Pull up a stool, roast yourself a marshmallow and let me tell you a story about Outer Wilds.
After a year of continuous recommendations from my trusted friend, I did it. I bought Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds for my PlayStation 4. I still had other games on my plate, other journeys to go on. Not only that but I had recently begun sharing the PS4/5 with my partner.
Previously a PC gamer, they had been converted by some choice zombie games and were looking for something new. So when I left town for few days, leaving my brand new PS5 behind, I just said “Have a crack at anything loaded on there.”
One of the five games I had ready was Outer Wilds, which I finally had the time for. I didn’t even think about it until my partner called me and told me cheerfully about this strange little exploration game they had started.
So, is Outer Wilds like The Outer Worlds or..?
Not at all! For those of you unfamiliar with Outer Wilds, I’ll try to only explain so much as to get the premise across. The wonder of this game is in its exploration after all, and it’s a shame to spoil it.
Outer Wilds casts you as a space-faring explorer about to set off on their first flight. You leave with only a few clues and directions from your friends on the ground, and can go wherever you want. Do whatever you want.
However! This I guarantee – before the half hour mark, you’ll have died. At which point you will wake up at the start of the game again, but with all your knowledge from before. Your character is aware of their death, too. The quest becomes a search to discover how and why this is happening.
The game features no combat, only exploration, puzzles and some light platforming/piloting. Yet the actual fun itself is in uncovering the mystery of this galaxy. As such, this single player game is great with a regular spectator- which is exactly what happened once I got home.
A few quick galactic heat-deaths before bed.
My partner would play, and I would watch. Certainly, I wished to try my hand at the controls but there wasn’t a significant difference to my enjoyment when I did. Each night, we would play for about an hour – her driving, me with a cup of tea commentating. As we both discovered the galaxy together, we shared our reactions to each new revelation.
After the play session, we would stay up for another hour or so as we got ready for bed. We discussed our theories, what we had learned, how it changed our assumptions, and where we thought it was all going. We proposed plans for the next session, theories on how to progress, etc.
All of this made me think about how we approach playing with friends. Many of us had earlier days of our gaming when we would sit and watch someone else play. Yet as time goes on, it becomes less and less fun to watch another tear through the latest triple-a blockbuster.
Wanna watch me play?
In an era of Let’s Plays and Twitch, it’s easy to forget the feeling of couch-spectating a friend’s game. Granted, the core strength of gaming as a medium – interactivity – suffers. But with the right game, it adds something else in its place.
This is something that companies like Supermassive Games understand well. Their Dark Pictures series (interactive stories akin to a Telltale game) feature a ‘Movie Night’ mode. Here, each player takes turns with different characters. Indeed, the ‘visual novel’ style game could be argued to be the perfect style for these sorts of experiences.
Outer Wilds, in contrast, is centered around one being’s exploration of a dying galaxy. But, as stated before, the game’s fun is mostly in uncovering its mysteries. The only way it tracks these discoveries is via a virtual pin-board with clues; no story elements change.
My partner and I quickly found out that this only records the broad strokes of each discovery, not necessarily the clues hidden in the fine print. As such, an extra pair of eyes felt genuinely useful. Yes, we had those ‘water cooler’ discussions. But our progress being shared meant we worked together on solutions, and shared the genuine thrill of success.
Is it dangerous to go alone?
So what was the point of writing all this? What is the end to my story?
In short, it is this: gaming’s greatest strength is in its interactivity, and we’ve seen that leveraged in countless innovative ways. Yet in the many ways we discuss sharing gaming with our friends and family, I don’t see this come up a lot. I think that’s a shame.
My partner was new to the PlayStation. Multiplayer games that relied on skill and co-operation may have been frustratingly one-sided, or condescending for an adult player. Deep single player narratives that rely on linear stories would either have me avoiding spoilers or knowing what was coming up. Open world games may have been more interesting, but inevitably would find me waiting for the next part that interested me.
Outer Wilds was none of these. It is not multiplayer, but the experience lends itself to conversation. There is a story, but not one that unfolds linearly. It is open world, but all in service of that one plot-line.
All up, sharing this game with my partner was one of the best gaming experiences I had in 2020. If you’re looking to share gaming with someone new to the medium, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Maybe next we’ll check out Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope). Her Story (Sam Barlow). Maybe even something like The Painscreek Killings (EQ studios) or the work of DontNod.
Either way, I look forward to the next game we get to play alone together.
While you’re here…
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Have you got any games that you love to watch others play? Let us know in the comment section! Seriously, I’m looking for recommendations!
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