Will future generations know about the simple technologies we take for granted but have a high likelihood of getting lost in the oncoming floods? During or after this slow-drip nuke of the last glaciers, will there be a brief window of time where parents have to describe a network of interconnected pipes that brought clean water to (almost) every home, food flown across the world daily, glowing machines that could answer almost any question, and so much more? This is a specifically first world neurosis maybe, as many in the West have lived with incredible ease and luxury on the backs of the rest of the world, but a conundrum nonetheless—as our leaders fail us and the world broils, everything we’ve taken for granted needs to be reevaluated.
Part of this forced self-reflection must include our place not only in the universe, but on this planet. It seems that the current iteration of our species isn’t well-equipped for hard truths, but one lesson I’ve increasingly realized is that we aren’t particularly significant. This isn’t to say we haven’t left a permanent scar on the planet, as the regularly shifting parameters of the anthropocene would indicate, but rather that we have to remember that 90% of the earth’s living organisms were once wiped out on a cosmic whim, and prayer isn’t going to stop it from happening to us. Meteor, nuclear war, supernova, the slow crush of rising oceans, this and more could flick us from this rock at a variety of intensities and tempos.
However, t’s possible to not only make peace with this insignificance, but to adopt a new branch of free will from it. Or so Outer Wilds leads me to believe. This game was something of a recent surprise hit, benefitting from a bit Epic Games Store discount and some wonderful word of mouth and press presence. Beyond the Myst-like puzzles slathered with No Man’s Sky-lite mayo, this game is a beatific meditation on death and what one leaves behind for others to discover. There’s been some strong writing to this effect already, but beyond a gentle invitation to reflect on death, I think the ending of Outer Wilds purposefully disassembles the common videogame power fantasy and demands that we confront the more general reality that we are not always climbing atop the mountain to slay the gods and enact singular and impervious justice.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The bulk of this game has you, as an exploration-minded archaeologist and mystery hunter, caught up in a time loop at the end of all existence. You find that you are spared from this final rest time and time again, setting out to disassemble what happened to your galactic predecessors the Nomai and keep the suddenly dying sun from consuming you and your space spelunking cohort. The only thing kept from run to run is your ship computer’s accounting of what rumors you’ve run down; no permanent upgrades, just stacks of knowledge growing higher and higher.
The mysteries are challenging, with some minor dexterity required on occasion, but I was also breadcrumbed pretty reliably from hint-to-hint. There were plenty of dumb deaths, a personal Groundhog Day montage of imbecilic suicides and hypothesis-testing experiments gone wrong, and when I was lost there was usually a relatively unexplored planet, interstellar anomaly, or some other speculative tidbits to exhume . In time I’d figured out the mind-warping trials of the quantum moon, much to my delight, which finally left me at the point we’d been building to all along: confronting the eye of the universe, a conscious being refusing to look away from an improbably all-consuming entity.
This is where Outer Wilds sunk in for me—the last act is a charming summary of your highlights, wandering through baffling darkness without your safety net of infinite return trips (well, narratively. You aren’t asked to sacrifice your save, though that would be interesting…) You’ve strode straight across the river Styx, armed with the knowledge you’ve gleaned from projected text left behind by those who got so close but stumbled before you. On the surface, this is you making peace with your death, as death comes for us all. But to me it’s more than that—while you gather friends old and new around a marshmallow-toasting fire, shivering in recognition of an anglerfish’s roar or playing quantum peek-a-boo to scoop up enough instruments to get the band back together, you must come to realize that this was always the plan and you were powerless to stop it. The universe doesn’t care that you weren’t quite ready, that you got this close and expected to make a wish to save yourself, your friends, maybe even the wanderers who came through more than 200,000 years ago.
On the cusp of eternity, Outer Wilds insists that your desires are less than the breath used to cast them as phonemes. Billions of stars have all clicked past their measureless timers in sync, and it is time for all matter to reconvene on the head of a pin, including the starstuff girding your own cells. We can’t even begin to fathom everything out there, forces beyond space-bending planetary weeds and densely-packed spectral comets, so much so that the eye of the universe must refract it all in metaphors framed in familiar scenes and people so that our insignificant spirits can even attempt to take a sip of this truth.
Such lies the honest acceptance of our lack of impact on the greater universe, and that’s ok. It’s not for us to command entire nebulas with the spark of a thought, and frankly, I think it’s more interesting to wind our way through and see what we see, to share the knowledge with our fellow travelers, now and in the future. Assuming we aren’t wiped out before we get the chance.