The closer to perfection, the more scarring a single blemish. That’s not petty, it’s a single drop of wine on a white dress. How could you not see it? That doesn’t detract from the quality, craftsmanship, or design choices. It would just be more prudent to not sew a dress with a glass of merlot in your hand. Outer Wilds doesn’t exactly have any flaws. Bugs, sure, but not something that is less than it could be, or is not quite achieved as well as it should be. Instead, for all that Wilds is, there is somewhere in it where an absence of a more… no less. Hmm. I realise that the more terse my description of this that is not observed, is, the less worth of discussion it is. “The more I prob it up to be something noteworthy, the more noteworthy it is”? No, it's not like that. There are some experiences in life that will drift away from understanding as soon as you solidify them in specifics, the actual experience being no less real, yet all the more elusive. Certain (most?) parts of Wilds seem like they would benefit from being discussed by an expert. Obviously how it uses physics comes to mind first, but beyond that, where Wilds fits in the culture of science fiction is worth looking at. Wilds itself is not heavy on cutscenes, but while it elaborates on its story through writing all over the solar system you traverse, you actively get to experience most of what the story describes to you. Not through being present when conversations took place, but by seeing and understanding what the properties, machines, and planetary bodies do, so that old conversations make sense. Both as a game and as a science fiction story, this makes Wilds something different, though my proclivity to shun science fiction novels simply because I almost universally hate their covers, makes me regret that I haven’t read more in this genre, so as to see where it fits in the greater picture of such literature. Simply by the sheer volume of fantasy games, movies, and novels that I’ve dissolved in one of my many maws, I can attest that best stories are usually found in the novels. That’s just a fact, and a self-evident one. Novels are, pretty much always, about the story. Movies contend with more elements. Games, even more. It would follow that science fiction games face the same challenges, and when Wilds then makes me think it’s a brilliant science fiction game, I sure would like to know if it’s a remarkable science fiction story in general. Perhaps savvy science fiction readers have come to like certain story aspects of the genre, despite how often they occur, or perhaps there are those that have seen through the veil, and come to understand that what I find indicative of something that is to dislike in Wilds, is simply an unavoidable consequence of the story that is being told. It can’t be denied that I might not be criticising Wilds for how it does what it does, but lamenting something that it isn’t, and I’ll be the first to say: it’s not fair to knock it for that.
Kinda feels like we've been through this before, right? Oh, I'm not trying to be clever. It just occurs to me that the very act of doing something in a loop, slowly uncovering every minute detail, and becoming an almost celestial being, not just for your repetitive nature, but because of your by the end almost omniscience, is the essence of video games. Whether it's the kill, death, repeat mantra of so many games, or it's the "trapped in a loop to uncover all the secrets'', they're essentially the same. Not only am I claiming an almost pedestrian "other games have done the time loop mechanic before". I'm ascending to absolute Zetta Emperor of Pedantics, and saying "pff, every game is a time loop". This is a fancy way of getting anybody who has played Wilds, into a frenzy before getting to my actual theory: what makes Wilds' take on time loops unique, is not exactly its combination with astro and particle physics, but rather that its devotion to using those fields playfully, and the almost template-tier first person mechanics (you move, you jump, you press interact), creates a contour of the player. And the player is not the immediate character controlled by you. The player is the universe. The player character is a cursor. It's what happens when an idea is larger than a gun. And Wilds is a drunken knife fight, with the sun. Any other game will put a boson rifle in your hand, and, really, that would have been an intergalactic carnival. Wilds gives you gravity itself, and it takes an entire game to wield this.
Reading about Wilds elsewhere gives me the impression that we're talking about the type of game that is intended to be played by those not versed in stock mainstream video games. The kind that are assailed after psychotic Americans pull a weekly. When made for such a person (the one who doesn't like games, not the mass murderer), the game is often made reductively easy to play and to win. Clearly I’m getting the wrong impression. Wilds is not harsh, it just doesn’t care about you. It’s as indifferent to the player as the subjects described in all the Wikipedia articles the players will read afterwards to assimilate a modicum of knowledge about these, are. In Wilds it’s tough to walk, jump and even look around. It’s so very driven by its physics, but also, as a consequence, by its lack of being very game-like at all. Very few elements snap, click or crack. Everything just sort of slides, floats, and flops around. This irked me to no end in the beginning. Feeling my own mastery of the player character's actions increases is how I bond (get stockholm syndrome) with a game. If Wilds was gonna play like eating pizza with a hammer, I had some concerns about finishing the thing. I'm not gonna lie, in the beginning I didn't like it, and I only stuck it out because I thought it was a 3-4 hour experience. It's definitely bigger than that, though simply by being such a designed experience, a by necessity, finite experience. As I started to realise what I was getting into, I understood this wasn't a game that had failed at achieving sharp, eloquent controls. It was striving for something else entirely and telling me would have been spoiling the surprise. Before I could afford new consoles, I spent a great deal of time playing overlooked, often fan-translated, NES, and SNES games. Once you dig into the more arcane libraries, you realise how little video games have grown and how little they need modern controllers. Many of them are still (gameplay-wise) two-dimensional. Not so with Wilds. The core of the game is continuous, not discrete. Despite how little is done by the player from their perspective, the use of not one, but TWO analog sticks absolutely makes the experience. I guess some people use a mouse and a keyboard. The point is, an SNES version of this game wouldn't even be remotely close to achieving the same reactions as Wilds does in its very reality inspired form. The more I think about it, the more I want to make this impossible SNES game. I think I see how. This isn't about that. That doesn't matter, the method of implementing my idea is taking shape as I write this. I'll keep it for myself (three days have passed since I wrote that. I was sober. Then drunk. Then hungover. It was a terribly uninspired idea. I would still play it if someone else did it, but I would know. I would IMMEDIATELY know how absolutely void of critical thought or inspirational light they were). So since it’s not very game-like, and if I get the impression that it’s not for gamers, shouldn’t these two parts spoon like an appropriately proportioned couple? A buddy of mine called it a Walking Sim in a non-disparaging manner. While I'm not quite sure how he mentally juggled those two perspectives (an (in my mind) derogative descriptor, and it being admirable), it really isn't. Movement is involved, and complex. It requires an enormous amount of spatial and temporal reasoning. The puzzles are esoteric and often non-euclidean. Every task asked to perform is contingent on a wealth of game experience in order to even be navigable, though in the Venn-diagram of experienced players and Hailey "who like, once tried the Flappy Birds", neither really has the prerequisite skills to actually solve the conundrums. Admittedly, me liking Wilds oscillated immensely for each time I opened the game up. It seemed impenetrable in the beginning and certain puzzles were definitely made more troublesome than necessary by the game's inherent impression. Dropping it entirely was definitely on the table even about an hour before completing it, it was that frustrating. Then it dawned on me how the task at hand was a puzzle and not an exercise in aptitude, and I was able to reach an ending that a second buddy had described as quite good (I don't know what he said. He liked it, okay?). He was right.
To my first buddy I would say "you mean Gone Home without all gay stuff?". Wilds is Metroid Prime for people who roll their eyes at ice cream, though you can play it even if you like the sweet dessert. It's excellent. You get to actually discover ancient secrets not designed to combine the aesthetics of Gieger with the usability of Fisher-Price and the functionality of being a god damned fucking door. Cutting out the lawn-mowing of alien lifeforms (except your own), and the fitting of pegs into holes (ironically this is one of the few actions you perform besides Space Walking (that sounds like being a prost on the ISS (speaking of pegs and holes!))) really alleviates the dissonance apparent in most lore or story driven games not made by Kojima. This trait of letting you almost truly discover alien civilizations and puzzle out their secrets should not be forgotten. Creating it required Mobius Digital Games (their CEO is Masi Oka from Heroes, how weird is that?) to completely ignore the sensible choice of ever holding the player's hand. Yet if that’s what it took. This praise unfortunately makes the next criticism so much more annoying. Almost all information comes from log messages left behind, and though they're covered up as alien scribbles with an interesting linguistic and technological twist, they're log messages. I hate to invoke The Return of the Obra Dinn, but it showed us all how elegantly and not-in-conflict with the in-game universe, narrative exposition could be. It hurts, it really does, that Wilds was not able to avoid conveniently left behind thoughts and commentary by those no longer among the living, at just the right time. And what an unfair criticism. Solving that problem for this game, feels like it would be an achievement every other game afterwards would copy faster than I can brew an exquisite cup of coffee for a friend, and then smugly await their praise, knowing full well that you’d have to be a social deviant to ever say anything but “mmm, sure is a good coffee”. Not that my coffee brewing technique, selection of beans, and manner of grinding aren't in a class of their own. It took me a long time to admit to myself, but the quality isn't imagined at all. I'm almost shaking now. I suddenly remembered someone asking for a drop of milk. That's just not right. Milk covers up the problems of bad coffee, it doesn't enhance the virtues of good coffee. Learn the difference.
Before starting university a second time (of three) I took a trip to the city it was located in. We visited the school of architecture, and I was consumed with jealousy for my girlfriend. That place was overflowing with creative energy, and the promise of what its students were going to achieve. Afterwards we went to the university and wandered the halls and I couldn't help but feel disappointed in myself. I had wanted to enter the animation school. Having failed in creating an enticing portfolio twice, dropping out of university once, and being unemployed in the spring of 2009 (an unfortunate time to need a job in many places), I thought I might as well try studying Japanese. There was something stuffy and old about the university. It was a feeling I've later come to reminisce about, disappointed that the Asian Studies department was moved to a more modern, almost corporate, building later on, but during that little trip to the city, I found it off-putting. Fortunately the day was much improved afterwards. We ate lunch in the university park and watched some guys play some sort of soccer-based drinking game, and then strolled down the hill into a hip cafe area, drinking fancy coffee, and going to art supply shops. This was a big, and pretty city, for hip young people like me and my girlfriend. A few years later, uni was over, and I felt like I’d been everywhere over, and over, and over, again. It’s obvious why I would tie a place’s size to how much you know of it, and reciprocally, why it would seem almost unfathomably big when you know nothing of it. Naturally, games might be similar, and it is often why we move on to other games. Except, even when we move on, some things stay with us, leaving a feeling of not exactly being unexplored as much as still having stories to tell, that it will never reveal. How, and when this feeling is achieved (and it is something to achieve) I am not quite sure. It can be a bitter feeling. Sometimes I imagine a story has built itself up so that I will absolutely be told about the how’s and the why’s, but then in the end there was just nothing. Sometimes it’s an actual problem with the story, a plothole one might say. Sometimes, I need to look at myself and realize I was missing the point. And of course, sometimes, I got the point, but it wasn’t very profound, and they really should just have finished LOST like a normal story, they weren’t Dostoevsky (I’m not saying he wrote obtuse narratives, I’m saying he was profound and if he did write something a little cryptic, it wouldn’t have been forced, but to whatever point he was making). The ability to achieve a complete understanding of Wilds, is its most game-like feature. It is a book manuscript that the author printed without page numbers, and threw into the air. Eventually you’ll piece the book back together and it was actually The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Could Wilds still be a game if you got all the way to Bowser’s Castle and then went “I still have no idea how jumping works''? I kind of know what the ludological answer is, but I really don’t want to say that Final Fantasy XV is the Infinite Jest of video games.
Wilds has no predeterminism, no sudden villain, no 'we took this form because your mind couldn't comprehend our actual form'. Hells bells, there isn't even any higher dimensionality. The last one would probably have been pretty cool in Wilds (but also outside confirmed reality). So would time dilation (which I thought would be present), and Dark Matter. That's okay. Material for a sequel that'll hopefully never manifest. You don’t want a sequel to Little Miss Sunshine either, you know? Time dilation would actually solve a mechanical problem the game has, now that I think about it: Only want to try a single thing, but can’t because a bunch of stuff needs to occur beforehand? Take a nap near a black hole and watch time snail by at a breakneck pace. I’m not criticising Wilds for not having this, I just thought the idea was fun. Those initial "doesn't have"s are meant as praise. I've certainly never written a science fiction story, but assume it must feel awfully good including the time travel paradox of "you tell me to go, cause I told you to tell me, cause you told me to…". Why else would it happen so often? Anyway, well done, writers, not only for writing a good story, but for performing what I assume must be delaying the purest sexual gratification a science fiction author can get?
I read in a book about octopi that humans are unique because they think in terms of time. At least I think it was the octopus book. Might have been the book about time. We are always thinking about cause and effect. It’s how you solve every challenge in this game, how you formulate ideas for how to continue, and eventually it’s how you begin to see where everything is going. It’s even, sort of, where the fun in the game is. It’s in the in-between of not knowing and already knowing, that makes you go “oh, now I get it”. Really, the fun is gone after you “got” it. Wilds also has you say “oh that’s really cool”, and saying that is pretty fun too. Yet about half way through it, I understood how this would end, and I knew it was how it had to be. I didn’t know every second for second how it would play out, but if you were to finish Wilds and talk with me about it, you’d know what I mean. I’m being coy about it, because saying it outright is crude. It’s a question of scale. Of the game, and of the theme. It’s inherent in Wild’s reluctance to be game-like. It’s not actually specifically because of those convenient space emails. They are definitely symptoms, but even without them, this shape-like thought would still have formulated. In the very first paragraph I mentioned wine on a dress, but really, it’s a freckle. Freckles aren’t ugly, they’re just there. Occasionally they’re very cute. In this case it’s being told of how a friend’s friend looks. They’re red-headed, your friend says. Later on it dawns on you that your friend’s friend probably has freckles. Not that your friend’s friend was designed and cloned in a vat, but if they were, it would have been a little daring of your friend’s friend’s designers, to omit the freckles.
Are you getting the sense that the problem I'm describing with Wilds lies outside a conventionally fair point to make? Or that I'm just observing the tiniest possible issue with an electron microscope? Were this a review, it's the kind of notion that gets hidden in a box of extra thoughts, almost a pet peeve. Instead it's the only thing I can think about, constantly appearing and disappearing from my mind when I consider my time with Wilds. The minimalist internal mechanics of the player character, the universal mechanics of the game's reality, and the narrative that permeates the setting, are all building upon each other, overlapping and gesturing me towards a specific somewhere. Yes, I am outside what is conventionally worthy of praise or necessitates rebuke, but it is an overarching issue that will mortify as a trope, and eventually make those that came before Wilds into involuntary self-parody. This isn't because Wilds caused it, but when such a complete and thoroughly crafted experience does this, almost (I suspect) by default, it might be worth addressing, no matter how circuitously.
I had brought my Nintendo 64 on a trip. It must have been somewhere around 2001. This was the last time I cared about one of those time looping games. I think it was an important birthday for one of my paternal grandparents, and we couldn’t make it home on the same day, so we were gonna stay at a hotel. This was definitely exciting to me. Hotels in Denmark are ludicrously expensive, and therefore, to my 12 year old me, they were good. To this day I probably haven’t stayed at a high quality hotel yet. Now that I think about it, saying something like that probably just outs me as a person who has yet to realize that a high quality hotel is an oxymoron. It seemed fancy at the time. Majora’s Mask had been a frustrating journey, and a childishly disappointing one as well. I’d definitely hoped for Ocarina of Time 2. This was something else. I wish I’d been a discerning enough kid to realize that it meant something much, much better, but sadly, I wanted a big world, ten dungeons, and for that nail in the dick of a time loop to scram. The frustrating experience had been compounded because my brother and I had decided to complete it together, but there sure had been some misunderstandings about when to play, such that progression had been made in the absence of the other, and this inconsiderate behaviour had left some bitterness behind. My brother finished elementary school by doing the optional tenth grade at a sort of boarding school. This is normal in Denmark. These schools often have a specific focus, like an art curriculum. My brother’s school was about health and exercise. It had a running team, all punishment was dealt out in push ups and they went swimming in the ocean every morning, including all through winter. Him staying at this school might have been why I had brought the Nintendo 64. He wouldn’t have been able to continue playing if he was only at home once a month or every other month, but we had maybe picked him up for this birthday party. I must have reached the moon, ready to face off against Majora. The artstyle of this game, coupled with its melancholic setting, and subdued story all coalesce into an incredible ending. We didn’t have all the masks. We didn’t even have the Great Fairy’s Sword. This didn’t matter. This game was a league above its contemporaries (and successors?). Had I already finished it before this evening, and simply wanted to show the ending to my brother? Or had I held off finishing the journey until he could join in? Whatever the case, I remember how he didn’t really care. Not that anyone ever really knows what anyone is thinking, but to say that he is to me a black box with an effectively incomprehensible behaviour pattern, is apt. Maybe he felt betrayed that I had played without him. Or maybe he had just moved on from odd Japanese games towards a strict Counter-Strike 1.6-based diet. It's been twenty years since then and I haven't spoken to him for the last two. In fact it was Easter two years ago, so writing this during Easter means it's exactly two years ago. Where we are when we play things, feed into our play experience, and depending on the various factors in the game, also feed back out again. I don't know if I had had Outer Wilds on my radar before, but after completing The Return of the Obra Dinn together with my girlfriend in a one hundred percent cooperative manner, I was really hoping Wilds would provide something similar. I wish we could have repeated the success, because I eventually had a great experience, but she fell asleep on my lap after twenty minutes and I don't blame her. Wilds has no room for a co-pilot, neither in the spacecraft or in real life. We might not be able to do and redo the same events anywhere but in our mind, fermenting on our errors and constructing illusions of how else to have gone about things. Eerily similar situations happen. Not just as a déjà vu, but simply as everyday affairs. In order to handle life, it’s natural to construct patterns, heuristic solutions, when the same problems arise over and over. Life is not a time loop and doing this has made me cause pain to others. We change, and using the same words, thoughts, or behaviour to console or to be present, when people are sad or hurting, will make things worse. Because the loop becomes real, but only in yourself. You don’t see how the problem is no longer what it used to be, and you’re just predicting behaviour. When the problem hasn’t even changed, it’s even more hurtful. Acting ahead, to remedy a situation that hasn’t happened yet, but will, is disallowing others to express their pain, and they see the frustration in your eyes, when they realize you’re stuck in a loop of your own expectations. I am still in those phone calls with my brother two years ago, arguing, trying to make him see my side. Later my father calls. The problem is too abstract. I waited too many years to confront the issues, because I knew the result. I still know the result, and so I’m stuck in that memory of that evening after Easter. I’m thinking about the regret I will feel once it is too late, and trying to find a way out. A way back. Is this the same behaviour as I scolded myself for before? Perhaps partly. There are too many indicators of future behaviour for me to think it won’t happen again. I’m not talking about a heinous act or anything concretely abusive, but a thoroughly negligent, disregarding, and condescending behaviour, that no longer will affect just me. What a bitter, borderline spiteful choice to make out of a need to protect those I love and who depend upon me. That almost makes me sound like I’m trying to praise myself, when I’m actually saying I’m defaulting to behaviour that must seem to everyone else, childish, and to me, a damned shame.