You don’t kill anything in Outer Wilds. You don’t even have a weapon. What you do have is a small spaceship made of wood, a device that can tune into soundwaves coming from space, and a few mysteries to unravel while exploring the solar system that you call home. Mobius Digital’s first videogame wants to instill a sense of wonder in the player, and to that end it focuses not on destruction but on discovery—on sifting through the centuries of these otherworldly planets and learning about the lives and fate of a civilization that long preceded your own. That makes it lovely and serene, with one of the more fascinating alien cultures that media has given us, and a series of planets based on the beauty and splendor of nature.
As Alec Beachum, the game’s director, tells Paste, “Very early on we were like, OK, you’re not exploring to gain upgrades or to improve your equipment. You’re not out to conquer new territory or gather resources. You’re not going out and harming the indigenous wildlife. It puts everything in a more archaeology angle where it’s like uncovering this ancient civilization and figure out why all these things are happening.”
The “things” that Beachum refers encompasses a variety of unanswered questions, ancient secrets and climatological anomalies that you might unravel while flying from planet to planet. Looming above it all is a long-lost race called the Nomai, who laid the groundwork for your civilization, and who have somehow trapped your character into a recurring time loop that resets every 22 minutes. And if you die before that time is up, you’ll still reset at the start of your journey, but with a memory of everything you’ve accomplished up to that point.
“We came up with this idea that [the Nomai] were shipwrecked in your solar system,” Beachum explains. “They had built all of these things and set all of these things in motion that are happening now while you’re exploring, but they’re long gone. They’re kind of like these science philosophers.”
You interact with these early Nomai adventurers by using a tool to translate their ancient graffiti. These appear as conversations written on rocks and old walls in an elegant, flowing script that looks like circular lines arcing out of each other. This dialogue might be from before history even began around these parts, but like the rest of the writing in Outer Wilds, it has an understated and realistic charm that makes it feel real without feeling too labored or mannered.
Part of that charm lies in the personality of the Nomai who wrote these messages. They aren’t just faceless ancients or esoteric beings. They have character and flair, and even though they’re just lines of dialogue on the wall they still stand out from one another. “We tried to inject human personality,” Beachum says. “You’re imagining these ancient people, you know they were people—they used to live here and breathed some life in to the world.”
That personality also helps Outer Wilds avoid what could’ve been a far too familiar stereotype. Learning about an unknowable race of early ancestors is a stock situation not just in games but in all kinds of fiction. The Mobius team was aware of this, as Beachum tells it.
“Literally in the process we were calling them, like, ‘The Ancients.’ We were, like, oh god, we need an actual name for these people,” he says. “Then we started giving them names and we started being a little more playful and a little less serious about it. You know some of the stuff that’s happening… the playfulness makes it so when those serious things do happen, it makes those moments better because it feels more like they’re happening to people who really existed and they’re not sort of this vague concept. Giving them the way they write, like you actually know the name of who wrote each piece of text. I think that really went a long way to making them feel less like this faceless, mysterious race. It’s still a trope, but hopefully when people play the game it won’t feel like every other sci-fi ancient alien race.”
That flavor, and the mystery of what happened to these individuals that we grow acquainted with through their ancient graffiti, helps set Outer Wilds apart. It might pull in various strands that are familiar from other stories, but almost always with an unexpected and original twist. That helps drive the players forward, in the best tradition of adventure games.
“The whole point of the game is to make the players curious,” Beachum says. “The best way to do that is to make sure all of the characters around the player are also curious and constantly getting excited about the world around them.” The dialogue that your character translates absolutely pulls that off, fleshing out the world and making you want to find more.
Designer/producer Loan Verneau pipes up to add that they “really wanted [the Nomai] to be scientific in their approach to things, but at the same time not too dry—[that was] one of the worries.”
As an example of how that works within the game, Beachum mentions how “you’ll come across these two characters arguing with each other about a theory or making fun of someone else or having in-jokes. So it’s not like purely academic pursuits, because really at the end of the day you’re reading their ancient texts so they’re kind of giving you these clues, you know, to explore the world and find these secret places. So our main goal was just making sure our players are really curious and want to know these things. The only point is exploring in the game. There’s no resources, you’re not upgrading. At the end of the day if you’re not curious about what’s going on in this world there’s no reason to play the game.”
That shouldn’t be a problem for most players—the world they’ve created is one of the most unique and enchanting in videogames. And by world we mean solar system, since, again, there are multiple planets to explore. Outer Wilds combines high-tech with the hand-made, with wooden spaceships that look like they’re built by Appalachian craftsmen, and a folksy score of banjo and harmonica. Music is a major part of the game, as you have to track down your fellow astronauts throughout the galaxy using the distinctive instruments they play as your beacon. And those planets they’re exploring all have unique atmospheres and weather patterns that shift throughout the 22-minute time loops, ensuring that there’s more to discover than just some locations on a map. With Outer Wilds Beachum, Verneau and their team have made a game that finds new melodies within a familiar genre, and plays those notes masterfully.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.