Endings: Outer Wilds and the Inevitable

*Mild Spoilers for Outer Wilds1 ahead*

I awakened by the campfire on Timber Hearth, my home, ascended to the launch site where a cobbled together ship stood, waiting to take me to the stars, a bright yellow sun encouraging me onward. Gingerly, I travelled outward and landed on the Hearthian moon. There, I meet Esker at the lunar outpost, before finding an elaborate observation post, as well as ancient and incomprehensible ruins. Now, some time later, the sun glowers red and, without warning, shrivels up and bursts outward with tremendous force. In silent spectacle, I watch Timber Hearth be swallowed. Seconds pass. Helpless against nature’s overwhelming force, I continue to watch, awed, as bright white light consumes me. I awaken by the campfire.

Outer Wilds is, at its core, a narrative driven puzzle game set in an intricately modelled solar system. It began as student project that accurately simulates the motion and gravity of a small system of tiny fantastical planets but, impressive as that simulation is, I don’t think that its true magic lies there. No, what makes Outer Wilds magical lies in the game’s ability to trigger a wide range of emotional responses through the perfect execution of a single concept: the time-loop. You, the player, are trapped in a Groundhog Day-esque loop that is seemingly unending no matter what you do. In each loop you have 22 minutes to explore your little solar system before the sun collapses in on itself and sets the system aflare in a haze of energy as the star goes supernova.

It is an experience of awe, a moment of the sublime. An end so far beyond what we can phenomenologically comprehend, so entirely out of our control that we cannot conceive of it in its entirety. An 18th century critic, James Usher, captured the sublime as that which ‘‘takes possession of our attention, and all our faculties, and absorbs them in astonishment’’ (qtd. in Shaw 2)2. The first time you witness this event in Outer Wilds it attains that sense of grandeur. It is an apocalyptic ending, equal parts horrific and beautiful, definitive and inevitable.

The supernova caught me off-guard. The medium of the video game brims with potential for powerful immersive experiences, but it is rare for them to make good on that in such an utterly convincing manner as Outer Wilds does. Since I started at Writer’s Block, I wanted to put that sensation into words. Hell, this was going to be my first article, but it would have meant starting with a chat about endings, which is a little too pretentious even for me. Now that my time at Writer’s Block is drawing to an end—nothing so sublime or dramatic as what I started this article with, I know—I have yet to dedicate a word to it. So, here, at the most appropriate moment, is my attempt.

There is much to say on Outer Wilds. Too much perhaps, as that supernova alone has me scrambling from one idea to the next, overpowered by that sublime moment and failing to make sense of it. So before I go loopy, let’s talk about the time loop. At the moment of your character’s death, you watch the last 22 minutes of your existence flash before you in reverse and you awaken by the campfire, gasping for air. That little reversed replay of your adventure gives a sense of circularity. It caps off a cycle, granting you time to reflect on what you experienced, what you learned, and what was out of your reach; A moment of contemplation before that 22 minute clock starts ticking down again.

One thing that Outer Wilds really drove home for me in this short cycle, is the relationship between time and space, or more precisely, time and motion. To the extent that we perceive time as linear progression, it is really a measurement of relative motion. The hand of a clock is an abstraction of the passing of day and night: the motion of the earth orbiting the sun. As you explore the sandbox of the Outer Wilds you learn to measure time by observing key landmarks in the environment: what is the colour and size of the sun, how much sand has passed from one of the hourglass twin planets to the other, how much of Brittle Hollow has been pulled into the black hole at its core? Though on some level we all know that time is change, our day to day experience of time is such an abstracted expression of this change that it is hard to conceive of it as more than a constant 24 hour cycle, endlessly repeating. Like a fixed truth, instead of a wonderful reminder of the highly specific environment into which we were born.

This time, I am prepared. Prepared yes, but that does not mean I am ready, so I scramble, desperate for any last scrap of information I can garner. As if it could delay the inevitable. I stand in the ruins of  Brittle Hollow’s ancient cities and read of their fate, knowing what will befall me. Another chunk of the planet’s great shell is shorn from its crust and plummets towards the black hole at its centre. So very little is left. I translate another piece of writing when the sky goes dark. Time calls. Light fills all of space. Annoyed that the job is unfinished, I hurry to find any clue that might push me forward in the next loop, but no luck. I will awaken by the campfire.

At the beginning of the year I told myself I would not try to strive for perfection, for linear progression. That I would use this space to explore, and I think that this was successful, yet now that I am writing the final piece I can’t help but feel the need to write something conclusive; the culmination of the articles that I wrote here before. Worse still, something that might capture the sublime, if but for a moment. Really, it’s an act of hubris that, I realise as I am committing it, is doomed to fail. Failure in the sense that Samuel Beckett captured in the famous phrase: “Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (Worstward Ho 7)3. It is often taken as a motivational quote—fail till you succeed—but in the context of Worstward Ho and Beckett’s oeuvre it does not point toward eventual success, the possibility of meaningful growth, or redemption. Rather, it is a glum admission of the inevitability of failure. In life there is nothing more to do than fail, might as well get better at it.

Though this theme does not hold true throughout, in some loops of Outer Wilds you are bound to fail in whatever task you set yourself, and every loop you fail in the act of preservation. But really, I don’t think that the player is the one who fails best in any loop. You see, each planet is populated by a single Hearthian who, like you, flew outward to discover the unknown. Unlike you, however, they never hurry to find even a scrap of information, or a hint of progression. They sit at their campfires, playing a gentle tune on their instrument, and appear to have a damn good time, wherever they have plopped their butt down. In the face of inevitability, they seem to have realised the absurdity of our predicament, our existence, and continued on with the same levity and excitement that brought them there anyway.

In its darkest reaches, Outer Wilds is a trial in dying, a meditation on loss, a coming to terms with endings. The death of the solar system is but the most obvious expression of this notion, but a great sense of loss pervades every nook and cranny of the spaces you traverse as you retrace the steps of those who came before you. The presence of your fellow Hearthians in these far reaches is a reminder that however much tragedy and horror is out there, life in the face of death is absurd, and the absurd can make bearable the sadness within the sublime. Within the inevitable.

 —

I leave the safety of home once more and fly outward. Past the Hourglass Twins, past the sombre globe of Brittle Hollow, past the tumultuous oceans of Giant’s Deep. Just keep pushing outward. Out, out, out, till all that bares recognition is behind me. And when the last planet is no more than a small dot in an ocean of stars, I bring the ship to a halt. I take leave of my vessel and observe the star of this solar system grow orange, then red, before it shrinks down and expulses its energy. This time I witness planet after planet go. From such a distance, the sense of horror subsides and only the beauty remains as the planets and satellites of the solar system are set in motion like shells carried on a tidal wave. This time, I will not return to the campfire.

Eventually, cycles end. Something new takes their place. I am grateful for sharing in this cycle of Writer’s Block. It has been a fun learning experience, that has taught me some things about putting together a magazine, what to convey in the editing process and how, what really matters to me in stories and poems, and that I am still unable to deliver an article on time (sorry editors!). I have had the opportunity to express myself in fun new ways, through more and less familiar voices, that have been rewarding in their own way, and that I hope to build on in the future.

Soon, that future will take the shape of, well, who knows really? A new cycle will begin. One outside of this wonderful magazine, outside of university life, and inside a new home. Time will take on a new pace and rhythm. Not in an abstract sense, nor in a way that is completely beyond me, because if the sublime endings of Outer Wilds reminded me of anything it is this: if time is motion, then we do not merely observe time, but by setting things in motion we create our own time.

As I enter this phase of transition, I look forward to seeing how we give shape to that time.

Written by Reinier Van Der Plas

Bibliography:

  1. Mobius Digital. Outer Wilds, Annapurna Interactive, 2019.
  2. Shaw, Philip. The Sublime, Routledge, 2006.
  3. Beckett, Samuel. Worstward Ho, Grove Press inc., 1983.  

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