are we made of star stuff? (a pseudo-review of ‘outer wilds’)

  • Game Title: The Outer Wilds
  • Developer: Mobius Digital
  • Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
  • System: PC
  • Completion Date: December 2021
  • Completion Time: 19 hours
  • My Completely Subjective Score: 3 out of 10
  • My Completely Objective Score: 9 out of 10

There’s no easy way to say it. All of us must come to terms with the undeniable fact that the sun, one day, will stop providing its life-giving heat and light to this planet.

When that happens, physics will run its natural course. The pressure that is a byproduct of the massive energy created by the sun will subside. Gravity, which continually exerts its pressure on our shining star, will finally win. The sun will collapse in a matter of seconds. The speed of the collapse will create a shockwave, causing the sun to shatter. Extremely hot gas will ripple out through the solar system. At that point, life on this planet will come to an end.

. . .

Outer Wilds begins as you wake beside a campfire. You open your eyes to an ocean of stars and a massive, green planet, far out in space. After standing, you are greeted by a four-eyed creature across from the fire. At first, it seems odd that you are talking to an alien. But then, you look down and realize that you’re one, too.

The friendly people are called Hearthians. The character you play isn’t given a name but is sometimes referred to as “Hatchling”, which is undoubtedly a reference to his youth and inexperience. You very quickly learn that today is the day that our hatchling will launch into space via his spacecraft. We also learn that this is something he’s been dreaming of his whole life. There is only a handful of his kind who have ventured into the stars before him, and I, taking the place of our hatchling, immediately felt a sense of prestige. The idea that I will go where few have gone before sets an immediate tone. The vastness of space is waiting for us. For me.

You can’t help but feel immediately charmed by the Hearthians. They are a far more primitive species than our own human race. Their houses and other structures are shoddily made, mostly with wood and stone. More modern materials such as steel and metal are used scarcely, as if they’ve only recently been discovered, and their full potential hasn’t yet been realized. Nothing makes this more apparent than your very own spacecraft. It seems to have been concocted of anything the builders could find, as it is a mostly wooden structure held together by nothing but string and duct tape (and maybe some extra-large balloons?). You (the player) wonder more than once whether it’ll make it off the ground.

All of this primitive technology is juxtaposed nicely by glimpses of futuristic technology. The player learns later that this technology has been appropriated from another species, the Nomai. In fact, one of the main reasons for your journey into the stars is to learn more about this long-expired race. And of course, to learn more about the universe around you.

. . .

Let me take a minute to explain my very weird rating of this game.

The unfortunate reality is that most of the time, no matter what I’m doing, I feel that I should probably be doing something else. I don’t know whether this is just what it means to get older, or if it maybe has something to do with the fact that I have less and less time on my hands.

With that said, one type of game that I find frustrating is a game that provides very little guidance. The kind of game that forces the player to “just explore”. Don’t get me wrong. This is a nice break from the majority of games out there today that have a golden trail that leads to the exact place you’re meant to go. But, if I don’t feel like I’m making progress in a game at a reasonable pace, I can get frustrated easily (actually, I think that applies to any area of my life). And that is exactly the case with Outer Wilds. There is no direction given, and without some kind of assistance (like an online guide) you’re likely to spend hours of time exploring, poking at everything you can find, and coming up empty-handed. I’m certain that some people probably adore this style of play. But, as I mentioned, I seem to have lost my patience for this sort of thing.

The reason I gave a subjective score of 3 instead of a 1 is that I was legitimately intrigued by both the physics of the game as well as the sense of freedom it gave the player. It’s immediately obvious that Mobius Digital spent a great deal of time getting the game to work the way it does, and it really is brilliant. The simple, melancholy music was a perfect fit for the mood of the game and does so much to establish the universe you’re about to explore. One of the most exhilarating parts of the game has to be the first time you launch into outer space. Somehow, the game makes it obvious that this is a memory-making moment for our young hatchling. The Hearthians seem so primitive, so innocent, and yet have such a yearning for exploration, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. Also, the low-tech nature of the spacecraft is endearing. The solar system the game provided somehow seems huge, and yet everything also seems sort of squished together. Looking up at the sky, it seems that a planet is a million miles away. But, as you launch out of your spacecraft, only seconds later you could be touching down on that same planet. It’s almost as if the game is saying, “the stars may seem far, but they are still within reach.”

Therefore, if I was going to explain my rating, I would explain it like this. Even though I didn’t completely enjoy my time playing Outer Wilds, it’s definitely a game that I’m glad to have played. It’s a game that I’m happy to have on my list of finished games.

Is that odd? Well, so be it.

. . .

I think most will recognize the quote, coined by the very famous Mr. Carl Sagan in his pinnacle series, Cosmos.

We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.

Carl Sagan (via

The matter in our bodies, statistically speaking, belonged to a star at some point in the history of the universe. That star collapsed, the hot gas expanded, and made its way to earth. Microscopic particles of that star fell down to the earth, only to become part of the dirt, or the trees, or the plants, or the flowers. That material made its way into our forefathers, which in turn made it into us.

Humanity’s cosmic connection with the universe seems to have brought Mr. Sagan and many others some kind of solace for our current predicament.

When faced with the inevitability of our own mortality, it seems there are really only a very few reactions a person can have. If a person dies at a ripe age, that life is generally praised and considered a life “well-lived”, and the loss is acceptable, although still mourned deeply (conversely, I suppose a life cut short should be considered a tragedy). There is the notion that we live on through our descendants, and as long as we can pass on our genetics, then we will somehow continue as part of the universe. There are those who look to be immortalized by some act or deed. I once watched a show where a Samurai was trying to break several world records. When asked why he was doing it, he said that it was so that he would be remembered. And, like Mr. Sagan, we can look to the stars and remember that we are, in some ways, one with the universe.

I have never understood any of these things. If it’s true that we are merely physical beings, then there is no part of us that will be able to comprehend that we are being remembered on earth. No matter how long our life is, how many descendants remember us fondly, how many deeds we have accomplished, or the idea that we are made of stars. If we exist in physical form only, then it is completely impossible for us to maintain any kind of sentient link with this world. I think that most people, even if they claim to believe in an entirely physical world, have a difficult time accepting this. And I can’t blame them. How could someone accept something so mind-numbingly depressing?

. . .

Near the early parts of Outer Wilds, you discover that your very own sun is about to explode. Due to some video game shenanigans, your character keeps reliving the minutes prior to the explosion of the sun.

I think the game is meant to make you believe, at least early on, that there is a way to stop the sun’s explosion. For the next several hours of the game, the player is trying to find a solution. Eventually, however, you learn that no solution exists. Even worse, you learn that it’s not just your sun that’s exploding. The universe, it seems, is coming to an end. It’s a terrible realization, and I think most players found the revelation difficult to stomach. I know I did.

In the last sections of the game, the player navigates to the eye of the universe. This eye has been a point of discussion for quite some time among the Nomai (that long-gone ancient civilization). Some think it’s a conscious force. Some think it’s not. If I were to venture a guess, I would say that the game hints that it was the latter.

Near the very final sections of the game, our young hatchling finally comes to accept his inevitable fate. Through some very clever puzzle-solving, he’s able to make his way to the eye of the universe. From this vantage point, all he can do is watch his universe come apart. The stars burst, one by one, in a flash of glory, and then everything fades to black.

Moments later, we witness the birth of something new. Somehow a new universe is born from the ashes of the old. New creatures, starting as single-celled organisms, crawl their way out of the oceans, learn to adapt, learn to become better. They make fire. They make friends. And all seems well. The game says, “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”

But as I watched, I was screaming inside. My young hatchling is dead and gone. No matter how many billions of stars appear in the aftermath, no matter what life takes shape, and no matter their accomplishments. My hatchling has become dust, and will never think or feel again. Watching the final moments play out, optimistic as they tried to be, it was impossible for me to find any solace.

. . .

No matter the current popular theories, it seems to me that we only have a few conclusions we can draw when faced with our finite place in this world. We continue on through our families. We are immortalized by our deeds. We are made of star stuff.

For me, I have never found comfort in these things. And it seems to me that if a person is thirsty, then such a thing as water must exist. If humanity is desperate to live beyond their finite lives, then does it mean that this thirst was put there by someone? And so, I believe that we are never meant to end. We are meant to live in perfect unity with our Creator, with life abundant. And with that thought, I’m quite content.

Game On.

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