The Emotional Impact of Outer Wilds' Ending
Warning: major spoilers for ALL of Outer Wilds ahead. Do not read on if you plan on playing the game yourself.
I was standing on a planet that was being blasted apart by its moon, which was made of four constantly-erupting volcanoes. The moon broke off entire chunks of the planet, which then were sucked into the black hole at the planet’s core. Suddenly my exploration was interrupted by a somber tune, and I looked up to see that the sun had turned an alarmingly volatile red. As the song ended, the sun collapsed upon itself, and exploded in a brilliant flash of blue light that very quickly enveloped my character. The screen went black, and the screen rewound everything I had done for the last 22 minutes. Finally, my character opened their eyes, and I was back at the start of the game. This 22 minute time loop is the core of the Outer Wilds experience, and figuring out why the sun is exploding/if you can stop it is one of the main motivations to explore Outer Wilds’ cozy solar system. The ending of Outer Wilds and the credits got me feeling really emotional, and at first I wasn’t sure why. The ending has stuck with me though, and left me thinking about it long after, and I think I’ve started to figure it out.
Seriously, if you have any desire to play this game for yourself, please stop reading.
All of the various hints and threads that Outer Wilds places for the player lead to a harrowing final puzzle. I had to collect a powerful warp core that just so happened to be powering the machine that caused me to wake up 22 minutes before the sun exploded. If I were to die now, my character would never reawaken. I took the warp core to a crashed ship, and inputted the coordinates for what the precursor race called ‘The Eye of the Universe.’ Sure enough, the ship took me to the dark, chaotic Eye. Here, I was sucked into the void, and spat back out in a dark forest that looked like the one on my home planet. Soon, I came upon a campfire. After lighting it, my friend from my home planet that helped me on my first space flight appeared. I talked to him, and then began picking up the musical signals of my fellow space explorers. I was very familiar with these signals. All of us space explorers used this music to communicate with each other across the planets to let each other know we were doing alright. Soon I had the whole band back together, and here we sat around a campfire in the void. Soon all of the other explorers were playing a song together while I roasted one last marshmallow over the fire.
By the time the song was over, we had created a grey orb above the fire. After exchanging a few final words with my friends, I jumped into the orb. I was greeted by a brilliant flash of light, and then nothingness. Despite my best efforts, the universe had ended. It was always going to end, no matter what I did. However, at the end of the credits, the words ‘14.3 billion years later’ appeared onscreen, and were followed by a drawing of new planets, and a new race preparing to explore their galaxy. By allowing the universe to end, my fellow explorers and I created a new universe, though we would not get to see it.
Outer Wilds is a game about acceptance. I explored for hours trying to find a way to stop the sun going supernova, but in the end, all I needed to do was accept that there was nothing I could do except allow it to happen. In doing so, a new universe was created, and new life was allowed a chance to experience it. My character and their people had had their time, now it was time to pass everything on to others. Sometimes, things just happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them. Whether it’s a relationship ending, losing a long-held job, finishing school, or the sun exploding, all anyone can do is enjoy things while they last, and understand that sometimes things need to end to make way for newer things to come. As one character, Gabbro, says at the end, ‘I tell you what, this has been pretty fun. And I got to help make something pretty cool, so I’ve got no complaints. It’s the kind of thing that makes you glad you stopped and smelled the pine trees along the way, you know?’