Outer Wilds is the best game that I’ve played so far this year, and it’s going to take some kind of generation-defining masterpiece to dethrone it from the top of my GOTY list. It handles exploration and discovery better than anything I can remember, with charm and grace and a captivating story that unfolds organically as you pilot your tiny little ship around a tiny little solar system.
It’s Myst meets No Man’s Sky meets Oddworld, and if you haven’t played it, I really can’t recommend it strongly enough. It does so many little things in such smart ways, and since it trusts you to pull everything together yourself, the experience is immensely rewarding. There are a few puzzles that are implemented in ways that I, personally, would not have chosen, but every tiny quibble I have with Outer Wilds exists in the shadow of its awe-inspiring, monumental ending.
So please know that this post contains spoilers for one of the game’s planets, and talks in-depth about its unique mechanics and the puzzles they enable. If you haven’t set foot on Giant’s Deep, bookmark this page and come back when you have. I’m not going to give away the ultimate purpose of/solution to the planet, but with Outer Wilds being the experience that it is, you should embrace every moment of it with as little foreknowledge as possible.
Outer Wilds isn’t a horror game, but it does trade heavily in the cold, apathetic reality of nature and space. Because of this, segments of the game are highly tense, suspenseful, or down-right terrifying. Most of the time, this feels completely deliberate — Dark Bramble, for instance, is no one’s idea of a relaxing evening. But there’s one planet that was as stressful an ordeal as any I’ve ever experienced in a game, in ways the developers could not reasonably have accounted for.
Giant’s Deep is an ocean world in which tumultuous currents prevent safe navigation beneath the waves, and island-sized tornadoes freely roam across the surface. These tornadoes are so large, and reach so deeply into the atmosphere that any landmass caught in one is ejected into space, only to come crashing back down. More than just a hazard, these tornadoes are integral to the island’s various puzzles and must be intimately interacted with in order to advance through Outer Wilds‘ sprawling narrative. Some locations are equipped with special tornado safety pads, which wrap the player in a protective cocoon of momentum-nullifying anti-gravity. As long as you can make it to one of these pads before a tornado sucks up the island you’re working on, you’re fine. If you can’t make it to one in time, well, you have about as much chance as anything else that gets launched into space without protection.
So obviously, Giant’s Deep is intended to be a tense location. Not only are you trying to get things done before the game’s time loop kicks back in, but you’re also under constant pressure from the planet’s brutal atmosphere, and must always be aware of how many tornadoes are in proximity, as well as your own proximity to protection. It’s supposed to be stressful, but I’d hazard to guess that it’s not intended to make the player sick to their stomach, or dread playing the game at all. But such was my reaction to Giant’s Deep, as we all bring our own experiences to the table when ingesting media. In this case, my dinner date was a traumatic episode from my childhood.
In the weeks before my 11th birthday, our small Texas town was visited by a powerful storm system that produced several tornadoes. Thankfully, none of us were injured or suffered any property damage, but the experience of taking shelter under a mattress in the hallway left me shook. From that day forward, even a gentle rain shower was enough to send me into a panic. I would vomit from stress if I caught sight of the county warning map that local TV stations put up during bad weather, or if I heard the trademark klaxon of the National Weather Service’s emergency broadcast system. I suffered a constant bombardment of intrusive thoughts, and as I grew into my adolescence I developed severe, fully-ambulatory night terrors. Eventually, all of these symptoms would be diagnosed as posttraumatic stress disorder.
I’m 32 now, and through my own efforts to learn everything I can about weather science, along with the efforts of multiple therapists, I have things under control. I still feel a tightness in my gut whenever the weather kicks up, but I’ve learned enough about how storms work and what they’re actually capable of, that now I know when I’m actually in danger and when I’m not. I can even enjoy the relaxing white noise of a good thunderstorm, which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. It’s been a long road, and I still get “noticeably freaked out” during an actual tornado threat (according to previous roommates and girlfriends), but at least I can keep my lunch down.
All of which is to say, tornadoes in media have always triggered my trauma flashbacks. I had no idea what Giant’s Deep had in store for me as I sailed through its opaque atmosphere for the first time, and while I figured that the apparent gas giant (actually a water giant) would be stormy based on its appearance, I was unprepared for the sprawling network of tornadoes that make up the planet’s surface. For the first time in a long time, something fictitious made my stomach ball up in that old familiar way — I knew then that Giant’s Deep would put my dedication to finishing Outer Wilds to the test.
For being as cartoonishly large as they are, the functional reality of the tornadoes on Giant’s Deep is pretty close to real life. As soon as you become aware of a tornado in your immediate vicinity, you must take cover or experience harm. Solving puzzles on the planet meant going through this heavily abstracted pantomime of my childhood experience over and over again, and I found myself delaying progress to return to my ship, just to have a few minutes in orbit where, ironically, I felt like I could actually breathe. I was not willing to spend enough time on Giant’s Deep to learn the pattern of the storm system, or if there even was a pattern, so as far as I ever knew, I was but 20 seconds away from being swept up by a tornado at all times. This, for me, was a unique and special hell.
I did finish Giant’s Deep though, and relished telling it exactly where to shove it as I blasted out of its atmosphere for the last time. I wish I could tell you that this was all some profound growing experience, or that Giant’s Deep ended up being an effective form of virtual exposure therapy, but neither are true. There was no secret way to deal with being on Giant’s Deep, no coping mechanism that allowed me to endure — even enjoy! — what is otherwise a fundamentally ingenious, well-designed section of Outer Wilds. Likewise, I don’t feel like I have a better handle on my PTSD now than I did before I played through Outer Wilds. I just had to stomach it. I was going to be very uncomfortable until it was over, and that was a choice I was willing to make, as the alternative of never finishing was unacceptable.
This put an enormous burden on Outer Wilds. Not only did it have to stick the landing that it was going for, but it had to do so in such a spectacular way as to justify my own extensive, intense discomfort. This would have to be one of the best games in recent memory to make going through Giant’s Deep worth it, but at the time, all available data indicated that it might just be able to pull it off. And you know what? It did. I spent hours repeatedly confronting a lifelong trauma in a way that was neither beneficial nor therapeutic, and the end of Outer Wilds was so tremendous that not only did it balance the scales, but it tipped them heavily in the game’s favor. Just like Outer Wilds little Hearthian protagonist, I’d go back and do it again.