Outer Wilds' initial impression is rather mundane and even a little disappointing when you first sit down with it. The pitch for the game, space exploration governed and oppressed by time ticking down to a universal restart every few minutes, feels almost wasted at the outset. I played the demo at PAX East, however, and came away feeling far more intrigued by the game than its initial moments disguised.
The game starts with your character, an alien of some sort, getting ready to use an amateur garage-built rocket to get off their podunk planet and see the universe. Before I could set off, though, I needed launch codes from the forest village's observatory as a cranky old alien in a rocking chair sternly informed me. Along the way, some alien children might ask the player character to play hide and seek with them to tutorialize the game's radio frequency receiver, or fly drones with someone to learn how to fly the ship, both of which I did and neither of which were particularly fun. Regardless, I got the codes, returned to the ship, strapped in, and took off.
This slow start drained me of enthusiasm for Outer Wilds quickly. I did not realize the game would soon make me feel foolish for thinking that.
In space, while attempting to grapple with the controls, I accidentally got a little too close to the sun. I ended up with a bit more than a suntan as I accidentally thrust my ship into the burning star and died. A loading screen separated the next scene, a respawn at the same campsite with the same old alien, hoping that the game saved after I got the codes and not before. To check, I decided to just go ahead and get in the ship and see if it let me. I groaned as the alien told me I needed the codes to launch into space, only to be surprised at his surprise that I already knew them.
My character didn't respawn. They went back in time.
My next journey was to a planet-sized comet hurtling through space, covered in a hazy green mist and swirling tornadoes just off the ocean cliffs. The landing process, which involved loading up landing cameras to figure out where I could actually set my ship, let me park precariously on the edge of a rocky outcrop on a mountain. I unbuckled my seat belt, stepped outside, and immediately died.
Whoops. Probably poisonous.
I respawned again and looked up at the sky and saw the comet I was just on flying overhead. A sparkling object fell from the sky into the village. As I raced toward it, presuming it would be something that lets me figure out how to survive the poison, the demo ended, and I was left bewildered and fascinated.
The Majora's Mask-like atmosphere and mechanics feel like intentional nods and inspirations and made me desirous to see far more of the game. It is hard to say if the core gameplay loop of Outer Wilds will hold up or if there is a deeper narrative beneath its concept, but I definitely want to find out more after playing the demo.
Outer Wilds is scheduled for release on PC in 2018.