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Game of the Year #3: Outer Wilds

In the 22 Minute Spaceman Majora’s Mask game, often the final moments of each loop are filled by a little quiescence. The cave exit filling with sand seconds before your escape waiting out your slow suffocation, missing the sun station space jump by a hair and peaceably accepting the sun’s gravity as it pulls you in and burns you into a crisp. The most annoying part of video games is the part where you know it’s over, but the game doesn’t seem to. Games often outlive their momentum, vendors still doling out sidequests as the climactic confrontation burns around them; here, time and again, the spacefarer outlives their own. Most of the time, the last 30 seconds of your average 22 minute run ends with you deciding where you’d like to die.

Last time, on Pathologic, we kinda said the whole point was that little inch of rope it keeps giving you to convince yourself you can climb out of a mechanical hell of your own making. Here, in a decaying orbit around the sun, drowning at the bottom of a gas giant’s sea, there’s nothing to do but make that little pact of Acceptance, over and over again. At the end of this game, some struggling part of me still kinda thought “but we’re going to fix it, right? You know, the universe. We’re going to make the universe stop exploding now, right?” I guess because video games are like that. Stories are like that, but video games are really like that, especially ones that end with a white-knuckle stealth run through a misty forest of titanic interstellar anglerfish. Like I better be really saving this universe now, buddy, if you’re making me deal with those fish one last time with no continues!!

So like, what’s inherent to my nature that I thought “oh, video games make you save things,” after 12 hours combing the ruins of a lost and ancient civilization damned not by their own hubris, but cosmic happenstance. The overwhelming belief that all variables are under your control (and therefore, you are secure) can be a respite for the traumatized, but it’s a wall too. The thrust into the unknown that ends Outer Wilds is the most frightening part of the game, far more frightening than the anglerfish (even with no continues), until you spend a little of time in it, touch the corners of that world like you’ve touched the corners of the one you’ve left, and realized there’s nothing that can hurt you here. This isn’t frightening, it’s just different.

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