Words: 3510 Approximate Reading Time: 25-30 minutes
Spoiler Warning: You can probably tell from the title, but obviously, I’m going to get into massive spoilers for Outer Wilds. You have been warned.
One thing I’ve been contemplating for a while is themes. Themes in all sorts of things: books, games, shows, etc. Themes are a kind of “big picture” part of storytelling. The narrative of a game is (almost) always interesting, but it’s by stepping back and thinking about how the story, dialogue, mechanics, setting, and so many other elements contribute to a larger conversation about something bigger than the game or any of us that we truly get a chance to see something beautiful.
And one thing I’d really like to do is an analysis of the themes in various games that I’ve come to adore. Games that I feel are great because they do such a good job of presenting a theme.
Now importantly, when I say “presenting a theme,” I do not mean something akin to “shoving that theme in the player’s face.” That a piece of media does a good job of presenting a theme does not mean that everyone will get it. Because themes are still subtle, or at least they need to be to be good. They don’t have to so insanely subtle that only a select few could ever see the thematic threads. Rather, you just don’t want to shout to your audience “Hey! This is the theme that we’re investigating in this book/show/game!” Announcing the theme bores the audience, because it makes them feel the creator perceives them as infants: you are too dumb to pay attention and notice things on your own, so we’re going to just tell you what you’re supposed to pay attention to and what you’re supposed to notice.
So what’s the starting point for this journey? Well, there are a lot of good options. And my intention is to just visit all of them, and then maybe make this a feature as I start finding more games where I am really impressed by their thematic conveyance.
But to start, I wanted to look at Outer Wilds. Outer Wilds is a puzzle game originally released in 2019, in which you control an alien who is part of a species existing within this small and self-contained solar system. The species has a tradition of sending those who basically come of age into space on a journey to explore and provide information about the other worlds. And so now it is your turn: you will step into this rather questionably built spacecraft and ascend to the stars and explore the other planets of the system. Thankfully, they’re all pretty close by.
But there’s a bit of a problem: 22 minutes after you make your first launch into space and start exploring, the sun of your solar system goes supernova, destroying everything. Thankfully, before you took off you encountered a strange statue, which to your understanding simply showed you your life for that day. But upon dying – either from the supernova or from your misadventure – you come back to life on the same night that you first got ready to set off on your journey.
So your character is trapped in a time loop – you continually go through a cycle of 22-minute “days” (for lack of a better term, and of course shorter cycles if you just wind up dead) to figure out how to prevent the sun from exploding and destroying everything. To do this, you explore the various planets around you, meet up with your fellow explorers, learn about an ancient civilization that was attempting to accomplish their own goals in the system, and eventually figure out the solution to the whole “universe ending” problem.
The puzzle solving is really fun, because of how organic it is. You go around the planets, collect clues that will often point to other places, and as you collect those clues you get a bigger and better picture of how everything fits together, and also what you need to do. It’s also just a really neat setting – you have these various planets that all have their own unique design and conceit. A planet that is mostly water with a few scattered islands, and cyclones that roam around and occasionally just toss the islands into space for a moment before the high gravity brings them crashing back down. Twin planets that orbit each other and “trade” sand back-and-forth, slowly blocking off pathways on one world but revealing structures on the other. A hollow planet bombarded by a volcanic moon, slowly breaking apart and sending bits of its crust into a black hole in the center. That’s not everything, but hopefully that gives a sense of what the player is in for.
And so all of this culminates in a game that is super fun to play. As long as you can get a hang of the controls – and don’t succumb to motion sickness. And enjoy puzzle games more generally.
And it is the combination of narrative and setting and mechanics that leads to a particular theme I wanted to explore that I just find particularly beautiful in its exploration.
Outer Wilds is about being alone.
That’s perhaps a slight exaggeration. It’s not about being entirely alone. Rather, the very existence of loneliness implies the existence of its opposite: connection. And it is the dichotomy of those concepts that helps us understand loneliness itself.
But the game continually emphasizes the idea of loneliness.
I’ll explore this theme through a few different elements of the game. I’ll focus on three parts: the core narrative of the game and the various characters you encounter, the game’s mechanics or how the player interacts with the game itself, and the game’s music.
So I’ve already explained the basic conceit of Outer Wilds: you are a member of an alien race dedicated to space exploration, and your own journey is interrupted by the sun imploding. You are able to revive and recollect your past experiences each time you die, so that you can slowly work towards a solution to preventing the sun from imploding.
In collecting clues, you visit the various planets and learn about the culture that preceded your own: the Nomai. The Nomai are a nomadic race who, much like yours, are dedicated to exploring the universe to collect knowledge to be shared with their people. The Nomai just work on a larger scale – while your people build rickety ships that can just move around a tiny solar system, the Nomai could cover vast distances. The Nomai that you encounter – or more appropriately whose ruins you encounter – were hoping to reach the Eye of the Universe, which can be seen as the source of all being. Unfortunately, the Nomai were wiped out before they could achieve their goal. You use the technology that they left behind to finish what they could not.
Important here is to understand that the Nomai within this system are part of a larger species. So while the Nomai as a whole are not dead within the game’s narrative, the Nomai that came to your solar system are functionally cut off – they as a group are alone. Not only in the sense that they are separated by distance, but they have been stranded: their ship is trapped and they would need to build a new one to leave. However, the Nomai are still relatively plentiful and able to build a new civilization within the planets they encounter. They are alone, but alone together.
As you keep finding more clues, eventually you are able to figure out how to reach a place called the Quantum Moon: the moon which orbits the Eye of the Universe. When you journey through the moon, you encounter a character named Solanum: the only Nomai to survive. Solanum is of course truly alone – she is not only the last of her species within the solar system, but she is also stranded on the Quantum Moon. However, she is able to have a rudimentary conversation with your character, thanks to the fact that you are able to translate the written language of the Nomai. It may not be much, but it does provide her with a connection to someone else, so that she does not have to be completely alone.
But this same larger fate is shared among the species that your character belongs to, called the Hearthians. The Hearthians are themselves the only advanced species within the solar system, making them also alone. Of course, just like with the Nomai, they are alone together.
Aside from the various minor characters you meet on the home planet, you also encounter a variety of other characters on the other planets. Each planet contains another explorer on the same quest: to explore the system and learn about it.
On the planet of Brittle Hollow you encounter the character Riebeck. Fearful of much of the solar system, and especially of the massive black hole at the center of Brittle Hollow, they’ve set up a small camp in the planet’s interior. Being an archaeologist, Riebeck feels the strongest connection to the past and the study of the Nomai. In talking about exploration their dialogue is often very timid, but they become much more animated whenever they get a chance to talk about the ruins you’ve found on your journey.
On the Ember Twin you find Chert, a diminutive Hearthian astronomer. Chert’s job is to observe the stars, which are unfortunately all blinking out slowly as they implode like your system’s sun does. The phenomenon is fascinating at first, and Chert’s dialogue reflects a sort of enthusiasm about the observation, but as more and more stars disappear Chert’s dialogue becomes more worried. Chert effectively sees the death of the universe in real time and feels powerless to stop it. If you talk to Chert near the end of the cycle, they remark on how they’d like to be alone: they wish to have time to reflect on their life.
The planet of Giant’s Deep, covered with water and hounded by gigantic tornadoes, is host to Gabbro. A rather laidback character, Gabbro is a Hearthian who also happened upon one of the special statues that records memories – precisely like the one you encounter at the beginning of the game. And so Gabbro shares with you the experience of dying and reviving over and over. However, despite this shared experience, you are unable to truly work together. Gabbro’s attitude is a bit too laidback, and they have no real interest in helping. In a sense, the very fact that they share your experience shows just how alone you are in your own journey.
One of the last explorers you’ll likely visit is Feldspar, in Dark Bramble. Feldspar’s ship was swallowed by the plantlike object long before your journey, and it is only recently that you are able to figure out how to reach them. Feldspar’s particular situation makes them the most isolated of all the characters – Dark Bramble is practically unnavigable for anyone who doesn’t understand how it works, and the process by which you learn these tricks requires visiting several different places and pulling together several different clues. So Feldspar was basically trapped, unable to reach anyone or for anyone (except you) to reach them.
On the moon of the Hearthian homeworld – the Attlerock – you find Esker. Esker is a repairman who used to be responsible for repairing the explorers’ ships. But as time went on, the ships became better built and the Hearthians developed the skills and technology needed to make repairs themselves. Which meant Esker wasn’t needed anymore, and so their little outpost on the moon stopped getting visitors. Esker is thus found in a rocking chair, staring up at the sky and whistling a little tune.
All of these characters highlight some aspect of loneliness. They of course are each isolated, because they must be – it’s part of the job. They all experience this isolation in different ways: some of them feel this loneliness, some of them are fine with it. But they aren’t completely alone: the ability for you to visit all of them and talk with them provides them with a connection to someone else that is just as important for removing them from their sense of isolation as it is for removing you from yours.
I bring up these characters because they are part of the game’s culmination. When you finally solve the major puzzle, you reach the Eye of the Universe, and with it are confronted with blackness. The stars go out, and the universe ends. You are truly and utterly alone in the universe. But in the brief window of nothingness that the Eye gives you, you are able to reach out. You can effectively pull your friends from the void, and in doing so those characters begin to gather around a small campfire.
Once all of the characters are gathered, you all play a song. This little group is alone in the blank void of timelessness, and yet you all share an important bond. You are alone, but you are alone together.
And it is in that shared music that the Eye remakes the universe: starting things over again from scratch. You and your friends are gone: the brief moment you had together would be wiped away from memory. But in your place would rise new species that would go out to explore the universe. Species that would feel alone, and seek out new connections among the stars, just as the Nomai did, just as the Hearthians did, and just as you did.
So let’s start over and think about the actual mechanics of the game.
You’re zooming across space in your tiny ship, exploring these little planets to uncover clues for how to stop the sun from imploding.
The fact that the game is set in space is important to this sense of loneliness. When you blast off into the void, you are confronted with a cold and dark expanse with only tiny dots in the distance, highlighting the chasm between you and others. You can cross that distance, but it takes time to do so. Connections are never immediately at hand.
But we also need to think about the cycles themselves. As I’ve said, you are alone in your journey. Only one other character retain their memories across cycles: Gabbro. But Gabbro is unwilling to help. And whenever you try to communicate the cycle, your repeated deaths, or the fact that the sun is about to go supernova to any of your fellow characters, you are met with disbelief. Your character is mechanically isolated from others: only you can figure out how to put a stop to this cycle.
We can also turn to the way in which you wind up solving these various puzzles. As I said, you’re collecting clues about what’s going on, and many of those clues are contained in writing. Since you are primarily relying on the old Nomai technology, you must first learn about what you’re interacting with and how the various structures work together.
Which means translating Nomai dialogue written on various walls in the ruins you come across. You have with you a translating tool which can turn the strange swirling language of the Nomai into something you can read, and it is absolutely vital to progressing through the game. As you read, the Nomai share all sorts of information – talking about their history, their culture, the scientific advances they are making, their mission, and each other. You learn their personalities, their relationships, and so much else.
In a sense, you get the opportunity to build a slight connection with them. To see these various Nomai as people who share many of the concerns and hopes and desires that anyone else does.
But in this shared experience you are also being constantly reminded that all of this information is from tens or hundreds of thousands of years in the past. Any connection you might build with these Nomai is entirely one-way: you can sympathize with them, but they can no longer sympathize with you.
It would be a shame to talk about Outer Wilds without talking about its music. Composer Andrew Prahlow’s score really captures a lot of the essence of the various places you visit in the game. But various elements of the sound design also help to capture this theme of loneliness.
Perhaps the single most helpful song that encapsulates this feeling is the song when you travel into space. For the first half of the track, the core sound is a faint banjo, something you can hear but which still feels distant and which echoes slightly after each note. You get the feeling that the music you’re hearing neither originates from you, nor is destined for you. Rather, the sounds are simply traveling out in space – just as you are – and you are merely hearing a bit of it on your journey. Out in the void of space, your only connection is to the music, and even that connection is weak.
But the reason I wanted to highlight the music are the ways in which the individual characters you encounter are important to this process. Each of the Hearthian characters I mentioned earlier each play a different instrument. Drums, a banjo, a harmonica, a set of pipe horns, or just whistling. One of the ways you find these characters is by tracking the music that they make.
And the music that each character plays is fairly minor and probably doesn’t make much sense on its own. Riebeck’s and Esker’s tunes are the most clearly similar, but otherwise it just seems like Chert is banging on their drums just to make noise, and likewise for Feldspar and Gabbro.
But if you go to the right places in the solar system, you can use one of your items to track the sounds made by the different characters. And when the planets are properly aligned, you realize that each character is playing a part of the same song.
And it is this moment that helps to draw forth the nature of the connection that the characters all share. Even though each of these characters is alone on their respective planet, and even though each of them is playing a piece of music completely isolated from the other characters, they are all playing the same song, on the same beat. The connection that they share transcends space and time itself, allowing them to share their music with each other in a way that can only be truly witnessed for a brief moment in time, from a small point in space.
This same concept is visited at the very end of the game. I already mentioned how the final sequence involves all of the characters you encounter on the various worlds gathered around a campfire and playing a song. Of course, it’s the same song that they’ve been playing throughout the entire game. As you ask them to start playing one-by-one, they take up their respective parts. And Solanum joins the band in this music, using their staff to add a piano-like melody to the song. The gradual buildup of the song not only demonstrates the shared connection that the characters have, but the new connection that has been forged between Solanum and the group: music is a shared language that helps us to overcome the linguistic barriers that keep us isolated.
I’ve been rather haunted by this theme of loneliness in Outer Wilds for a while now. There is something beautiful about its duality. The way in which we are alone, but in being alone can feel our connections to others. In a sense, it is by being alone that we can truly appreciate and see the bonds that we share.
In writing this essay – and all future essays on themes in particular video games – I don’t want to claim that this is the only message the game has to offer. We could just as easily talk about cycles as a thematic element, or exploration as a thematic element, using many or all of these same components of the game. Games don’t need to have just one theme.
But it’s by focusing on a particular theme that we can really see how the parts of the game fit into a larger whole. It’s easy to look at a game’s narrative or look at some character dialogue and pull out a message about friendship or good vs. evil. But for themes to really shine through, they should take advantage of the medium that they use. Books need to take advantage of writing. Movies of visuals. And games need to take advantage of interaction. So we want to think about how all of the individual elements of a game feed back into these themes. Not just what is the theme as stated by a game’s narrative, but how does the gameplay, the world, and everything else reinforce that theme?