How I learned to love Outer Wilds’ time loop

I first played Outer Wilds in 2019, when the game was initially released. I marveled at the galaxy’s beautiful planets, playing as a Hearthian alien on my first space expedition. The trip would take me away from my home of Timber Hearth and across the cosmos, exploring archaeological ruins, and sussing out the civilization that left them behind. The game was, put simply, stunning.

But Outer Wilds was also incredibly difficult. Navigating the ship required controlling six thrusters, and charting a course that would let me land on orbiting celestial bodies. The game’s time loop proved to be the ultimate challenge, throwing me back into my starting place every 22 minutes — or sooner if I died via crash damage or lack of oxygen. I could hardly even get to the places I wanted to explore, much less solve any puzzles.

Two years later, with the release of Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye, an expansion, I’ve revisited the game — and my perspective has totally shifted. The modern classic’s “first and only expansion,” according to developer Mobius Digital, weaves “directly into the existing world and narrative.” And this time, as I played, I got sucked in. Two years of playing other time loop or run-based games modified my approach to this space-exploration puzzler. The same elements which had initially felt too alienating, driving me away in 2019, have now become the backbone for my appreciation of the game.

Where Outer Wilds’ limited timeframe used to feel like a punishment, I now see it as an opportunity. Because the player will always be restored to the starting gate after 22 minutes, there’s more flexibility to be daring in exploration. I began throwing myself into planetary nooks and crannies. I knew I’d be restored to the starting spot by the end of the loop, so the threat of failure lost some of its weight — it was easier to swim into the heart of a cyclone knowing the end of the loop was approaching regardless. It was easier to recklessly wander into the depths of a mine, knowing I couldn’t get lost there forever.

Image: Mobius Digital/Annapurna Interactive

Playing more roguelites — a genre I’d previously struggled to sink into — helped me embrace so much failure and player death as signposts toward progress. This is especially true of titles where the player is seriously underleveled in earlier runs, like Supergiant Games’ Hades. My paltry skill level as a new player in that game, mixed with Zagreus’ lack of upgrades, meant failure was baked into the formula. I grew comfortable with pursuing a run knowing I’d be walloped by Megaera — and later, by Theseus and Asterius — but mostly hoping to learn attack patterns so as to equip the right weapon and select the right god boons next time.

Games like Deathloop also helped inform my approach this time around, though in Arkane’s immersive sim the time loop doesn’t play out in real time. After selecting a location and time of day, a player can spend as much time as they want there. They can also only keep a limited amount of gear and buffs between runs. The loop is a constraint, but it forces the player to be flexible with tactical approaches, and to use their recon wisely. In short: You have to make the time loops work for you.

Playing Deathloop helped me finally take Outer Wilds players’ advice to heart: Focus on one task per loop, and make each loop work for you. There’s just enough time to dig deep into that one cave or that one puzzle set. Because the avenues for problem solving are so plentiful, and each planet is stuffed with archeological artifacts, you’ll be sure to bump into something no matter where you land. After repeatedly busting my body trying to fling myself into Brittle Hollow’s brittle hollow, I can take a breather by visiting the Ember Twin, where I’m sure to find other clues. Often, these other areas contain hints that help me solve puzzles I’d been struggling with for hours. Outer Wilds’ multiple paths of exploration prevent major game stopping chokepoints, though late-game puzzles do get increasingly complex.

Image: Mobius Digital/Annapurna Interactive

And though the game doesn’t explain how to solve puzzles, it gives plentiful cues throughout the open world — it teaches through its gameplay, similar to games like The Witness. Many of these early cues are seeded in the museum at the Observatory on Timber Hearth, including early-game nudges like inspiration on where to travel, and traversal hints. The Echoes of the Eye DLC adds a new exhibit here, spurring a new direction of inquiry — and a new reason to play the game over — one I haven’t fully cracked yet, but look forward to tackling as I keep exploring.

Though I still struggle with its challenging traversal, and some of its eerie imagery, I have come to appreciate the way Outer Wilds uses time constraints to facilitate true exploration. Where other games might use exploration to reward a player with a collectible or skill tree enhancement, Outer Wilds uses it as a pure vehicle for storytelling. Time loops allow the game to cut all other frills away, putting nothing between you, the vast expanse of space, and the fearless exploration of its greatest secrets — time and time again. And I have my playthroughs of Hades and Deathloop to thank for my renewed resolve.

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