Outer Wilds Exploration Is Better Than Any Other Game

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outer wilds

In video games, “exploration” is kind of a crappy word, a sexier way of saying hey you’re gonna be doing a lot of running and finding useless stuff to make playtime longer. “stuff,” in this context, can be scaling, walking, riding a horse, bathing, or swimming. All the basic things you get from here to there.

Most games give you something for doing all the exploring. It’s expected that you find something valuable as a result of going off the path. Most games cover interesting loot and power-ups in far-flung corners in order to assist you to look around more. When that loot is not useful, like in Jedi: Fallen Order, exploration might not look worth it. The worse of them all, incentivized exploring makes search the one thing it should never be: ordinary. If you’re exploring just to find a particular item, it can feel rote.

Outer Wilds is one of my beloved games of this year because it makes exploration and searching feel new to me again. It helps that the game’s structure—a 22-minute time loop where I must race to acquire something that will help me avoid said loop—focuses me on plunging recklessly into the abyss. But as I discovered more in the game—about the friendly residents of my homeworld of Timber Hearth and their big-hearted strategy to discovery, or about the long-missing Nomai people who thought the pursuit of knowledge is the greatest goal for a person to have—I feel related to the explorers who came before me. Instead of discovering a new sword or a set of armor, my exploration in Outer Wilds tells me that my character is a different link in a long chain of people attempting to fall out of ignorance and become something better.

In so many other games, exploring gives little other than the dopamine tingle I get when I find a trinket of sorts. In Outer Wilds, exploring makes me feel a whole host of things: I feel great.

I’m moved by a feeling of romance. No video game this year has made me feel like Outer Wilds has when the music that plays just before the end of a time loop, reminding me that my life is about to stop, but also encouraging me to push just a little farther, be a bit more reckless. In those last few moments, none of it feels normal or ordinary—finding the answers I’m looking for or not doesn’t matter. I’m explorer and thats what I like to be.

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