Best Games - The Outer Wilds
Movies are linear, plays are linear, songs are linear, books are linear. They can all contain stories told from start to middle to end. There are Choose Your Own Adventure books and even some Choose Your Own Adventure style video things, but they are all, at their core, linear. You can make choices that change the moment to moment story, but you can’t experience that story in a way other than the way the authors intended. You can try but it just won’t make any sense.
The linear nature of stories isn’t a limitation. It’s a feature. Imagine trying to decipher a film that has been chopped up and rearranged in a random order. Each edit decoupled chronologically from the ones before or after it. I’m sure it would make the rest of your experimental film class very happy, but no one else would want to watch it. Our squishy meat brains can’t deal well with non-linear time. I mean, we can intellectualize it. We can wrap our minds around the idea of it. We just aren’t very entertained by it.
Now imagine this scenario. You walk out into the woods. You come across an abandoned cabin. Inside that cabin are the remnants of a life you weren’t aware of until now. Bits of writing. The places where people slept and ate. Things they collected but were unable to take with them when they left. You gaze around at all of this and then head back home. All of those tableaux tell a story through clues and inferences. It’s a story that you build in your head during the quiet parts of your hike. These sights become a story that you tell to yourself.
The story you create is linear. You left home, you saw things, you came back. Beginning, middle, end. It satisfies the arrow of time that our brains demand. But there was no authorial hand directing you to see the kitchen of the cabin before the bedroom. What is the story you tell yourself when you examine a poem etched into the doorframe before seeing the jar filled with potting soil or the yellowing single mattress? Is it different than when you see the unwashed dishes in the sink first? Does reading the signature on a painting determine what you think of the rest of the house? Does the story of the space feel different depending on how you experience it? This is storytelling through discovery and it is something only the real world, or a game, can do.
There are a great many games that tell their stories through discovery. This style has a name. Environmental storytelling. Most times, environmental storytelling is additive to a more explicit linear story. A narrator or quest giver will direct the player down a path and the environmental storytelling will be used to fill in the gaps. Apparently, a lot of game devs imagine that a person might write on a wall with their own blood rather than attempting to stop bleeding it. Unlikely, but it does tell a story I suppose.
The Outer Wilds is straight, uncut, and distilled environmental storytelling. Any bit of story, any strand of narrative, is something you, the player, must seek out or encounter on your travels. Not one bit of important story is required for you to ‘beat’ the game. You can easily bypass all of it. The entire game can be finished in minutes, but there is enough story written and presented visually to fill dozens of hours. This story won’t come to you. You will have to wander into those woods, open the door to that cabin, and find it for yourself. This can happen in literally any order. There are clues and processes that you discover while playing The Outer Wilds that will lead you to new mysteries and additional vignettes, but there are a lot of tales that you will come upon by chance.
In your life there will be stories that you remember because they were told to you. Everyone has their own favorite childhood movie or book. The sort of thing that you will recall with nostalgia years and decades later. These stories will be important because they mirror or inform a part of your life. Songs will bring back memories of impactful moments. These stories are tied to you, but they are separate from you. Distinct. Maybe more important are the stories you experience.
The Outer Wilds has its own story to tell. It’s a story that is as grand as it is simple and personal. It is melancholic, joyus, introspective, and harrowing. Most important, it is a story that you can only experience. No one can tell you this story second hand. You can’t watch a video of that first descent into the maelstrom of Giant’s Deep and feel what the game is presenting to you. Multiple trips into Dark Bramble wouldn’t stick with you unless you have felt your own pulse quicken in preparation for the trek. Stitching together the tales of Nomai travellers who came before you would have no impact if they were read from a script. They need to be found and discovered and mined for meaning. Each scrap of text landing harder as they lock, puzzle like, into empty spots in this story that you are telling to yourself.
The Outer Wilds is a walk in the woods where you stumble across a splayed out campsite. An abandoned cabin. A story that ended before you arrived. A story filled with danger and mystery and lightness and sadness. A story that you now have to tell yourself. It’s a walk in the woods on a universal scale. It’s also a small story that roots itself inside you, because the only way to really know this story is to experience it.
The Outer Wilds will be remembered as a pivot point in video game storytelling. It might not be a thing that can be replicated or even emulated. It might be that only the relatively small number of people who will ever play it will carry that story with them. Without a doubt though, The Outer Wilds will be a touchpoint for every game developer and serious storyteller creating from this point on. In a medium that values experiences over traditional, linear, storytelling, it is an important artifact. The one that showed how it is done.
I look forward to playing the descendants of The Outer Wilds style of storytelling. Truly some amazing experiences on the horizon.
And storytelling is only one of the reasons that The Outer Wilds is one of the best games. Really, you should play it.