We have traveled to Disney parks a few times now. On each trip I spend a percentage of it just studying the construction of, well, everything. There are so many small details in those parks that aren’t the products of chance. Each small scrape carved into the artificial stone, each crack snaking its way through a wooden pillar, each trail of rust drifting down from simulated steel rivets. All of those details have been placed there and maintained meticulously in the hope that you will never notice them. Individually these details are works of talented craftspeople worthy of respect and praise. Combined, they become invisible. Just one one small contribution the intended effect; to transport an audience of park attendees to another place and time. They will become wrapped up in the story going on around them. The real magic to Disney parks is that you are never supposed to know it’s a trick.
Game designs are, for the most part, linear. This is a feature built into the medium. The player is supposed to play through each level, area, or challenge, completing them and moving forward until they reach the end. Game designers are taught to always direct the player in subtle and overt ways. The grandest sin is to leave the player feeling directionless and lost. The design drum beat repeatedly since the arcade days that the objective must always be clear and the path too it must be obvious. There is no other way, or other ways have been tried and failed. I mean, why would anyone question the wisdom of decades of game development?
Disney theme parks have one major guiding principle. Everything is built to tell the story. Everything. After you walk through the main gate the imagineers who designed the space have no control over what you look at, where you go, or how you experience it. The story of the place, the experience, must be everywhere and built into everything. Park designers can’t control what you do, but they can try to give you some hints. Sightlines, color pallets, angles, indicators, pathways, all tools in the designers kit. The fact remains that when you are in a theme park no one will be there to tell you how to enjoy it.
For years in video game design we clung to the platitude that the designer can’t tell the player what to do. The player is a rogue element and as soon as they are let loose on a game, all bets are off. For the most part, that hasn’t been true at all. Press A to start, press start to start, move left to right, move bottom to top, jump here, shoot here, defeat all enemies to open doors, find keycard to open doors, have this adventure in this way for this amount of time. I’m not saying a directed experience isn’t valid. Some truly wonderful games have been made that are absolutely on rails. For a very long time, that was really the only practical way to make games. Technical limitations required more or less linear experiences. It is now technically feasible to create unconstrained spaces, but let's not kid ourselves, most “open world” games are rail lines with switching stations. Design wisdom would say that you can’t really do it any other way. The Imagineers would say otherwise.
Then there are the other games. Games like Skyrim, games like Breath of the Wild, games like Outer Wilds. These games are theme parks. Subtle hints and gentle nudges are all that can be detected of the designers intent. The trick of the game, the pathing of the space, the push toward a narrative conclusion is, like the Disney parks, mostly invisible. The story is told too and by the person experiencing it, at the pace they want to experience it. Story is woven into every little detail but asks nothing specific of the player.
When you wander around a Disney park they know that you will be waiting, they know that you will back track, they know that you will see each attraction and feature from different angles and vantages. All of these eventualities have been considered and planned for. The design language for truly wonderful open world video games was being developed before the integrated circuit was even a viable technology.
I literally wrote all of this to say that Outer Wilds isn’t an adventure game, it’s a theme park and it’s wonderful and you should play it.