Not long ago, in the familiar land of Facebook, I made a simple claim. That "Outer Wilds" is my favorite game of all time. Such claims, I do not make lightly. It's rare that anything impresses me to the extent this game has.
Yet, this game has a problem. It is a game about discovery. Its very nature makes it susceptible to improper characterization by superfluous words. It is simply too easy and natural to say this is "the best game ever", when so little else can be said without ruining the experience for a reader (or listener). Yet, there is so much this game does right! So much beauty hidden within it, that I must say something. I must discuss it.
Outer Wilds is best experienced blind, so I will not honor that experience for you. I will spoil nothing. I will attempt to dodge every single moment of awe or discovery that I had experienced. Be it plot, mechanics, or even the design and names of the planets.
Instead, let's talk about how this game turned me into an explorer. Let's talk about the "tutorial area". The village on Timber Hearth.
And so, my journey begins
I grab my first "quest" from the creature sitting in front of me (known as a Hearthian, like myself). I have to go over to the end of the village, to talk to someone to give me some launch codes, as I am the next brand new cadet of the Hearthian Space Program! I walk around talking to everyone in this poorly lit janky little village and gather what I perceive to be several side quests. And I do them, each taking only a couple minutes to complete.
There's this guy who wants me to fix his "satellite" in a zero gravity cave (teaching me how to use my jetpack). 2 children look up to me like I'm the hero of the village, and they want to play hide and seek (teaching me another mechanic). Another fellow, very proud of his wooden "model space ship", invites me to try and pilot it remotely (which I do without any semblance of success).
I've no clue what's going on so far and everything feels like a 1 minute side quest which I could have easily skipped, but, like in an IKEA, there's something bound to attract your attention.
Eventually I reach the end of the road, I'm about to get my launch codes from a friendly person, who's excited to meet the first space cadet who will carry a translator to space to decypher the writing of a precursor race known as the Nomai. He then presents me with a brilliant question.
I knew exactly what that question was! THE NEXT QUEST. This is it, I've played a bit with all these other little fellows, it's time to finally get out of the tutorial and embark on my journey, and head to my destination. I pick an answer, and he gladly gives me a pointer on where to go to get there.
The first time in space is gorgeous
Everything is constantly moving, slowly, all the planets dancing elegantly around the sun, as I slowly accelerate towards the moon and land, as safely as I can. The place is mostly barren, but I find something of interest here, then there, then on the other side of the moon. What was missing all of a sudden, was that I had completely forgotten about the quest.
Because there was never a quest to begin with. The question was there to give you an initial path, and to mask away the choice paradox. The vast options at your disposal as a player, options you don't even dream about yet.
My goals, my desires, and whatever pushed me forward through this game changed the second I got out of the atmosphere of my dear planet, Timber Hearth. And the point of the tutorial, was to get me accustomed to this world, and get me out there as fast as possible, and as excited as it could. And after that point, the game never provided an explicit direction or goal. Only questions, and hints, and rumors of other places yet unexplored.
I can't think of another one right now which knowingly subverts the main game loop in the tutorial, pretending to be a classic RPG and then turning into something else. And I feel it does that just to make a connection with a player. Playing like a familiar trope for a few minutes, to get you through just enough content that you start building up intrinsic motivation and curiosity.
But it can't be that forever. It must eventually become one of the best games ever designed. It must remove the floor from under your feet, invisibly, at the right time when you are ready to go out there and... explore!
So go out there, you beautiful new space cadet. See what this universe has in store for you!