The disconnect between The Outer Wilds' mechanics and its story
I finished the outer wilds earlier today, and... I'll admit, it didn't have too much of an impact on me. I sorta want to write about it in the hopes of figuring out why.
Once again, this is super raw, don't expect coherency or anything, it's just my thoughts written as-is.
Same warning as last time, spoilers abound.
So, mechnically, the outer wilds consists of 3 gameplay loops
- Primary - Fly and explore old structures
- Secondary - Figure out the reasons for the structures' existence
- Tirtiary - Put together fragments of information from the secondary loop to get a big picture of the situation
Ultimately, you fly around in the footsteps (or... rocket-exhausts?) of a long-gone civislisation, the Nomai, trying to piece together their knoweldge about the so-called "eye of the universe", the rules of the in-game universe, and just why you keep dying every 22 minutes.
So, it's a logic game, essentially. The player can reason that given mechanic X applied to situation Y, the game should react to provide outcome Z. Your entire time spent in the game is gathering these rules. Given the sun has gone supernova, the power will be used to send a backup of your memories 22 minutes back in time (a la steins;gate but with fewer anime references), and you start again.
The culmination of the game is to put together that given a new warp core and the co-ordinates found by the probe, you can reach the eye of the universe, as the Nomai were trying to do before they all died. Ok, so that's something we can work with. You need the warp core from the time leap machine, so there's no hope of a do-over should you fail. That's some super good narrative tension from just the mechanics of the game playing out with absolutely no outside influence - the player does not need to be told the stakes. They can be inferred from what they already know.
But just to hammer it home, a special reprise of the song that plays at the end of every loop plays on this final, all-or-nothing run. And this is where the game shines at its brightest. When the player has all the information, and one final question that must be answered. One final Z. Given a conscious being in the eye of the universe, what happens?
You fly out to the most terrifying area of the game, knowing full well that you can't try again, dodge the fish, get to the ship. The music swells. You made it. You insert the warp core, input the co-ordinates, switch on the warp drive. And then the game falls apart.
Instead of providing you with the one final answer that would tie together everything that came before, you get an abstract sequence in which unexplainable things happen. Starting on a quantum rock, you jump into the eye of the universe, and all goes black. You're transported to a forest and watch... i suppose the universe dying. Ok, all thematically relevent and cool. Then you have to... uh... find the other travellers' instruments in the forest? What? What do their instruments have to do with anything? Whilst music has been a rather central motif throughout, it hasn't been used for more than signals (both of the communication kind via the nomai and the signals given by the travellers). Why do we have to do this now? Why is there a jump scare with a fish? Why is any of this here? This is raising more questions than answers. WHY ARE THERE SKELETONS!? None of it seems to make sense. You alone came to this place, you alone have paved the way for whatever comes next. Why are these people here? One of them is schrodinger'd already somewhere else. They weren't even particularly large characters in the story.
I think it boils down to "why should an ending I have put together all the information to find be superseded by some randoms who didn't even know the supernova was going to happen (save for one)? Yeah play your song, you didn't do any of this. Let me find out why I came here.
Then something explodes and it all starts again I suppose.
99% of this game was wonderfully executed, the end... doesn't fit. It's like a gainax ending. But it doesn't make sense thematically.
(leaving this image here as a brag for I AM THE GOD OF SPACE)