If the past decade in big budget game design has been marked by anything, it is surely the calcifying of “progression” as a concept. The noughties saw the unholy conjoining of the action game and RPG levelling structures in games like Bioshock. Coupled with the triple-A publisher cabal’s redefining of games as content delivery systems, this has given rise to a whole raft of experiences in which players toil endlessly towards moving goal posts. Finales be damned: there must always be something else to unlock.
What a powerful relief it is, then, to play Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds, and realise you have everything you need to complete it from the word go. An unwieldy spaceship lashed together from planks and portholes, closer to Red Dwarf’s Starbug than the Apollo lander. A patchy spacesuit, perilously easy to forget. A handheld probe launcher, used for remote snapshots or to test a planet’s gravity by firing a probe over the horizon. A shotgun mic for tracking down signals, and a pocket translator with which to unwind the spiral script of a long-dead race of alien explorers. There is nothing to earn, nothing to unlock or stockpile, no “progression” at all. All you have to do is work out what is happening, and where and when you need to be in order to stop it.
Knowledge is the only thing in Outer Wilds that endures. The premise is that you are caught in a 20 minute timeloop, always ending with the destruction of the sun. Prior to that cataclysmic finale, each of the game’s planets undergoes colossal changes according to a tight script. Ice thaws, topsoil is peeled away, continental plates implode, asteroids flatten hillsides, islands are ejected into orbit by cyclones. The game’s worlds are toy-like, each a mere kilometre or two across, but their sheer instability and the limited time you have to explore them gives them magnitude.