by Luv Mehta
This is an article I've wanted to write for a very long while.
Outer Wilds is a 2019 video game that I finished in 2020, and towards the beginning of 2021, I was listening to a podcast episode specifically dedicated to the experience of finishing this game. Austin Walker, one of the hosts of Waypoint Radio, talked about how, once he finished it, he immediately has the thought of being sure that this was his favourite game of 2020. This thought continued, though, and he had to ask himself - was it more than just that?
I related to this sentiment a lot, and I had some thoughts of my own knocking about in my head since completing it. I had one specific experience I've never had with any other piece of media, and had never thought I'd feel after watching any movie, reading any book, or playing any game. I've tried to put this experience into words for a long while, and I've decided to finally write it out and release it as an article.
So, this is the story of how Outer Wilds, the space exploration adventure game, gave me an existential crisis. This isn't an article I could spin into anything positive, so apologies in advance.
Some major spoilers are present in the article, and while I won't mention anything in the endgame, I do spoil some mysteries that you might want to figure out by yourself if you were looking forward to playing this game sometime in the future. This is a game about discovery, so if you haven't played the game, I'd recommend you read this article only if you don't plan on playing it.
Outer Wilds puts you in the shoes of a fledgling astronaut belonging to an alien race in a solar system far, far away. You learn the ropes of navigation in zero-gravity, you learn how to operate your equipment and your ship, and when you go to retrieve the launch codes for your spaceship from a senior scientist, he asks you what you're going to do first. The developers have talked about this dialogue choice in multiple interviews, and how it was engineered to make the player feel like they were empowered to go anywhere and do anything. The first half-hour of the game is fully designed to stoke your curiosity and make you excited to explore space, and when you finally board your spaceship, you have a whole solar system to explore.
Then, 22 minutes later, the sun suddenly goes supernova, and you have no option but to watch it change colour and expand, vaporizing every planet in its way until it reaches you. And then you die.
And then you wake up at the very beginning.
A couple of months ago, I was discussing nihilism with a couple of friends. I'm sure readers will know this, but I'll give a short primer just in case - nihilism, in the existential sense, refers to the theory that there is no meaning or purpose to life, the universe, or anything at all. There are two reactions one might have when they take this theory to heart and accept it. The first is pessimism, where one loses the will to do or believe in anything at all, because there is no inherent value in any action or thought or moral stance. The second is optimism, where one can still recognize the lack of inherent value in those things, but feel emboldened by it and impose their own value on the universe. In short, pessimistic nihilists believe life has no meaning and nothing is worth doing, optimistic nihilists believe that life has no meaning except what you give it, so you get to define the worth of your actions yourself.
A lot of people talk about the concept of anti-nihilism as a concept to contrast with nihilism, but any descriptions of the same invariably end up being that of optimistic nihilism. One of my friends were talking about a discord server they had joined, where people were circulating PDFs of a book talking about Friedrich Nietzsche and how he actually advocated for the opposite of nihilism, and I argued that Nietzsche never said that the absence of inherent meaning was a reason for pessimism. The idea that nothing has any inherent meaning can be taken in either a negative or positive way, and a lot of people automatically associate nihilism with pessimism, but that isn't really the case, I argued.
Here's the thing - I was wrong.
Outer Wilds is a game where you're stuck in a 22 minute time loop, and you have a whole solar system working in clockwork synchronization to provide a near-deterministic simulation of planets, their weather patterns, their orbits, etc. What this means, in simplified terms, is that every time you start the loop and go to any planet in the solar system, you will see the same movement in the planets, see falling columns of sand fill in caves in close to the exact same time, and walk on a crumbling world with black holes at its center that collapses inwards in mostly the same way. And as you go through this simulated solar system, you explore wondrous planets - twin planets in orbit with each other that periodically shift their sandy crust from one planet to the other (called the Hourglass Twins, for obvious reasons), the aforementioned black hole planet, a giant water planet with perpetually persistent cyclones, and a cracked, infected shell of a planet that twists and turns inwards into an abstract recursion of folded space.
And as you keep exploring, you find out more about the Nomai, a spacefaring species that lived in these planets millions of years ago, whose people all went extinct in some unknown event a long while ago. The more you find out about them, the deeper the mystery goes, and at one point, you realize that the time loop you're stuck in is a result of some powerful feat of technology they created. A long while ago, the Nomai sought to induce a supernova in the sun through an orbital station and harness its power, all in order to send the memories of certain people back in time before the station was activated.
The hubris of science, then - a classic trope in science fiction, where people too far removed from morality decide to perform scientific experiments without regard for its results, and unwittingly unleash a disaster. It's a familiar trope, and I naturally came to the conclusion that this was the central mystery's solution, after which the goal of the game became clear - stop the station, shut down the time loop machine, save the solar system.
Except it wasn't that simple.
The Nomai weren't a native part of the solar system - they were part of a giant spacefaring civilization with a cultural hunger for discovery, and they travelled through space searching for something they called the Eye of the Universe - something they believed to be a living, breathing core where everything in existence originated. A long time ago, the crew of one of their spaceships detected a frequency they quickly theorized were coming from the Eye, jumped through lightspeed, and immediately got caught in the folded innards of the infected planet in your solar system, with the survivors stranded across multiple other planets and isolated from the rest of their species.
As you go through the game and explore the solar system, you find giant structures, small homesteads and schools, and as you translate the writings you find across the system, you find out more about the people who inhabited them long ago. The Nomai rebuilt, carving out planets with no fauna and ethically avoiding planets with living microorganisms, and eventually found each other across planets and reunited. You find out about this through diary entries of lovers separated and worried for each other, siblings bickering and joking with each other, scientists discussing the wonders they've found in this solar system, and you find out about the hopes, dreams, and fears of these people and feel closer to them.
And you do it all while stepping over their skeletons and spacesuit-bound corpses.
There are a series of runes you can find and translate that were written by a Nomai woman named Solanum. Born and brought up in your solar system all those millions of years ago, she had never known anything but the hardship of surviving in a place that's not hers, and had to struggle with the optimism and joy of discovery her elders showed. The Eye, she wrote, might not exist at all, and the message frequency they discovered might have been wrong. Or they weren't, and the Eye purposefully stranded them there. "They say it brought us to this solar system," she writes, "but is that good? Dad told me lots of Nomai died when our clan came here. What if the Eye wanted that to happen? What if the Eye isn’t something good?"
Eventually, you make your way to the Sun Station. Armed with all the knowledge you've found, you reach its interiors and look for the controls to disable it, and you realize, with horror, that the Sun Station was a failure. The notes there indicate that the Nomai failed to make it work, and they were never able to get the time loop project up and running. A nearby display tells you the time left till the sun explodes in your current time loop, and notes that it's reached the end of its natural life cycle.
You, the protagonist, have been born into a species that has a natural thirst for discovery and a goal to explore all that your telescopes have found, and you have all reached this moment in your evolution at the exact time your solar system was about to end. You were always doomed, and there was nothing you could ever have done to stop the sun from going supernova. The only reason you were stuck in the dying breaths of your local sun's life was because its explosion accidentally activated the time loop project, and you happened to be accidentally paired to one of the machines they used to sync people to their earlier memories.
And this can be a moment you use to motivate yourself, find more about the technology the Nomai used and see if you can use it to change things somehow. Time travel, that was a thing they basically invented, right? What was that for?
Outer Wilds took me around 24 hours to complete, and a lot of it was spent exploring the wondrous planets in the system, using my knowledge of the time loop to access places I otherwise couldn't, use the machines of the Nomai and see what they did, and find notes and make discoveries I could use to access other parts of other planets I had found. The central allure of the game was the feeling I got when I solved the interconnected mysteries in front of me, and I never really gained any powers or upgrades - it's not really that kind of game. The only reward I got for my exploration was discovery, and the purpose of that discovery was to find new ways to explore inaccessible places, and this loop of exploration and discovery formed an immensely satisfying experience for me.
All that, and there was still this pit that kept forming at the bottom of my stomach, this fear that all I was doing was for nothing.
When you read philosophers and their works on nihilism, you'll find that they don't really make the distinction between optimistic and pessimistic nihilism the way I was making earlier - both are natural conclusions they draw from the concept. Nietzsche talks about how nihilism naturally brings about a destruction of the sacred precepts of life we hold dear, like the values we've always held as being morally righteous and correct, and the pessimism that comes about from that isn't a wrong conclusion - it's a necessary step to overcome if you want to accept the power you have over your life and value system, and it's an inevitable step. If someone hasn't experienced it, they haven't fully understood the sheer helplessness that existential nihilism makes people feel, and they haven't fully appreciated the power of the responsibility they must take on for their own self.
I've talked about a lot of the discoveries you can make in the game, but I have to switch to first-person for the rest of this account, for reasons that will hopefully become clear very soon. Before that, though, for this next part, I must ask you, the reader, for a favour - I've included one of the tracks from the game's soundtrack below, and I'd appreciate it if you could play it while you read the rest of the article.
As I explored the solar system, I eventually made my way through to Dark Bramble, the farthest planet from the sun, the infected planet where space folded into itself. I found small holes in the planet, entered them, and the space around expanded to a massive, foggy area with dangerous predators - it was literally, as Doctor Who fans would say, bigger on the inside. And it went further beyond - I found a gnarled network of roots and branches with small pods at certain junctures that you could enter, which expanded inwards even further, like a Matryoshka doll of extradimensional spaces, all with giant space anglerfish that roared and lunged towards your spaceship to devour and kill you.
And at the center of it all, I found the Nomai vessel, the spaceship that they had crash-landed on. The Nomai referred to this Vessel as being alive in certain entries they had kept, and mentioned that it was mortally wounded when it crashed. With all the corpses of the people I had found, I had lost count of the amount of dead people I had seen, all the diary entries I found belonging to people I saw lying on the ground, all their lives and aspirations cut short - this was just another corpse I was walking through, albeit a mechanical one, whose life I would never understand or be able to witness. And as I made my way to the central bridge, I found a signal from other Nomai in the universe. There were Nomai who were alive, people who were still exploring and travelling, people with spaceships that could feasibly transport us, I hoped, saving us from the clutches of the dying sun.
"To any Nomai clans whose Vessels can hear this message," the message said, "It’s clear the universe is dying... Any Vessels nearby, remember to be extremely cautious of potentially unstable stars (which is most of them, now)."
It wasn't enough that my player character took flight on the day the sun was destined to die - it wasn't just all of my species, it was everyone else, always doomed, because the heat death of the universe was already underway.
I took my spaceship out of Dark Bramble and into the relative safety of space. With very little time left before the next supernova, I decided to look at the distant stars, and saw a small fizzle in one of them, followed by darkness. Then, after a while, another one. Then another one. All of the stars were exploding, and the lights were going out, one by one. Nothing I did had any meaning. Nothing I could do was going to save anyone. Death is all there was, and I stayed there, helpless, powerless.
And then it wasn't just me in the game - I was acutely aware of myself and my place in the room, in the city, in the world, in a vast, exciting, mysterious, uncaring universe, and everything felt to me like it was worth nothing. Humankind will eventually die. The world will freeze over, then boil over, then be enveloped by the scorching heat of a dying sun. Life is an accident in the grand scheme of things, years feeling like seconds in the eternity of existence, and each of my successes felt like they had no meaning, each failure felt like it was fated, and I felt infinitesimally small.
And as these thoughts all came crashing down and made my head feel heavy, I saw the small laptop screen in front of me, the small simulation of the sun turning blue and expanding, devouring everything in its path, and it was only a matter of seconds until my screen was enveloped in whiteness, and another death passed.
And I finally understood the helplessness people experience in the face of nothingness.
Outer Wilds is a far more optimistic game than what I've shown in this article - and I haven't revealed so much about the mysteries in the game, so if you were on the fence about getting it, I highly encourage you do - but it doesn't promise you a happy ending. There is an eventual goal you discover by yourself that brings forth an immensely satisfying ending, but the story doesn't change the fact that you're doomed. The loop of discovery and exploration is all you have - but you're given the power to choose what you want to do, where you want to go, which wonder you want to experience next. Exploration, the game posits, is its own reward, and no matter what your fate might be, what matters is the here and now, and the free will you exercise in the choices you make. You alone can decide the value of your actions, and it's scary, and it's life-affirming - but I can't find much in the way of helping anyone go through their own moments of helplessness and feelings of insignificance.
It'll get better. You've got the power to make it better. Only you can make it better.