Outer Wilds Helped Me Understand the Relationship Between Progress and Purpose

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Bryn Gelbart is a freelance writer and journalist based in Brooklyn. He has written about film, games, and music for Indiewire, Deorbital, BrooklynVegan and other publications. He tells himself that one day he will play all the video games. He will most certainly not. Follow the author on TwitterMore from the author

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been afraid of death. As a child, I’d sometimes lie awake in the dark, staring at the ceiling, trying to imagine the indescribable void of nothingness that I knew existed after death. This gave me a deep, dark feeling in the pit of my stomach that I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to describe. I still have these moments of existential terror, from time to time, increasingly so over the past year. Ever expanding anxieties about climate change and late-capitalism are stacked on top of a mind that struggles with overthinking the existential questions that plague humanity. 

My father is Jewish and my mom grew up Catholic. I wasn’t raised with religion in my life, even when Jewish customs, like separating meat from dairy, pervaded throughout my household. I was never given any sense of a higher power or greater purpose. I quickly gained the cynical view that religion existed to make weak people feel better about the inevitable truth that life is short and, in all likelihood, death is followed by an eternal ‘game over’ screen.  

Or, I thought as I played Outer Wilds, maybe my understanding of death and purpose were shallow. Outer Wilds is a game that is humanized by an understanding and conceptualization of purpose that I have never felt. I am humbled by it. The game is still teaching me the higher purpose of progress and the importance of contributing to societal progress, no matter how doomed the universe may be. On the eve of climate change becoming irreversible, examining our individual relationships to progress and activism has never been more vital. 

I.

Mobius Digital released the time-loop space adventure game Outer Wilds earlier this year. It is a special game — an apex in video game storytelling and player exploration. You play as a Hearthian, a blue, four-eyed member of an alien race. The bravest among them travel the reaches of their tiny solar system, searching for answers to clues left behind by a precursor race called the Nomai. They are no experts in space travel, exemplified by their patchwork spacecrafts and physical fragility. In fact, it is worth wondering if they were created for space travel, or if they’ve made it their purpose as a society. Is there even a difference between the two? From the very beginning, Outer Wilds had me thinking about purpose on a societal level. 

In the tutorial section of the game, you have a strange encounter with a Nomai statue which — as discovered upon your first death — has placed you in a time loop. Outer Wilds takes elements of Majora’s Mask, survival games like Subnautica, and hardcore space games like Kerbal Space Program, and streamlines them into a unique narrative experience where knowledge is power. Through exploring a handful of handcrafted planets, learning their ecosystems, and discovering ancient Nomai texts, you unravel their society’s greater purpose. Progress in Outer Wilds is measured by how much you learn, and solving puzzles requires maintaining and using that knowledge. In case you forget a big detail, the ship’s log automatically records the most important lessons you’ve learned from translating the Nomai writings. 

The beautiful, treacherous solar system is manageable, rife with ancient notes, secret areas, and gameplay gimmicks. Outer Wilds evokes camping. As you discover new planets, you meet fellow travelers from your home planet, enjoying a marshmallow or simply looking serene. In my hours exploring and dying in extremely stupid ways, Outer Wilds began to show its hand.  

After my first few loops I had watched the sun supernova, been flung into a black hole multiple times, and crash landed on a few planets. The deaths came relentlessly. But every successful run brought me one step closer to solving the mysteries of the universe, and every failure taught a valuable lesson. On a basic level, this balance of success and failure is just good game design. The game gives narrative context and weight to death, while still making the player feel like every second is valuable. 

The way death in games was discussed a decade ago, even in scholarly work, was a problem to be wrestled with in the era when the “are video games art?” discourse was at its loudest. Jason Tocci’s essay from 2008 “You Are Dead. Continue?” mostly posits death as an obstacle to narrative cohesion. 

Death is considered here not as morally problematic or dangerous to audiences, but as an unnecessary narrative disruption due to the typical game structure of trial-and-error, die-and-retry. Videogames may be the only narrative medium in which the death of the protagonist isn’t just devoid of drama, but is entirely routine. If players have any emotional reaction, it is usually frustration rather than reflection. (Tocci). 

FromSoftware’s Dark Souls was not the first game to feature a narrative purpose for death, but it might be the most researched one. Tocci mentions Prince of Persia (2008), saying it “signals an attempt to preserve some sense of fictional coherence”, which is dubious praise at best. 

Through its death mechanic alone, Outer Wilds understands that time is valuable and it understands why. Because we are all going to die very soon. 

Outer Wilds uses its inciting incident to justify its death mechanic and places it as the central mystery of the universe. One of the game’s biggest discoveries is learning how and why you became stuck in a time loop. You might be the chosen one or you might have just got (un)lucky. The game does not conform to normalized concepts of progression so you can’t lose progress in a traditional sense. But just because an important piece of information is recorded in your ship’s log doesn’t mean you will know when to use, or necessarily remember it when you need. Progress, in this sense, can be ignored or forgotten to history. Outer Wilds rewards doing actual research with actual information. 

Outer Wilds is a game about the passing on of information, a game about leaving something behind. In exploring Nomai texts and in the automatic recording in your ship log, information is passed on to new generations. In Outer Wilds I do not feel like a single traveler. I feel like I am gathering generations of information over the course of the nearly 30 hour game. Understanding that each life has a place in such a terrifying, apocalyptic universe gives me hope amid an existential dread about finding meaning and purpose. 

II.

June 2019 was the hottest June on record. Climate change’s irreversible effects are felt both materially and psychologically. Frequent natural disasters are increasing poverty levels and displacing the poor, while the mental toll of the planet’s rising temperatures continues to affect more and more people each year. 

A 2018 study found evidence of climate change’s adverse effects on mental health. The study found that “experience with hotter temperatures and added precipitation each worsen mental health, that multiyear warming associates with an increased prevalence of mental health issues.” 

The study shows how these anxieties and mental health effects are not equal across class, either, stating “the effect observed in the subsample of low-income women is approximately two times the magnitude of the effect observed in the high-income men in the sample.” 

Outer Wilds drops players into the final 22 minutes of a solar system’s life cycle. The end of the world is here, and you might have the power to stop it, or at the very least understand the truth of why.  

Each of the planets has its own apocalypse. A black hole consuming a planet from its core, while the moon rains down molten rock. A water planet ravaged by unspeakably destructive tornadoes. Your adventures are a fight against time and nature, attempts to excavate knowledge from a dying solar system. You pass on information you learned in the last run to your next attempt, as you begin to navigate each planet’s unique gravity and terrain. If you are lucky enough to live, you have the reward of watching it all be destroyed by a blinding blue light. The sun is going to die. Whether or not stopping it is in the cards, you never really know, but you have to try to save the solar system. It is a video game, after all. 

In his review of the game for Vice, Austin Walker writes “You climb a hill, or turn your ship back towards the center of the system, and you watch the sun explode and consume everything you know. How could you not ask ‘what are we going to do?’”

You can’t not ask the question. Outer Wilds doesn’t pretend the answer is simple, either. But it gives you a limited toolset among a solar system of wonders and mysteries. There is no combat. We can’t headshot entropy. You have (with few exceptions) two ways of interacting with the environment; you can read or you can take a photo. Research and documentation. 

When folks on the political left ask “what are we going to do about climate change” we aren’t often talking about recycling. The only way to make a lasting change is at systemic level. Researchers at Bios concluded their 2018 climate study by writing “In the modern global economy, states are the only actors that have the legitimacy and capacity to fund and organize large-scale transitions.”

To successfully convince people in power that climate change is a real threat, let alone one we need to begin taking drastic measures to combat, organization and action must occur. This begins by showing them the research of past generations and documenting the present. Admittedly, Outer Wilds is not a game about organizing. It is a game about exploring, about the joys and terror of space, and about the world ending. But it makes you feel small in the grandeur of the universe, while not taking away player agency. 

It’s easy to pretend we don’t have agency. Just like it’s easy for me to not worry about what is happening to the planet. It’s not 22 minutes away. I won’t outlive the Earth. A comfort comes from knowing I will die before the planet. It’s gnawing and guilty, but a comfort nonetheless. 

Through the deaths and the restarts, Outer Wilds was a constant reminder that death is imminent for me and the planet. The chances of living a seemingly insignificant life are high. But that isn’t a reason to stop trying to make progress and leave the world a better place than you were born into. It also doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the small moments. 

The game ends on one of these, its most human moment. Nothing to the scale of the monstrosities or wonders I encountered across its vast solar system. It was a reminder that these moments are the ones worth living for, and worth doing the work to ensure future generations live for them too.

Works Cited

Boustan, Leah Platt. “Natural Disasters by Location: Rich Leave and Poor Get Poorer.” Scientific American, 2 July 2017

Duncan, Conrad. “June Was the Hottest Ever Recorded on Earth.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 2 July 2019

Järvensivu, Paavo, et al. “Global Sustainable Development Report 2019.” Bios, 14 Aug. 2018, 

Obradovich, Nick, et al. “Empirical Evidence of Mental Health Risks Posed by Climate Change.” Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, 8 Oct. 2018

“Only 11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn during General Assembly High-Level Meeting.” Https://www.un.org, 28 Mar. 2019,

Rueben, Nic. “Dark Souls.” Critical Distance, 2 Apr. 2018

Tocci, Jason. “You Are Dead. Continue?”: Conflicts and Complements in Game Rules and Fiction Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture. 2008; 2; 2; 187-201

Walker, Austin. “’Outer Wilds’ Is a Captivating Sci-Fi Mystery About the End of the World.” Vice, 29 May 2019