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Playing in Space: How Outer Wilds uses sound as mnemonic signifiers to create a syncretic experience

The Black Hole within Brittle Hollow (Image via Outer Wilds)
The Black Hole within Brittle Hollow (Image via Outer Wilds)
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Angshuman Dutta

In Outer Wilds, sound is a key component that works within the environment of the game. Set in a dying solar system with the player hurtling through space alone in a tin-box, it is this sense of connection through music that pervades the playthrough.

Players are not just the receivers of the sound signals but also the ones who trigger the event upon which the sound is emitted.

Lydia Andrew calls these sounds a ‘key moment where the creative vision of player experience crystallizes. Whatever the genre of the game, music can characterize avatars, it can enhance settings, it can deepen emotions and shape the pace of games.’

Thus, music can especially help create a sense of connection and familiarity across the gameplay.


What is Outer Wilds?

The game’s main menu (Image via Outer Wilds)
The game’s main menu (Image via Outer Wilds)

Released in 2019, Outer Wilds was featured in several articles regarding new indie games. Reviews have praised the game for its unique puzzles, exhilarating visuals, immersive soundtrack, and engaging story.

Currently, Outer Wilds is available on Windows, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Playstation 4. A new expansion, titled Echoes of the Eye, was released in 2021.

youtube.com/watch?v=Fb1igS…A strange satellite photo that can’t be explained. A new exhibit marks one last journey into the wilds. Will you pull at the thread and unravel it's secret, or is some knowledge better left in the dark? Echoes of the Eye is NOW available on all platforms!

Drawing influence from series like The Legend of Zelda, the central tenet of Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds is the notion of camping in space. This is heavily emphasized in the game’s poster, the menu’s screen, the starting point of each gameplay, and the main ending of the game.

The idea of sitting beside a campfire, roasting a marshmallow, and sometimes playing an instrument connects each of these events.

The player is an unnamed astronaut on the day of their first launch into space. Outer Wilds provides them with a contained solar system to explore, filled with five planets all going around a sun.

The gamer, a Hearthian, henceforth known as the traveler in the game, follows the spacesteps of five others before him.

Outer Wilds ventures (Image via Outer Wilds)
Outer Wilds ventures (Image via Outer Wilds)

They are part of the Outer Wilds Ventures, who have already left to scour the solar system looking for adventure and answers.

The game takes on a practical approach rather than helping users with clear-cut clues. They have to look around to perceive the specific rules of the abstract environment and either master it at one go or fail and repeat it till it is mastered.


Music and death in space

Gneiss talking about music in space (Image via Outer Wilds)
Gneiss talking about music in space (Image via Outer Wilds)

While traveling in the settlement before launch, players are likely to encounter Gneiss. This character explains that each traveler before them plays a particular musical instrument made by Gneiss. The unique pieces help to identify each traveler and the planets they are on.

Sound, therefore, from the get-go, helps users get oriented with the environment of the solar system they find themselves in. These performances of each instrument are dispersed across the solar system, residing on their own little planets playing their own tune, and in a way, waiting for gamers to approach them.

In space, where there is no possibility to communicate with any other being, the playing of the instruments becomes not only a guide or a beacon but also a source of respite and comfort. Someone is out there, and they are okay.

A Signalscope aboard the spaceship (Image via Outer Wilds)
A Signalscope aboard the spaceship (Image via Outer Wilds)

Players can hear each sound as they point their Signalscope at the source. As they explore whichever planet they choose to go to and are nearly twenty-two minutes into the gameplay, a piece of haunting music greets them. Soon, the sun explodes.

Everything goes dark before they wake up again at the start of their first day, by the slow crackling campfire, waiting to launch for the first time into space.

Outer Wilds becomes an existential take on life and death. Death descends because of the littlest things — there is a neat little compilation provided on Reddit that considers the different kinds of death sounds depending on the event that led to it.

The player soon gets habituated with the familiar sound of their visor cracking as they die and then again wake up by the campfire.

The boon of the time loop is also its curse – the player is stuck in a futile infinite loop. The sound cues associated with the puzzles, like sand falling or water gushing over, accentuate the player’s immersion in the environment.

The ALI model of Isabella van Elferen provides a framework for understanding this encounter. The ALI model, an acronym, describes the three dimensions of musical effect, literacy, and interaction. It focuses on the multidimensionality of music and the immersion it affords in games.

It analyzes the player’s engagement with the game music through their identification, interpretation of the style of the music in the game world, and interaction with the game music.

Writings of the Nomai (Image via Outer Wilds)
Writings of the Nomai (Image via Outer Wilds)

There are no spoken words but writings, the curving branches of the Nomai, and the popping dialogs of the Hearthians. Thus, sound effects play an integral part in the gameplay.

The Nomai is the race that existed before the Hearthians. It is their ruins that the player explores and tries to find out what happened to them.

One of the first things they are given the option to do is play hide and seek with several child characters where they have to find them by using their Signalscope and the particular sound emanating from them. This whole exercise becomes a microcosmic reflection of what the macrocosm of the game is.

The sound cues also affect the style of gameplay of the player. Since they are in a time loop, and thus, a recursive structure, they associate certain sounds to specific actions and inevitably react to them.

This is what Karen Collins calls “kinesonic synchronesis”. She describes sounds not to be fused to image but action. She clarifies that “interactive sound is event-driven, and the sound is controlled by an action or occurrence initiated by the game or player”.

This, according to her, furthers the immersive experience.

The Supernova (Image via Outer Wilds)
The Supernova (Image via Outer Wilds)

After a while in the game, each time the player hears End Times, the music before the sun goes supernova, they will be gripped with the realization that they are out of time. Earlier in Outer Wilds, one may try to rush whatever task they are doing to complete it before the sun blows up.

Later, it is better to simply pause and enjoy looking at the sun going through its phases and then engulfing everything the player has known and then the player themselves.


Understanding the use of music in Outer Wilds

The music not only builds the atmosphere of curiosity, futility, and horror at times but also provides the character with directions and situational awareness.

A lot of the game focuses on the player’s ability to follow the sound, or the instrument’s music, to its source to further the story while remembering others to avoid potential death. Provided with no other visual cues, the game emphasizes the aurality of the experience — more so in space, where one cannot even hear a scream.

The choice of instruments, be it drums, banjo, flute, or harmonica, reflects the developer’s idea of “camping in space.” The tapestry of Outer Wilds’ story is filled with planets weaving their own distinct music aligned to their esthetics.

Riebeck on Brittle Hollow (Image via Outer Wilds)
Riebeck on Brittle Hollow (Image via Outer Wilds)

Andrew Prahlow, the creator of the pieces, talks at length about using folk instruments and simple campfire melodies to evoke a sense of nostalgia — a callback to games that used simple motifs.

Whereas elsewhere for the Nomai, who talked through their technology, he mentioned:

"I wrote a melody and textures to resemble a piano being ripped apart in space."

Each instrument in the game plays a variation of the same song, getting pieced together at the end, titled Travelers. It is a commentary on the theme of connection and making meaning out of the parts.

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The gestalt of Outer Wilds encompasses all the different tunes that one has come across in their gameplay. The player gathers all the travelers around a campfire among the woods in a dreamscape, which transcends life and death. By then, the endgame is already triggered.

Getting together at the very end (Image via Outer Wilds)
Getting together at the very end (Image via Outer Wilds)

The player goes around asking each one to play their music one last time. They ask each of them separately, and as they start, the whole of the theme comes into play. The player becomes the conductor of that music piece — a co-creator of the act.

The final performance of the music in Outer Wilds is beyond time or space — existing just within itself. The contrasting nature of the simple instruments against the backdrop of the impending death of everybody becomes an undertone for the entire title.

The inevitability of death can only be acknowledged, and it was all about playing one last time all together around the campfire. As the piece ends, so does Outer Wilds, with everyone’s death followed by the birth of another system of life.

The final scene after the credits is again that of a campfire in the woods.

The birth of a new solar system (Image via Outer Wilds)
The birth of a new solar system (Image via Outer Wilds)

Video games are inherently performances by the player. Each act of play creates unique gameplay — an ephemeral structure — and the time-loop system of Outer Wilds ensures that each loop contains near-endless possibilities of being unique according to the player’s inputs.

The orchestra at the end furthers this notion of performance.

The game provides a hidden achievement — one can fly really far away from the system so that all the planets are lined up, and they can hear all the music together as they would do at the very end.

Outer Wilds is a curious exploration of the idea of time and space, life and death, and our position and perspective towards it, where music is employed carefully to nuance our understanding of each of them.

Note: This article reflects the author’s views.


Edited by Ravi Iyer
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