to be explored at 1440p or better.
The physics of actually playing is fine. You fly a spaceship and a jetpack, and they have the same Newtonian controls - four directional rockets controlled by the left joystick, and up-and-downward facing ones controlled by your triggers. There are a few surprisingly challenging platforming and stealth bits to keep your heart racing, but this is mostly a game of slow hide and seek; information hides, and you seek.
I was drawn in immediately. Everywhere I went I was finding cool information, building up my understanding, and discovering new brilliant elements of design. And the music is great! So fun! But then things started to slow down for me. Clues got more cryptic. I fell into a black hole 6 times in a row and had to start over, on a different planet, each time. The novelty was wearing off and I didn’t see a clear path forward, so I started to feel the old open-world-itch.
What saved it for me was, well, “cheating.” I avoided true spoilers as best as I could, but I started skimming walkthroughs to get a clue for the next step, or confirmation I wasn’t wasting my time. I know that this kind of game is supposed to be solved as part of the fun, but I needed the help. By getting me over the hump, they kept me from quitting.
In the end, I’m very glad I played. This game is a work of beauty and brilliance, and the ending lived up to its billing; I cried. I’m also glad to be finished. Outer Wilds is not going to join my Best of All Time list, as it has for so many. For me, the frustration and impatience I felt in my roundabout path to completion made that impossible. But it was a beautiful work of art, and I’m glad I overcame my hesitation and played it all the way through.
How do you feel about open worlds? Am I overgeneralizing? What games should I try that might change my mind, or, alternatively, what non-open games should I play? Breath of the Wild is already on my list, and I’m playing the semi-open Mass Effect 2 in short bursts - what should I add?