Outer Wilds Hits a Nostalgic Nerve Like Nothing in Recent Memory
Outer Wilds, Inner Thoughts
In Outer Wilds, the game begins with you waking up beside a campfire. When you arise from your sleeping bag under the stars, the very first thing the game prompts to do is toast a marshmallow, and so, of course, I oblige. How could I say no? I thrust it into the flames and out popped a rather succulent looking, freshly warmed, marshmallow. I scoffed it and my character let out a satisfied sigh, as I gazed at the dancing fire, chatting with my chum. A rather idyllic scene, I’m sure you’ll agree.
You see, it’s quite the cowboy fantasy, your home planet. On Timber Hearth, you can sit around a bonfire and tell tales of the wilderness (albeit stories of Space in Outer Wilds, rather than the American frontier), you see cowboy hat wearing children playing and there’s definitely a classic Western movie aesthetic to your town. It’s quiet and innocent, nestled in the enormity of space. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that campfires became a nostalgic symbol of home. If life ever got too much, you know damn well I’d be wishing I was next to a campfire again.
Let’s talk more about what you learn while you’re still on Timber Hearth. There are an abundance of NPC’s, written with the warmth and delicacy you would expect of a place that is essentially Outer Wilds’ own Pallet Town. As I navigated the town, they all eagerly offered me their well wishes before I took my giant leap for Hearth-kind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I tried the door of every house and building in the town, in an attempt to have a natter with more of the strange aliens that inhabit this place, before I had to leave on my own adventure.
Near the end of the winding path through the town, I arrived atop a viewing platform where a younger, or at least shorter, alien stood peering through a telescope looking thing at the sky with a smile on their face. Moraine, as they’re called, told me all about the Signalscope, a tool that if pointed at certain celestial objects, can receive sound waves from the Hearthians now residing there. Their music was beckoning me, and with how dangerous some planets were, it was a bit like a Siren’s song, so of course, just as I couldn’t refuse a marshmallow, I followed the sound of their music. When I found a source of music, which often involved hurtling at a planets surface a few times before I nailed the landing, there, next to the musician, was a campfire. Or, as I thought of them by then, a marshmallow toaster. A reminder of home.
The music these folk are playing is often just as joyful and playful as those left at home. Being wholesome must be a Hearthian trait. Their instruments are all part of Outer Wilds’ cowboy vibe too. Bubbly harmonicas, an erratic one-man-band, and a particularly twangy banjo create quite the soundtrack.
While you can find the alien playing the music, if you wish, the thing with the Signalscope is that by its very nature, you don’t need to be next to the musician to hear the tunes. No matter where you find yourself, point it at the right thing, and you’ll be able to hear something resembling home. That was of particular comfort when I found myself stranded. I’d travelled 23 thousand miles to a planet called Giant’s Deep. Though a bit like my own home of England (and by that I mean raining all the time,) it’s nothing like Timber Hearth. To be clear, this place is out to get you. Multiple hurricanes zip around the planet, space debris tumbles onto the planet at very little warning, a thunder storm rages, and you can’t hear a damn thing because of it. It feels a bit like Earth, but if we don’t stop climate change, y’know? Your only companion on this hostile planet is a friendly explorer, Gabbro, who, other than offering the bass of Outer Wilds’ space orchestra, offers you hints, a place at his camp and a brief respite. That is until the weather causes water to rise, and flood his camp and you’re fighting for your life instead. Definitely comparable to climate change.
I’d parked my ship on a beach not too far away and was filling Gabbro in on what I’d discovered in my travels when I was suddenly alerted with “Hull Breach Detected”, and I knew, armed with knowledge of why the Titanic sunk, that this was bad. I scrambled across the land to see the damage as fast as I could. My ship was no longer a whole, but instead three large, but definitely separate, pieces. I was doomed. Unable to repair my ride home, I accepted my fate. I solemnly slunk my way back to Gabbro, knowing full well that soon a hurricane would hit our solitary island, or the nearby star would supernova, and I would be defenceless. No escape. So, I did what any good movie hero does, accepted my fate, and stared down the barrel of death. I stood next to Gabbro, pointed the Signalscope at his instrument and the banjo of another distant planet, had a marshmallow and listened to the music of my people, just to have one last sense of home. Of course, I knew really that I would just respawn and try to discover the secrets of the solar system in another life, but for a moment, I did feel truly helpless, and longed for the simplicity of Timber Hearth.
My experience on Giant’s Deep feels a bit like a metaphor for how real life can be. One minute, you’re alright, living your life, when something rather challenging comes across your desk, and you get smacked with a pang of nostalgia for simpler times. A world without bills to pay, with seemingly infinite free-time to be filled with whatever activities you want. A world that’s still seen through a child's eyes, all new and shiny, rather than imperfect, and serious.
I’ve finished University now, I’m graduating in July in fact. And frankly, I feel a bit like I did on Giant’s Deep. Among massive change, though not one that will kill me thankfully, I am sitting, listening to cozy music, staring at a metaphorical campfire (my laptop) and telling stories (writing), while pining for a simpler time. What makes this little story so neat, is that it wasn’t scripted; no omniscient developer wrote this to happen. It was an unlikely yet perfectly timed convergence of many in-game systems that, by chance, managed to create an emotional moment for a young boy lost in space. Never has a game been quite so perfect for the moment in which I was playing it.
Play Outer Wilds. It’s excellent.