Outer Wilds Has Made Exploration In Other Games Boring

When it comes to video games, “exploration” is kind of a bullshit word, a sexier way of saying hey you’re gonna be doing a lot of running and stuff. “And stuff,” in this context, can be climbing, walking, riding a horse, swimming, or what have you. All the basic ways you get from here to there. I never pick up a video game because I’m going to be doing those things; I merely hope to be shown something interesting. After playing Outer Wilds, I think my bar might be too low.

Most games reward you for exploring. It’s expected that you find something useful as a result of going off the beaten path. Most games hide exciting loot and power-ups in far-flung corners in order to encourage you to look around more. When that loot isn’t useful, like in Jedi: Fallen Order, exploration might not seem worth it. Worst of all, incentivized exploring makes exploration the one thing it should never be: mundane. If you’re exploring just to find a certain item, it can feel rote.

Outer Wilds is one of my favourite games of this year because it makes exploration feel new to me again. It helps that the game’s structure—a 22-minute time loop where I must race to learn something that will help me escape said loop—focuses me on plunging recklessly into the unknown. But as I learned more in the game—about the friendly inhabitants of my homeworld of Timber Hearth and their big-hearted approach to discovery, or about the long-missing Nomai people who believed the pursuit of knowledge is the noblest goal for a being to have—I feel connected to the explorers who came before me. Instead of finding a new sword or a set of armour, my exploration in Outer Wilds shows me that my character is another link in a long chain of people trying to stumble out of ignorance and become something better.

In so many other games, exploring provides little other than the dopamine tingle I get when I find a fun trinket. In Outer Wilds, exploring makes me feel a whole host of things: I feel fragile, like my colleague Gita Jackson did when she first played the game. I feel impatient, like Maddy Myers did when she realised that shortcuts aren’t always as feasible as they seem. And yeah, I’m haunted by some of what I find, like frequent Kotaku contributor Narelle Ho Sang.

Mostly though, I’m moved by a feeling of romance. No game this year has made me feel anything like Outer Wilds has when the music that plays just before the end of a time loop, warning me that my life is about to end again, but also inspiring me to push just a little bit farther, be a little more reckless. In those last few moments, none of it feels mundane—finding the answers I’m looking for or not doesn’t matter. I’m exploring, and happy to do it. 


Comments

    Really?, this game isn't any different from other games of the type, my issue with it is that it's really short (much like other games developed by Obsidian), and then when you expect it to suddenly open up the game, it is finished.

    I was waiting for an explanation of how it's exploration is better than other games. I'm still waiting and I've finished reading it all! Are they implying that it's some feature or mechanic it uses that makes it better? Is it the wind-up? ie: the increased music tempo before the timer runs out? Because Sonic was all over that shit over 20 years ago. Oh, it's more "romantic" (lolwhut?) than that. Sorry, game, I just don't think of you that way. This is such an annoying article. Like a plate of garnish hiding a steak dinner that's not even there.

      The explanation is there. Let me break it down for you.

      Author feels other exploration games are mundane, with just items as rewards for going off the beaten track.

      Exploring with Outer Wilds though (_not_ Outer Worlds, as the very first comment here was confused about), will lead you to situations where you experience joy, and terror, and dread, and recklessness, and apparently romance.

      I don't know. I haven't played the game. But this article does make an interesting point that the rewards of exploration should be something which gives you insight into the world, the situation, or even your own character. Rather than only items.

        As far as recent games go Jedi: Fallen Order absolutely did something like that for me.

        I feel like it made exploring to find things the reward itself, instead of it necessarily being the items from the chests you find.

        They're all largely meaningless and fairly average cosmetics when all is said and done, yet I still found myself wanted to find more of them. Actually really enjoyed heading back to previous areas with new skill unlocks to find yet another chest, with yet another cosmetic lightsaber part you could barely even see during gameplay.

    It will never beat that first playthrough you do of Dark Souls. That game has perfect exploration.

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