Outer Wilds Truly Understands Its Scientists
I’ve been working through my horrifically large video game backlog over the last I don't even know how long. I started with God of War and then moved on to Outer Wilds. The two games couldn’t be more different, but both had my attention in a chokehold – considering the sounds my PS4 fan was making, they may have been choking a little too hard.
Outer Wilds is a space-faring puzzle game that I haven't been able to stop thinking about. You take control of an alien – although, I suppose to them we’d be the extraterrestrials – hop into a cottage spaceship, and go off to explore the star system. Being an astronaut is a common thing among your species. Your homeworld of Timber Hearth is small and the heavens beckon, so you answer their call dutifully. Even the ones who stay on the ground pursue the sciences and archaeology, looking to understand their homeworld more. They venture off to dig sites uncovering lost remnants of the past, study ghost matter, and teach future astronauts in the zero-G cave.
Unlike No Man’s Sky, which opts for a near-infinite galaxy that’s about two inches deep, Outer Wilds crafts a small-but-dense star system where every planet contains threads of a larger narrative mystery. Central to the plot is an alien species known as the Noami. Much like the Hearthians, the Noami are natural-born scientists, and you can find remnants of their experiments on every celestial body you visit. They’re an advanced nomadic species that experiments and investigates everywhere they go, returning to their main fleet every now and then to share their discoveries.
While the drive to solve the enigma at the heart of the star system is what propelled me through the game, my journey was made special by the way developer Mobius Digital wrote the Noami scientists. Their left-behind scrolls provide the trail of breadcrumbs players must follow to finish the game, and it’s clear Outer Wilds really understands scientists in a way few pieces of media do.
When I first went to university it was to study engineering. I loved maths and physics all throughout school, so it seemed like the best way to combine both of those passions. As you can see, I eventually opted for a different path in life. I still like taking things apart and analysing their individual components, but now I do it to video games instead of engines.
What drove me then – and still does now – is curiosity, it’s what makes scientists who they are. The Noami and Hearthians both have this in spades. They aren’t content to just sit back and let the cosmos pass them by, they have to work out what makes everything tick, discover why they’re there, what happened to those that came before.
Some spoilers for the origin of the Noami and their goal in the solar system follow.
The Noami crash landed in Dark Bramble, a mysterious planet that distorts space within it. They were following the signal of the Eye – a mysterious artifact near the Hearthian system. They don’t despair and wait for death, they make their way across the planets and begin exploring and uncovering everything they can about the Eye and the astral bodies they find. Catastrophic failure doesn’t stop them, it’s just a minor hurdle.
The writings I stumbled across on my journey aren’t the dry, factual academic reports many associate with scientists, but the scrambled notes and observations of excited, curious people. To them, everything is marvelous. A water world with cyclones that shoot islands into space? Phenomenal. Binary planets close to the sun? Terrific. A comet on its way into the solar system? Well, we simply must check that out. The Noami left no corner of the system untouched, and neither will you when you play Outer Wilds.
You get to know each of the Noami scientists through their words. They each have a distinct personality. Some are more gung-ho, throwing caution to the wind in favour of pure belief in their inventions. Others are more pessimistic, tired of their continued nomadic life across the stars. Others are flirty and playful, or cheeky pranksters. All of them feel like real, passionate people.
What makes them so great is their unflinching pursuit of the unknown. They think outside the box and try to make it go supernova in the process. They’re willing to blow up the sun just to power machines that can help them locate the Eye. When their experiments fail, they don’t allow themselves to stay down in the dirt. A scroll you find shows that they just move right on to the next mystery. That didn’t work, oh well, always more to discover.
They aren’t driven mad by failure, they’re used to it. It’s part of the process. If one thing doesn’t work they just try another. But beyond their work they have lives, wants, families, friends, hobbies. Like the Hearthian Outer Wilds crew who all play musical instruments, these scientists aren’t the single-minded, one-dimensional characters you see in movies. They fill the game with life and character and make the journey so much richer for their involvement in it.
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