How Outer Wilds Works? Why does it’s exploration surpass Outer Worlds and No Man’s Sky?

Hello I’m Kinglink and today we’re going to talk about How Outer Wilds work?

Outer Wilds is a game released last year by Mobius Digital. If you haven’t played it, it’s a space exploration game. Your player is an astronaut and they also are about to be given a spacecraft to go to other planets in the star system and explore the worlds you find.

Now before we dive in here, I’m going to theme this video with a focus on space exploration. I’m going to be talking about Outer Worlds a bit, which is a game from Obsidian Entertainment. But there’s another example we’re going to talk about. If we say large scale exploration, is there a specific game that comes to mind? One not regarded too well? For me, I have to talk about No Man’s Sky by Hello Games. It’s just the perfect example of how not to do exploration.

Out of the three games, only Outer Wilds really satisfied me with the exploration provided, and I struggled to understand why. Outer Worlds comes with an attempt to be somewhat like Fallout which definitely rewarded players for exploration, and No Man’s Sky is almost only exploration, so what makes Outer Wilds work when those two falter?

With that said, let’s talk about this. I want to start with my first thoughts on Outer Wilds. The fact is, you wake up on a planet and start to explore that world. After meeting a couple of people, you’re going to be noticing something. These aren’t people. At least not what humans would call people. That’s because everyone you meet is an alien and sure enough if you look at your shadow you are one too.

This is a minor piece of the game but in just a few minutes you realize you’re already exploring an unknown world, unknown galaxy, and unknown universe. You are a Hearthian and you might immediately start asking, what do they eat, how do they live and more. These are good questions and there are pieces of the game that start to hint at some of this information.

But essentially there’s a possibility to discover something about your character just by starting in a creature you don’t understand right off the bat. This minor change also indicates a few other things. First off, any rule you understand about being a human is thrown out the window. People might know the maximum possible jump height, the carry weight, how much damage a human might take when they do certain actions. But none of that matters with Outer Wilds because you’re not a human. Any preconceived rules about what is and isn’t allowed can be safely ignored while the player learns the actual rules of Outer Wilds.

So what about our other two games. Let’s take a look at Outer Worlds. Starting with the character creator. Outer Worlds is a space RPG, but let’s be clear here, this isn’t an alien RPG. You are on a different planet, galaxy and more, but there are not sentient aliens in Outer Worlds, at least none I’ve seen. If it wasn’t for the colorful fauna, and alien creatures on the planets, I could make the case for this still being Earth. It’s not but the point is it could be.

That’s one of the disappointing parts of Outer Worlds, we can cross the galaxy or universe, but Outer Worlds tend to want to tell stories that we can already tell on earth with a focus on social issues, and capitalism is bad. If I am honest, I think Fallout had more genetic diversity in their characters. Just having Super Mutants, Death Claws, and Robots add a lot more variety in the game. It’s a strange thing that Outer Worlds is so limited in the characters you’ll encounter.

There is a single major character in the game that’s not human, he’s your companion and a robot named SAM. I like SAM, but as a character, I didn’t find him that interesting. The main quest is just to recruit him and I don’t think he does anything else, sadly. Everyone else is human. Not humanoid, but human and… I think something important is lost there.

And then there’s the true space game, No Man’s Sky. And in No Man’s Sky, we have one of the harder problems with covering it. You see, No Man’s Sky has changed a lot. It’s one of the most patched 60 dollar titles of all time, and there have been significant major patches to the game. The problem here is the game I played at launch, and the game I played in August of last year no longer exists. So if I claim X, and it’s true or not true, consider if what I said was ever true, and please cut me a little slack for trying to cover a game in such a constant state of flux.

With that said, when No Man’s Sky first came out, you didn’t have “a race”. I think it’s safe to assume you were a human, robot, or just a generic alien in the original game. There were three main alien races and you couldn’t speak any of their languages. Without multiplayer, there were limited ways, if any, to see yourself or other players.

This has changed, and I believe the NEXT release, the one that dropped the multiplayer components, allowed players to change their race, but to be honest, there’s little reason for this. You could be one of five races as you’ll see on the screen, but this only changes your appearance to other players.

If you become a Gek, you can talk to Gek aliens and still not understand their language. Similarly, if you change to any of the other two main aliens who had a language, you don’t get a bonus when talking to them. And the Gek race is short, so your character will be short, but for some reason, the camera angle still seems to remain at full height. It means this is really a cosmetic thing.

It’s a shame because the three alien systems in No Man’s Sky could have been interesting and there is some discovery there. Let me dive into that for a moment, a big piece of exploration in No Man’s Sky is understanding and discovering languages, and there are a few ways that this can work.

The majority of them are to go to a monolith or go to a creature you haven’t visited before and ask them to give you a word of their language. There are four languages, with the Atlas language being a fourth in addition to the three alien languages, and there are two thousand three hundred and sixty-eight words in all the languages combined.

The system relies on this process of collecting words one at a time but the result is an understanding of what the aliens say and usually minimal need for that understanding. The fastest way to gain this knowledge is to fly to a space station, talk to the eight to ten NPCs on the space station, quickly jump to the next system and talk to the next group on that space station. You can learn the language in bursts in other ways, but we’re almost always talking about a maximum of ten words at a time, and that’s in the best of conditions, realize two thousand words will take you a massive amount of time to learn.

The language though might even be a legacy system, as the use of the words isn’t as important in more recent upgrades. In the Atlas Rising update, a new class was added to the game, the Travelers, who don’t have a learnable language. Most NPCs also don’t require their language for you to interface with them. It’s a shame because the language system was interesting. It was one of the few parts of the initial game that I enjoyed. Instead, it’s been relegated to a minor system with a few uses mostly focused on chance encounters.

So that’s the initial look at each game, let’s take a look at where the games are placed, and by this I mean let’s look at the worlds. Let’s return to Outer Wilds, and see that there are a few worlds in Outer Wilds. Here’s the map and you can see a few groupings of planets, and astral bodies. They also move in real-time which is an interesting feature.

Each planet and astral body in Outer Wilds has some purpose, and each of the planets is interesting and unique when you land on them as I’ll be showing a couple. Almost every planet has a decent size, though they are quite a bit smaller than you might expect, you will find a large number of locations to discover on each planet. Every planet and location is unique and handcrafted, and almost all of them have some minor puzzle or purpose to discover in them.

I’ve been showing you small glimpses of interesting locations on these planets, but the one thing to notice is how different each world is. Not only do they have a different color scheme, but they also look, and act differently. You have a water planet, a forest planet, a moon with a minimal atmosphere, a desert planet. But wait, that’s not all. As I look up you should see that this is what is known as the Ash Twins, and, yes, that’s a sand flow from this planet to the next. What’s even more interesting is if I’m careful, I can ride that sand flow to the other planet.

You see the Ash Twins are binary planets and, while that’s interesting, their stories are also connected. This is part of the wonder of Outer Wilds, in that each planet is tied together in a deeper and more meaningful purpose.

So let’s check in with Outer Worlds. There are several planets here too, but do they look different? This is one of my issues with Outer Worlds. Outer Worlds has very small maps that take minutes to cross from one end to another. The worlds themselves as you’ll see are not very interesting, and these could be on the same planet. But they are different planets.

There’ are not many of them though. There are about four large outdoor maps if I remember correctly, not counting city areas, large ships, and more. We could probably even make that six or seven large areas, but, when I say they’re large, they are still very small.

Let me show you the third location, this is a small asteroid, and it’s a little bit obvious we’re on an asteroid, but sure enough, if I start to jump around, I don’t feel anything different than the rest of the game.

It doesn’t help that the buildings are all similar as well, and feel very cookie cutter. The game tries to make this seem because one corporation is trying to ship low cost housing which does make sense, but buildings on different planets look the same with minimal customization except for certain locations like the bar? Come on.

The inside of the buildings feel like they come from a small library of assets and it doesn’t make for a better experience. This is the problem with Bethesda’s engine, but this isn’t Bethesda’s engine, it’s a new engine from Obsidian and we’re seeing the same issue, everything ends up looking the same.

So let’s check back in with No Man’s Sky. Well, this is probably one of the better parts of No Man’s Sky, there are different planets, and no two planets will look the same, or have the same wildlife or plants, and you could explore each planet. In fact, out of these three games, No Man’s Sky’s planets are easily the largest and potentially the most interesting. It’s not densely packed with interesting locations, but that’s part of the charm of a No Man’s Sky planet.

The downside is that you’re not supposed to stay on any of these planets for long. This is a game all about quickly exploring the universe. To spend hours on a single planet outside of maybe a base doesn’t seem that important. Players will want to continue their journey to the center of the universe, so they will see many planets.

What’s sad is that almost any planet in No Man’s Sky could be amazing. Each planet is different and unique, but none of these are handcrafted. You can see weird creatures like you see on the screen, as well as unique rocks and vegetation, and more. The problem, after you quickly scan everything in your first landing zone, which will only be a fraction of the planet but there’s not much reason to stick around. You’ll want to accomplish whatever task brought you to the world and move on as soon as possible, after the first couple of hours of amazement.

No Man’s Sky though does have more interesting planets than either of the other games mentioned and potentially any game ever made, but the problem is, while the player should want to explore them, the gameplay wants the player to move on relatively quickly. There are just far too many other planets to visit to focus on any individual one. This has changed since the addition of construction, and players are free to do what they want, but it’s really hard to claim that fully exploring a planet feels rewarding outside of achievements or just a little number incrementing.

While a single planet is interesting, as the game progresses there are not many unique planets. Most planets have animals with two or four feet, they might have birds, and they may or may not be hostile. They’re interesting but after five or ten of them they all seem to be the same. The snake-like creature I found before was my unique find, but a majority of these creatures will look, act and feel the exact same which does harm the feeling of exploration when you aren’t finding anything that feels new at each location.

One last point about No Man’s Sky, and it’s a minor but every planet feels the same size. It’s really interesting to move around on an asteroid, or the moon in Outer Wilds and feel a different gravitational pull, but in No Man’s Sky, every planet is about the same size and so they feel similar in that way. Though like I said, I think No Man’s Sky’s planets and biodiversity is easily the best.

Now let’s talk about one last thing, the real exploration of each game, and this ties to the main story of each game. Let’s take one more look at Outer Wilds which again uses the handcrafted nature of the world, to produce a deeper story. There’s quite a lot to go through and I don’t want to talk too much here for fear of spoilers, but well… Let’s go through the minor spoilers.

In Outer Wilds at the beginning of the game, as you get your launch codes and leave, you run into this statue, it’s a Nomai statue, and … something has happened. But what?

Much of Outer Wilds focuses on you learning about the Nomai and what happened to their civilization. You see there’s no Nomai in this system anymore, something has happened to them, but the player is left to figure out what.

There is also a little problem happening in the galaxy. Every 22 minutes or so the sun that all the planets are revolving around goes supernova and suddenly you start over. Now 22 minutes is both exceedingly long, and very short. I honestly didn’t reach the supernova death due to a lot of stupid deaths for maybe a couple of hours. At the same time, when you’re working on a problem and get reset because of the sun’s death, it can be frustrating.

But that makes each minute of exploration feel more important, and the good news is that even if you learn something at the last moment, your computer will magically remember all the information, so you can just look at the computer on your ship to study where the story is, or what important information you might have missed. Sometimes the game will tell you there’s more information to find at a location, but the huge narrative that Outer Wilds expects the player to find is contained and localized to just one large screen when reviewing the information.

At the same time, players will usually have to cross the galaxy over multiple loops. Often they’ll have to understand something important on one planet before returning to another to use that knowledge, and maybe return to the first with more information.

There is a lot of detail and care in the creation of the world and narrative and that’s what makes the exploration of the world, themes, and story stand out in Outer Wilds because each step feels both important and part of a larger picture that keeps the player asking what they might find and eventually understand next.

Outer Worlds, on the other hand, seems to be more focused on the rummaging style of exploration. After the first couple of areas and quests in Outer Worlds I realized that the story wasn’t going to explore themes at a deep level, much of the game is focused on the story of capitalism gone wrong. The problem is this is more of a blunt hammer than an interesting discovery.

Instead, it seems that Outer Worlds wants you to explore those outer worlds, which would be fine. One of the great joys of Fallout 3 was to explore the wasteland and even just scavenge in random locations. Outer Worlds seems to lead you to the same path.

The only problem is Outer Worlds doesn’t have enough of this. Almost every location on your map will have some purpose, mostly for a quest, so you’ll eventually go everywhere to complete each quest. There’s very few random encounters or random experiences and so as a player, I felt that I was pulled more towards completing quests than truly exploring a vast wilderness.

Part of this was the maps in the game being relatively small scale and uninteresting, but a big part was that there’s nothing in the game to encourage true exploration until someone sends you to a location on purpose, otherwise you might investigate an area and then later be sent back again to do some task. This happened to me twice, and it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience to trudge back to a location you’ve been in.

Looking at the levels after finishing the game, I don’t remember a single location that wasn’t used for some plot point, so… where’s the exploration? There are generic buildings all over the place but those are going to have the typical loot, and nothing that is interesting to find in them. Compare this to Fallout and Skyrim where players can stumble on entire questlines by going to interesting looking buildings they’ve passed by a couple times.

Finally, let’s talk about No Man’s Sky and what is going on there. As I mentioned, it has one of the most interesting series of planets to explore, but that’s just one system. There are now multiple quest systems leading the player to a lot of interesting content but this takes us away from really exploring a single interesting planet. There’s also construction mechanics, the ability to feed animals and possibly ride them, and now space freighter systems and more.

This is right next to a big issue I have with No Man’s Sky. There’s a huge number of systems in No Man’s Sky, but none of them mesh or connect well. You can play multiplayer, but unless you agree to never leave each other, you’re going to quickly be pulled away. You can feed an animal potentially, but then what? You can explore a planet fully which is interesting to do once or twice, but that means you’re ignoring multiple other systems. You can follow the story but that means you probably won’t spend much time on each planet.

There’s a lot of things to do in No Man’s Sky, but there is very little synergy between these systems. Compare this to Outer Worlds where the player can be sent to a factory for a quest, they can then also fight enemies, discover some story on computers or other features, scavenge loot, and more. Each subsystem is nicely tied to one experience in the same direction and while there are choices, such as finding the quest item early when looking in a location, players can continue exploring the location, or return to the quest giver, but when you enter a location you can work on multiple pieces of the game at the same time.

No Man’s Sky’s multiple methods of gameplay and exploration drift off in vastly different directions. If anything, there’s too much to do, and each system is a shallow experience on its own. Fully exploring a planet gives you a few credits and that’s it. Completing a major quest in No Man’s Sky results in an abrupt ending. Reaching the center of the galaxy still results in a restart for the game, and not much more.

There’s no benefit for many of the systems in No Man’s Sky and that’s a continual problem that hasn’t been addressed. Rather than create a purpose for all manners of exploration, whether it be befriending animals, reaching the center of the galaxy, or completing a quest line, instead Hello Games has provides additional methods of exploration.

Some new systems have worked out. I’ve heard the Living Ship quest seems to give you something new and unique at the end, but that doesn’t help the fact that much of No Man’s Sky seems to pull you away from other versions of exploration, or in the case of language completely negating them. Hello Games has done this instead of attempting to tie the entire experience of No Man’s Sky in a few styles, the game has now purposefully offered too much to players and thus rendered many of its systems into one-off experiences.

So what can we learn here? Honestly, I would put Outer Wilds as a shining example of how to do exploration gameplay. It has a great depth to the experience, a lot to see and understand and a firm focus on providing something to experience, rather than trying to pull players away to other types of experiences.

On the other hand, Outer Worlds tries to revisit what made the Fallout games interesting, the numerous locations, the large sense of exploration, and the vast worlds but seems to focus on the first point rather than the rest and it leaves players underwhelmed.

While there are a few different worlds here, the variety and look of most of the locations are very similar and the fact that each location was created with a specific quest or story purpose in mind means that exploration is a secondary purpose to most of these.

And finally No Man’s Sky. It’s been said multiple times that No Man’s Sky has some of the best potential for an interesting game, but poor execution. The exploration at the core of No Man’s Sky could work, but so much of it is done in such a shallow way like so many of its systems that while the exploration works, there’s nothing that couldn’t be accomplished by seeing slides of random planets.

So out of the three games, only Outer Wilds embraces the exploration at its core, and that’s because the game was deliberately made for it. The other two attempts to have exploration, but don’t provide enough locations specifically for exploration in the case of Outer Worlds, or too much as in the case of No Man’s Sky and leave it at that for players.

This renders their exploration systems as an afterthought almost as if it’s a checkbox that had to be ticked off. It’s also why when I played Outer Wilds I thought “This is what I have been looking for”. The ability to dive into a deeper world and explore it is something many games seem to promise but so few take the time to properly develop into a real experience.

For a last-minute addition, I do want to say that Return of the Ober Dinn by Lucas Pope also does a lot of exploration right. It is a weird and strange game that I have a few opinions on but the ship and the flashbacks the game provides create an interesting sense of exploration. With a focus on the past of the ship, it uses time rather than location as a major aspect of its exploration.

So I hope this has at least started some thoughts on how exploration may or may not work in games, or what can be done to enhance the feeling of exploration in your games. Admittedly we haven’t even discussed how to create a locations for exploration, but I’m going to leave it there, and perhaps dive deeper into this topic another day.

Thanks for watching, if you made it this far something must have spoken to you, and I invite you to subscribe to the channel, I try to make these videos as often as I can, so ring that bell to be notified when I make my next video.

I’ll be popping up my last video, a look at Shovel Knight and it’s DLC, as well as my a video on Void Bastards, yet another space game, though that one talking more about Roguelite mechanics.

Until then, I’m Kinglink and thanks for watching.