Finding humanity through dread in “Outer Wilds”

By Nick Jaccaci

Dread is an emotion I rarely experience when consuming a piece of media. I get teary-eyed or feel a lump in my throat when watching an emotional scene in a movie. I get goosebumps when listening to that song that got me through days that would never end. I even get anxious reading through the climax of an entire trilogy of books. But dread, the sinking feeling in your gut, the sense of hope leaving with no sign of return, is rare. I felt true fear, and true dread, for a moment in the “Outer Wilds.” And I wanted more.

The “Outer Wilds” is a video game developed by Mobius Digital in 2019. Released on Xbox One, Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows and soon, on Nintendo Switch, this game puts players in their own solar system. The journey begins by going through general astronaut training, after which you get the code to your landing pad and your own spaceship is within your grasp. As you head to your ship, a strange statue from an alien culture that has long passed turns toward you. There is a connection; it is foreign, unknown. You enter your spaceship. The solar system is now yours to explore as you leave your home planet of Timber Hearth. 

My first flight ended with a crash onto Brittle Hollow, a planet being consumed from the inside by a black hole. I could hardly think about what to do next when the sky grew blue with light that was so harsh, it was almost white. I turned in time to see the sun explode into a supernova, silently engulfing me and the solar system.

Then I woke up again and it was as if my journey had not even begun. Did I have the code to the launch pad already? I think that ancient alien statue really gave me the good ol’ one-two upstairs. So, I returned to Brittle Hollow. I saw the black hole beneath me as parts of the ground began to give and fall while I explored, a constant reminder of the danger I was in. 

I jumped around the planet to explore, but I was still new to this game. I was clumsy. I missed a jump. I was falling. All the while, the black hole was growing. I fell in. I appeared somewhere. I was in space, alone. 

There was no sound but that of my suit beeping, indicating that my oxygen was depleting. The faint sunlight seemed impossibly far away. I was going to die, and it was my mistakes that caused this. I felt dread, absolute dread. In real life, I could not breathe for several seconds as the weight of my situation crushed down on me. 

There is no fanfare in-game for your success, but you get the next clue, the next breadcrumb of the mystery that only whets your appetite even more. The player often sits alone with their thoughts as their spacecraft orbits the system and they move between mysteries. What usually seems like a terrifying ordeal of self-reflection becomes a peaceful meditation on life and what is going on in it. 

Just as the game exists, it encourages the player, the explorer who dared to leave home, to exist within it. You may be a small part of this solar system, but you are an important part of it, nonetheless. 

This game helps me understand and articulate what I, along with countless other Midd Kids, feel. Life can push back more often than not. There are assignments, conflicts both internally and externally, the unknowns of the future and ultimately little time to solve them all. But it is easy to forget that I am getting better. Every day, I learn something new; every day, I try to be my best. The “Outer Wilds” helps me see that so long as I am moving forward — just like that hopeful astronaut from Timber Hearth — I am doing well.