Annapurna Interactive might be best known in the video game sphere for being the publisher that finally brought Kentucky Route Zero to consoles, and that forward-thinking adventure mindset is on full display once again with their upcoming release, Outer Wilds, developed by Mobius Digital. While there aren’t a whole lot of aesthetic similarities between Outer Wilds and KRZ, they will both scratch the itch for an inquisitive mind that wants to explore a unique new world.
In an early access session I got a chance to look at a build of Outer Wilds and speak with creative director Alex Beachum and designer and producer Loan Verneau. The game, which Beachum developed as for his USC graduate thesis, and which he describes as a “space archaeology simulator,” has you taking mostly first-person control of an alien from a race of “Hearthians,” who live on Timberhearth, a tiny planet in a very interesting little solar system.
The design of the Hearthians’ culture very much evokes a camping aesthetic, and the creators of Outer Wilds want you to feel like you’re in a camping trip in space. When you begin the game, you’re on your way to get some launch codes for your big space voyage, so you need to go check out your town and the observatory and museum. Along the way, you might see little diversions that will teach you how to use the tools you’re be manipulating throughout the game, like your ship, and a sort of telescope called a Signalscope. (But never weapons. You’re not a warrior, there’s no battle, and you’re just camping and exploring and digging things up. Archaeology, remember?)
The Hearthians’ technology is cobbled together and their space program is what Beachum describes as “pretty much a backwoods version of NASA,” but soon you’ll learn that there was another race of explorers in this solar system long ago, and they left records and artifacts everywhere. Once you start planet-hopping within your solar system (and you have many ways to do this, and it’s very fun), you’ll start discovering some big mysteries, and uncovering clues as you go.
Oh, and then you get caught in a time loop.
The solar system you’ll be investigating has some truly original aspects, and the sizes and climates of the various planets obviously affect how you approach, enter, or leave them. As you can imagine, this takes some serious physics simulation. “Everything is physically simulated all the time,” says Beachum. “So, everything’s like in orbit because of gravity. Everything’s a much smaller scale than the real world, so things are moving a lot faster. And as a result we do have to take some liberties, otherwise the whole other system would just fall apart because there’s a reason why solar systems aren’t this size in real life. [For example], the sun in the village, when you see the sun rise and set in the sky it’s just the planets. But you know, that’s the sun that you see. So once you get the launch codes here and lift off, you can just to any of these, as we see fit.”
And you can explore at will. And you probably will do just that. Beachum says when most people begin to play, “We ask players like, ‘What do you want to do once you’re up in space?’ Kind of get them thinking like, ‘Oh this is going to be up to me.’ But if you don’t know what you want to do, we do kind of seed you with some good entry-level areas. The game is very open, but we don’t want people to feel like they are wandering aimlessly. But at the same time, we don’t want to be really heavy-handed with missions.”
What Beachum describes as “four major mysteries” will be presented to the player, and they’ll have to figure out how to solve them. The mechanics are fun and will take a bit of time to master, and there will be a whole bunch of different ways to die and try again before you get a chance to play all the way to the end.
Outer Wilds will launch on PC and additional platforms in 2018. Outer Wilds is being developed by LA-based Mobius Digital. The game started as a student project by Creative Lead Alex Beachum, and the alpha version of the project won the Seamus McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Design awards at the 2015 Independent Games Festival. Visit outerwilds.com for more information.