Finding Myself in Outer Space

Searching for the demise of a civilization — and searching for a place in your own

As soon as it became available on Game Pass, I downloaded The Outer Wilds on my Xbox One. I remember hearing some buzz for the game when it came out, and I was eager to see what it was about. I played for a while and I said to myself, “Yeah, this probably isn’t for me.” Walking around the village and visiting the moon just didn’t do anything for me, and if this was any indication of how the rest of the game was going to be, I didn’t want to continue. But I didn’t have anything else to play, so I decided to venture for a while longer. And I am really glad I made that decision.

To give a brief summary of the game, you play an unnamed alien that explores their solar system. You are tasked with finding your fellow explorers while also uncovering the truth about an ancient alien race that used to inhabit the system, the Nomai. You do this by visiting the different planets within the system, checking out writings they left on the wall and visiting different abandoned places. Some of these places include a city, a school and different workstations. Piece by piece, you put together the mystery of why the Nomai came here in the first place and what they were trying to do. The catch is that you are stuck in a time-loop and you die every 22 minutes. However, you are able to keep the information you uncovered from your previous lives.

I couldn’t put the game down. I would tell myself I would only play a little, and then I would notice that a few hours had gone by. I was hooked to the exploration and the mystery. Flying around to different parts of the solar system and discovering secrets of the Nomai kept me invested in a way few other games have done before. But it wasn’t until I sat down and thought about it that I realized why I liked the game so much. It was because the main character reminded me of myself.

We’re both looking at and reading about things that happened without us, but they travel to different worlds to get their information, and I just scroll down my timeline

Apart from the beginning part of the cycle when you wake up in the village with the other explorers, the protagonist is left to explore on their own. The only thing keeping them company are the clues and information of the Nomai, and they only ever meet one of them —  the only way they learn about them is from the written passages they left behind and visiting the places they left behind. They’re an outsider looking in from a distance, and that’s something I can relate to.

In a similar manner, I feel like an outsider peering into the window of the world: most of the time I’m by myself and even when I’m with people, I still feel alone. The way the protagonist learns everything from passages reminds me of looking through social media and using it to take a glimpse at what’s happening outside of my four walls. We’re both looking at and reading about things that happened without us, but they travel to different worlds to get their information, and I just scroll down my timeline.

They read about the struggles and triumphs of the Nomai, and I read about the same things in the world around me. I see people celebrating career and life goals, things I can’t relate to. The protagonist marvels at creations the ancient race left behind just as I marvel at the pictures people take of their exciting lives; of them living life to the fullest while I lie on my bed. They’re trying to learn what happened to the Nomai’s civilization, and I’m trying to find a place in my own.

The protagonist can’t do it by themself, though ー they need help from the aforementioned other explorers. Sure, they only see them a few times in the game, but they are essential to their mission. Without their input and information, they wouldn’t be able to learn as much about the Nomai as they do. There are important people in my life who I only see once or twice a year, but I know they would help me out in the same way the other explorers would help out the protagonist. They’re there to tell me what I have to hear in order to complete my mission. So although I feel like an outsider, maybe I’m not as alone as I think I am.

I usually play games to turn off my brain, but this one gave me an existential crisis

In the end, the protagonist does find out what happened to the Nomai; the mission they set out to achieve is accomplished. My mission of no longer being an outsider has yet to be completed, but I’m pretty optimistic. When I was playing The Outer Wilds, I died so many times that I lost count; the important thing is that I kept going and finished the game. No matter how many times I accidentally flew into the Sun, ran out of oxygen, or got eaten by a gigantic fish, I still chugged along. 

Never in a million years did I think a game would affect me in a way The Outer Wilds did. I usually play games to turn off my brain, but this one gave me an existential crisis. It forced me to take a good look at my life, and I’m glad it did. I don’t want to be an outsider anymore, and I actively want to be a part of my civilization. 

That’s what I plan to do in my own life, and I know I have my other explorers helping me, no matter how rarely we see each other. It’s not going to be easy, but if The Outer Wilds taught me anything, it’s that you will stumble a lot before you succeed. I think I’m done reading Nomai writings, and I’m ready to leave my own passages for people to discover.

By Jose Hernandez

Jose is an entertainment writer from California. He’s been into video games for as long as he can remember. He also loves referring to himself in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @HoseJernandez

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