Outer Wilds is a difficult game to define beyond mentioning that you hurtle across space in a tin box as you seek to understand what is going on. Everything else is shrouded in mystery and hidden behind spoiler tags. Upon release, the title was heralded as one of the best video games ever made, with a plethora of nominations and awards, including a BAFTA for Best Game in 2019.
I recently had the good fortune to engage with Alex Beachum, creative director of Outer Wilds, and Loan Verneau, designer of Outer Wilds. I took the opportunity to pick their brains regarding all sorts of things related to the exploration title - the importance of music, the existential crisis, their favorite planets and more.
Alex Beachum and Loan Verneau talk about the inspiration, influences, and developmental journey in bringing Outer Wilds to life
Q: To start it off, I would love it if you could describe Outer Wilds for our readers in your words.
Alex: It’s been so long since we have done our elevator pitch.
Loan: Outer Wilds is a curiosity-driven exploration game, where you explore the solar system within the limits of a 22-minute time loop.
Alex: We used to call it like an open-world mystery - an archeology game, putting together the story and understanding what the hell is going on. We dump you in the deep end and it is up to you to figure out what is going on.
Q: Before talking about the more technical aspects of the game and its development, I just want to take a moment and profess the sheer amount of love and appreciation I have for Outer Wilds.
I think one of the most captivating things about the title is as you peel the layers of themes, motifs and symbolism, you realise that the core notion is simply that of ‘camping in space.’ Why did you decide to focus on camping?
Alex: There are a couple of reasons for that. It kind of fits with the space thing - the idea of you sitting around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and then you look up and you see the stars and the cosmos. Then kind of marrying that with the idea of, well, what if you could go and hop in a spaceship and go explore them.
A lot of us are big outdoors people, often going backpacking. That inspired traversing the landscape and the on-foot expedition aspect. The final reason was that we did not want the sci-fi elements to feel too sterile and cold. So, having that sort of camping-meet-NASA was a way to ensure Outer Wilds feel more approachable and cozy and not feel stereotypically advanced sci-fi.
Angshuman: When you describe the part in the beginning about camping and looking up to see the stars, I got reminded that once I did that in-game and the probe came and hit me.
Alex: (laughs) Just like camping. Sometimes things just fall out of the sky.
Q: I have spoken on Outer Wilds at a couple of conferences now and I always found it fascinating that the game’s origin can be traced back to your M.A. thesis. What was the experience like from having it on an academic paper to finally launching it on the screen for the world to play?
Alex: Well, the thesis was playable.
Angshuman: Oh! I had only read it.
Loan: We definitely had to write a paper, but the paper was about an existing thing. We did not write a paper and then made a game. We made a game first and then wrote a paper about it.
Alex: I was pretty salty about it because I hate writing papers but it was probably worth it. (laughs) The thesis was very much about this idea of motivating the player through curiosity.
The only reason we were able to make that transition was then a few years later we submitted to IGF (Independent Games Festival) and won a few awards. That sort of gave us the momentum to transition into making it full-time at Mobius. It was a roller coaster! We had to figure a lot of things out.
Loan: It was an interesting transition from the student alpha to this original version that won at IGF and the many iterations after that before the final one. I feel like we are incredibly lucky that we got to do the final version of it the way we could have dreamed it being, and we actually got the chance to work on it till it was just that.
Alex: Yeah, it was a miracle we had as long as we did to work on Outer Wilds. I always say it actually got worse before it got better from the alpha version because we just didn't know what we were doing with it for like a year. But then we did.
Q: Generally speaking, Outer Wilds is a tightly wound game with everything coming into place little by little. What made you choose a non-linear mode of storytelling? Did you draw inspiration from any other title while weaving your narrative?
Alex: The whole idea was that we wanted to make sure that the players were exploring because they were curious and so it kind of just naturally fell into, well, yep we are going to try to make them curious and they are going to find things and it’s gonna answer questions about the world and that’s going to lead to other things.
The original inspiration for the structure in Outer Wilds, to the best of my memory and according to my thesis paper at least, was the photography sidequest in The Wind Waker (The Legend of Zelda). There you see pictures of places that exist out in the world and the character will tell you a little story about them and then you can actually find them for real and they don’t always match to the story.
Loan: The museum with the pictures was there very, very early on in Outer Wilds.
Alex: Yeah, the museum is directly inspired by that.
Loan: Because we wanted people to be motivated by curiosity, thus it had to be non-linear, otherwise we are telling them what to do.
Alex: The non-linear thing was assumed from even before the narrative structure was in place. It was like, yeah Outer Wilds is going to be a game where from the get-go just fly anywhere you damn well please, because the game is going to be about exploration.
Before any of that, the first inkling of the concept was, well let’s try to capture the feeling of space exploration in a video game, because it did not feel like it had really been done in the way we envisioned.
Q: Space in Outer Wilds is filled with planets that have their own unique signatures that make up for varying experiences for the players. How was the developmental experience of not only the technical aspect of these planets and how the physics worked but also the visual grandeur of it? Does the team have a favorite planet?
Loan: I think it’s easier to tell you which planet is the most cursed, development-wise.
Alex: Brittle Hollow.
Loan: But it is also the coolest. I think it is the design’s favorite planet.
Alex: I am torn. I think I have a soft spot for Ember Twin because I worked on it for so long.
Loan: Yeah, it’s a good one.
Alex: And Dark Bramble because people hate it. I love Dark Bramble. Brittle Hollow is one of the earliest ones to conceptually come together.
Q: So did you guys have these unique signatures of these planets pre-planned out or maybe started off and figured it out?
Alex: The base concepts for each planet in Outer Wilds came together really, really early. I think Giant’s Deep was the last one to get its concept fleshed out.
It was the gas giant for a long time and then it was like, okay, this needs a set of systems that change over time. That’s when the idea for tornadoes, islands and oceans came from. Most of the planets' concepts predate the narrative. It was more like we had this set of planets and we fit a narrative on top of them.
Q: And time in Outer Wilds is, might I say, indifferent to us. The gameworld goes on and if I am too early or too late, I might miss out on things. A couple of times I simply stood and watched the sun go supernova and engorge the whole space, only to reset back to the beginning of the loop.
Was it always the intention to have time play out like this in Outer Wilds? How difficult was it to implement during the development of the game?
Loan: There was a decision super early on for the time loop, I remember.
Alex: Yeah, me too, regarding whether or not the time loop will be a part of the story in Outer Wilds. The whole point of having a loop was always to make it feel like things are happening beyond your control.
Loan: And also we could break things and it would not wreck the game completely.
Alex: You can just reset the planet.
Loan: Like Brittle Holllow. It’s okay, it is going to be there in the next loop.
Alex: The reason we wanted to destroy Brittle Hollow was because we wanted you to feel like the world was falling apart around you and changing. At one point we discussed the sand going back and forth between the Hourglass Twins and there was a decision on whether this happens over time or are we going to let the player trigger this. That was super early too.
But we were like, nope, players are not allowed to affect anything large scale in Outer Wilds so it will be completely out of their control. That sort of set a precedent and we stuck to that - the player is not allowed to affect anything.
Q: Was it at all difficult implementing the time loop and everything happening without the input of the player during the development of the game?
Loan: Of course. A lot of games depend on things only happening around the player so you don’t have to compute everything in the world all the time. So there were a lot of massive engineering challenges on that front. I feel like the tech team will be better placed to answer this. We definitely encountered a lot of challenges.
There was a joke that Outer Wilds is a game where we do everything that you are not supposed to do in a game, build everything on spheres, everything is moving all the time, everything is sort of happening whether the player is there or not. There were a lot of fascinating engineering challenges. I think it’s quite an underappreciated engineering achievement.
Our engineering team did miracles on that front. A lot of those details, players get to appreciate a lot but are not talked about in the press that much. I always felt like it’s one of the aspects of Outer Wilds that people really enjoy but don’t necessarily realize the incredible work that went behind that.
Q: Any conversation regarding Outer Wilds will feel incomplete without talking about the music of the game. I would love to hear your thought process regarding how sound and music were incorporated into Outer Wilds and whether they were always intended to play such a major role.
Alex: I started working with Andrew on it. We had worked together previously on a student project so he was on-board from the beginning. I still have the first email with all the reference pieces.
So the idea of having four travelers and each traveler playing a different instrument and you can pick them up with your Signalscope was probably the first musical concept as the travelers were a concept from really early on. I don't remember if the idea of the signalscope or the travelers having a single instrument came first.
They became like layers on top of each other and years later we were like, wait a second, we can use this for the end of the game. We established pretty early on that there will be four categories of music in Outer Wilds - Space, Quantum, the Hearthians and the Nomai. Andrew started working on all of those.
Also, pretty early on we came up with the idea that music was only going to play when you are at an important location and we are going to keep it to ambient soundscapes when you are hiking around in between major areas.
It kind of fits with the idea of all of the details are focused around important locations. With all of the empty spaces in between, we tried to keep it fairly mundane. This was to focus your eye on things like, here is a place that you want to find something in.
We tried to make this a consistent thing throughout the game and music and audio helped a lot.
Angshuman: When I first played the game, I got reminded of the concept of musica universalis, which says that the movement of the spheres in the sky has their own music. In Outer Wilds, when you look at these planets with your Signalscope, you hear their music and if all of them line up together, all the instruments overlap. That was a brilliant touch from you all.
Alex: One of my favorite things we patched into the game was that the travelers stop playing when the supernova hits them. So, if you are way out into space, you can hear them all together and then stop playing one-by-one.
It was really fun getting to weave music. As Loan said, we just spent so long working on Outer Wilds that we had a lot of time to think about how to weave music and sound into things. Andrew did that, he is like extremely talented and that helps a lot.
Q: Within Outer Wilds, there is a sense of an existential crisis, a sublime horror and a notion of how minutely insignificant we are on the cosmic scale. I find this, especially, in traveling the space with a ship “held together with good old duct tape and tree sap,” visiting your friends alone on distant planets and all coming together around the campfire to sing one last song at the end.
Was this how the team always envisioned the title to be or did it evolve during development?
Alex: That predates the time loop. I feel like one of the first pillars was the idea of this tin can hurtling through space - trying to capture the feeling of 1960s era NASA where there is only a tiny little sheet of metal between you and the vacuum. And if it touches anything, it will break apart and you are probably going to die.
This was like a decade ago and at the time there weren’t just very many proper space exploration games. There weren’t many games that leaned into that style of space travel.
Angshuman: The fragility of it.
Alex: The idea that humans should not go into space. For Outer Wilds, we decided that it was going to be a game about exploration. You are going into space because you are curious, you need to know the answers, but you are probably going to die there.
So that sort of reinforces the notion that you have to overcome obstacles to find the answers you are seeking for, and you can’t just walk around and find them.
Q: What was the reasoning behind the characterization of the Hearthians the way they are in Outer Wilds, especially their primitive technological prowess and the idea of them being genderless?
Alex: The idea of them being genderless is Kelsey, our writer.
Loan: Yeah, that was Kelsey. It stemmed from the main character. I remember the conversation being about thow we wanted the main character to feel like a little bit of a blank canvas, which led Kelsey to wonder about making them all genderless. It’s as blank of a canvas you can get in some ways.
Alex: Yeah, we did not want to assign you a gender and we did not want to support multiple gender options. That was the impetus, but then we leaned into it. I really love thsat the player species is genderless but the Nomais are gendered. It is like the inverse of what you would expect.
Loan: It is a nice reversal of expectations.
Alex: One fun anecdote for the Hearthians is that in the very first iteration of the village, the first thing we tried was the idea that everyone in the village was anti-going into space.
Everyone was like, why would you ever want to go into space and the idea was that you are going to be the character who wanted to prove the haters wrong - “No, I am going to go into space because I am the curious one.” That did not work at all and the players were not curious.
We then changed it so that all of the Hearthians are probably going to burn the village down, but they are all generally enthusiastic about the idea of going outside of the crater and seeing what’s out there in the wider world. And that worked a lot better.
Curiosity is infectious, as it turns out. We had a lot easier time getting players curious to actually get into their ship and blast off once Kelsey rewrote all of the dialog in that style. But originally they were not fans of the idea of you going into space.
Q: A beloved aspect of Outer Wilds among the players is how many endings the game has which allow players a huge amount of creative freedom during their gameplay. What was the thought process behind providing players with such?
Alex: The mechanics of the world and the narrative left us with a lot of situations where we wondered what if the player did this?
Loan: We very much wanted to handle all situations in a way that would at least acknowledge the players’ curiosity. It was the same way that we had a rule like where we can’t show you a picture or something you can’t get to at some point.
If we show you something or talk to you about a place, it means that it is a place that you can go to in the game. It was like a part of rewarding curiosity, if you think of doing something, we wanted to make sure that we would reward you with, that is well-thought and it’s an ending. We always considered them alternate endings, right Alex?
Alex: Yeah, I always thought of them as fake endings, akin to what Castlevania and other similar games have. It was like, oops, you got a bad ending essentially.
Angshuman: You guys were pretty creative with the alternative endings available in Outer Wilds, especially with the Breaking Spacetime Ending and the Self Ending which creates a paradox and you get talk to your Self.
I have been following Outer Wild’s community and they are really appreciative of how well-thought out the entire thing and the depth in the game. Reflecting on our conversation, Outer Wilds both has a world where player input means very little yet the game privilges player agency, as you were saying if you see something you can go and interact. There is a nice balance between the two.
Alex: We tried to make everything very interactive on the scale of the player. Like the Nomai shuttles are interactive for really no reason. There’s no reason why you could fly the shuttles, but we thought it could be fun. It makes sense that you could mess with them because it makes the world feel more tactile.
Loan: The ending you mentioned, we got really lucky that we were able to add that ending as part of a patch in Outer Wilds.
Alex: Oh, talking to your Self, yeah.
Loan: Initially, we had force fields around that black hole because we were like, we can't let you play with that. We didn't have time to implement such extensive features but we got to patch it in and the fans’ reaction to it was amazing. The whole team was so rewarded that we got time to do it and people really appreciated that.
Alex: That was a good example. It all started with the idea that, in theory, if you are in the Ash Twin Project and this activates, you should see the black hole open because that’s what we said happens. Then the next question was, well, what happens if you fly into the black hole and then we were like, oh no because it’s very clear what will happen.
As Loan said, we were stoked that we had time to go and actually support that properly.
Q: Outer Wilds found critical acclaim, several awards including a slew of Game of the Year awards, and an ardent fan base that repeatedly tries to convince others to play the game while trying not to spoil it for them. How does it feel to have made a title that has made such a big impact?
Loan: It is very rewarding.
Alex: It feels great. It is super cool how careful the fan community is about the spoilers, maybe even too careful. They have a sense of humor about it though. There are so many joke posts where like it is just all spoiler tags and then you realize none of this needs to be spoilered or it is just empty text. Our fans are great.
Loan: We feel blessed by our fan community. They have been incredibly supportive, polite and nice to each other.
There’s a lot of examples on Reddit of people being like, hey, I am stuck, can you help me? and then people try to do that by answering in multiple layers like, here’s a first hint, if that’s not enough, here’s a second hint and so on.
There’s so much dedication in the Outer Wilds community to encourage and help each other. It’s amazing.
Alex: One of my favorite things is that every so often, there will be a post on Reddit about someone being like, I don’t like this game, and others are extraordinarily civil about it. Nobody starts piling in on and slamming them for not enjoying it.
The general response is “yeah, it’s not for everybody, hope you had a decent time.” Something that is not normal for video game fandoms.
Angshuman: I would confess that when I first picked up Outer Wilds, I had a hard time controlling the spaceship, died numerous times and gave up on the game. I think I picked it up again four or five months later, and then I finished it in a go.
Alex: Thanks for giving it another shot. The ship does get a lot of people.
Q: What made the team decide to explore more of the lore through Echoes of the Eye, albeit with a more horror-inspired world?
Loan: Well, the easy answer is the one about the horror aspect.
Alex: That’s not where we started coming up with DLC from though.
Loan: Oh no, that’s what I mean. I feel like the reason why the horror-ish element happened was because of the story we wanted to tell. This came from the themes of the DLC.
Alex: We did set out to make something spooky. I think the desire to make something spooky also influenced where we took that story. I actually forget which came first.
Loan: I feel like the story came first and became an easy apology for making something spooky, at least the theme.
Alex: Well, I'm pretty sure it was a bit of both. I remember us being like, what if we did an Outer Wilds ghost story over a campfire? I feel like that came before most of the narrative because we had specific ideas about how we would pull that off. The simulation idea came after that.
Loan: Oh yeah, that came much later.
Alex: It was like why are there ghosts and what do we mean by ghosts.
Angshuman: You guys already had Dark Brambles and Anglerfish, so horror was always a little bit in Outer Wilds.
Loan: And to our surprise, the game scared people a lot more than we expected it to, especially in places like Giant’s Deep which triggered a lot of people’s fears in a way that we had not originally expected.
It’s not surprising, considering the themes of real space exploration and the sense of fragility we wanted to convey in the game. But somehow we were still happily surprised that it worked well enough to get people scared.
Alex: I am very proud of how many people are freaked out by our video game.
Angshuman: Well, it does throw you several hundred feet into the air on Giant’s Deep and then you fall and die. So it is a scary place.
Loan: Yep. I honestly thought that the Ember Twin would scare people more, probably because I have claustrophobia. There’s a thing for everyone.
Alex: That does freak people out.
Loan: (laughs) When the theme of the game is how insignificant we are, it is nice that we managed to communicate that well enough to make people scared as they are playing a video game.
Q: Since Mobius Digital has already clarified that Echoes of the Eye is the final expansion for Outer Wilds and the final major patch for the game is out, what does the future hold? Have you guys started planning/working on your next project?
Alex: We've got to be working on something, right.
Loan: We are still very early on this and honestly not much to spoil. We are working on figuring out what comes next.
Angshuman: Any hint regarding what that might be?
Alex: It's going to be a video game, pretty sure, pretty sure.
Angshuman: I will definitely mention this under the spoiler tag on Reddit that it pretty sure is going to be a video game.
Alex: (laughs) The Outer Wilds Reddit will probably spoiler tag that, it’s true.