CW: death / mental, emotional, and sexual abuse
There isn’t a lot about Outer Wilds that hasn’t already been said. What started as one student’s master thesis became a game with multiple awards, nominations, and placements on lists of the best games of the decade. Pretty much any take you could make about the game has almost assuredly been made and yet, here we are. If the content warning above hasn’t already made it explicitly clear, this isn’t about my hot takes on Outer Wilds. If you came here solely for an opinion about a beloved video game, then here it is; play it. Absolutely play it. It’s one of my favorite games of all time, and a unique video game experience unlike any other. If you’re worried about spoilers, then this is your one and only warning. While my intent here is not to just full on explain the entire story in excruciating detail, having the discussion I’m about to have requires me to talk about certain aspects of that story. So again, final warning; if you care at all about spoilers, stop reading now and go play the game.
I know the timing of this is a little suspect, given that it’s right around the release of Outer Wilds’s highly anticipated DLC, Echoes of the Eye, but that’s actually one of the many catalysts of why I’m here. This began because of my decision to replay Outer Wilds in preparation for that DLC. For those unaware but not concerned with spoilers, Outer Wilds is an exploration/puzzle based game about a small, non-gendered alien pilot investigating their solar system while stuck in a time loop. You, as the non-gendered alien pilot, have 22 minutes to explore to your heart’s content before the sun at the center of your solar system explodes, wiping you and everything else out of existence. Scattered across the planets orbiting said sun are relics and ruins left behind by the Nomai, an ancient progenitor race of aliens who mysteriously disappeared several generations before your people, the Hearthians, achieved space travel. It’s the player’s job to figure out the mystery of the time loop, the sun’s explosion, and how the Nomai fit into it all.
An aspect of the game that I believe sadly gets overlooked is the game’s music, composed by Andrew Prahlow. It’s easy to understand why; in fitting with the time loop mechanic, much of the music of the game follows the same tune. There are several other pilots scattered about the system you can find and talk to, and each one plays a different musical instrument. You can listen to them play from afar using a device called a signalscope. Finding the perfect vantage point in space where all the signals align not only gets you an achievement, but it allows you to hear the song as intended, with all instruments and pilots playing in sync together. Or, you can just listen to it here. These bits of music are some of the most noticeable pieces in the game; the rest of it consists of the themes for each individual location. They’re more low key and quiet by design to allow the player to focus on the exploration and puzzle solving they’ll no doubt be busy with.
What I want to specifically focus on is this piece. It’s guaranteed to be the single piece of music you will hear the most in this game. It happens once per loop, at the 21 minute mark, and it’s the game’s way of telling you your time is up. A minute later, at the 22 second mark, the sun explodes, vaporizing you and everything around you in a glowing blue haze of fire. After a rapid slideshow of everything you did in that loop, the game sends you back to the beginning to start those 22 minutes all over again. The first time you hear it, it’s inconsequential, and I’m willing to bet that like me, most folks didn’t even notice it. But after a few loops under your belt, it can be downright terrifying to hear that stinger. 22 minutes isn’t a long time, but it’s enough to lose track of, and oftentimes you will find yourself rushing to beat the clock once that music starts playing. Hiding doesn’t help. Trying to outfly the blast only results in you freezing in the void of deep space. No matter what you do, at the end of that one minute, death will find you. A lot of folks have expressed how anxiety-inducing and terrifying it can be, in a game with a lot of terrifying and anxiety-inducing situations.
In short, that stinger is a trigger.
Ok, let’s back up a bit, because I know how polarizing that can seem. I did promise no hot takes, so please, just hear me out on this. Triggers are a hard thing to talk about simply because of how loosely the term is thrown around. In my experience, it’s been thrown around as a blanket term for anything that can be considered offensive. Being “triggered” for a lot of folks means becoming upset over being confronted with something they dislike or disagree with. It points the blame on the person reacting, implying that they have a choice in how they react. And in a lot of situations, people do have that choice.
Survivors of trauma don’t. Simply put, triggers don’t work that way. According to Healthline, triggers are “anything that might cause a person to recall a traumatic experience they’ve had”. Triggers aren’t universal, and every person has their own unique triggers based off of their own personal trauma. It can be as broad as musical and film genres, or as specific as a certain type of scent or color or sound. They usually get better with time and exposure, and may even completely go away. But for a lot of folks, they don’t. For a lot of folks, triggers continue to be a daily struggle, even with proper therapy and medication.
That’s where I’m at. I was diagnosed with PTSD months ago due to the abuse I endured while in a near decade long relationship with someone I no longer know or recognize. Since then, it’s been hard to really describe what it’s been like managing my triggers to folks in and out of my support circle. It very often comes across like I’m just getting worse instead of getting better, like I’m giving in to my abuser, and I’m giving up on myself, preferring to wallow in self-pity and depression. What I’ve had to learn the hard way is when you have PTSD, triggers don’t just cause you to recall your trauma; they cause you to relive it. Every emotion, every infliction of pain, it all comes rushing back to you as if it were happening for the first time all over again. I’m sure you’ve all heard the concept of PTSD flashbacks before, but in my experience, it’s not the Hollywood version of flashbacks where you’re transported back in time to the scene of a memory. My specific flashbacks manifest in a number of ways, from mental symptoms like nightmares and intrusive thoughts/memories, to physical symptoms like a rapid heart rate and involuntary shaking. This is why you hear so much about veterans with PTSD who have especially hard times during the summer fireworks season, because their own specific traumas are making them relive the struggle of their time at war.
So, what does this all have to do with Outer Wilds? It all goes back to that little musical stinger that plays before the sun explodes. It’s been the clearest example to me of a simulated trigger, a way to explain to folks what this struggle is like. Pretty much every review of the game I’ve seen has made mention of the panic people have at the end of a loop once that music plays. The anxiety they feel as they try to read every text and solve every puzzle as the sun’s blast rapidly approaches is a very similar anxiety that I struggle with when my triggers come into play in my day to day life. It goes further than that; the more time I spent with the game in this second playthrough, the more I found it resonated heavily with my experience suffering from abuse and having PTSD. There’s a moment at the start of the game, once you’ve traveled through the starting village and obtained the launch codes for your ship, where you come across a statue left behind by the Nomai. It turns to face you, and its eyes begin to glow. From that point forward, the eyes never stop glowing, and you eventually learn that this statue is what got you stuck in a time loop in the first place. It’s somewhat of a recorder, and it transfers your memories back in time so that you remember everything that happened to you in the future.
From that point on, no matter what you do, you are brought back to where you started. Outer Wilds is a game about exploration, yes, but it’s just as much a game about repetition. You will eventually run out of new places to explore, and then the meat of the game becomes traversing the same areas you have before over and over again in the hopes of gaining some new insight, or finding some new puzzle, anything that will lead you on the right path. And for a game that is not considered horror, so much of it is terrifying. Dark Bramble is an area full of enclosed spaces covered in a thick fog which hides massive angler fish that will swallow your ship whole. Brittle Hollow is a planet that has a volcanic sphere constantly launching fireballs at the surface, which then break away and get sucked in by a black hole at the center of the planet. Giant’s Deep is a water planet with massive tornadoes that rip islands from the ocean and launch them into space. The game constantly has you traverse terrifying ordeals to get the information you need, armed only with the aforementioned signalscope, a probe, a jetpack, and your suit.
But there’s so much beauty, too. Giant’s Deep has one supermassive tornado that hides a tower inside, and its equal parts awe-inspiring and terrifying. Brittle Hollow has a hanging city on the inside of the planet surrounding the black hole. There are two planets known as the Twins, one Ember and one Ash. The Ash Twin is a planet covered entirely with sand, and the Ember Twin is a planet full of canyons and caverns. Over the course of the loop the Ember Twin absorbs all the sand from the Ash Twin, and if you can make it to the center of the Ember Twin before becoming entombed by sand, you’ll find the Sunless City, an old stone city carved on the sides of a massive cavern. Turning on the lights within the Sunless City took my breath away, even on this second playthrough, because of the beautiful, haunting nature of the crumbling structures that once housed countless happy and thriving Nomai. This extends to even the writings the Nomai left behind. Interwoven in the narrative between experiment logs and progress updates are stories of passion, of romance. Stories of the everyday lives the Nomai lived. In the Sunless City there are messages left behind by Nomai children playing with the giant skeletal remains of an angler fish, pretending to have slayed the beast themselves. Two scientists will publicly whisper sweet nothings to each other on progress reports to the chagrin of their fellow colleagues. One Nomai in particular has a fondness for puns to wonderful effect. Even the one Nomai character you get to meet, Solanum, is incredibly kind and chipper for someone stuck in a state of simultaneous life and death due to quantum entanglement.
But it’s the Hearthians that stand out the most. Besides Solanum and the angler fish, they’re the only other living beings you come across, and they’re nothing short of wonderful. For a very small village with a population of less than 20, it has a strong sense of longstanding community. The village is filled with little wooden houses surrounding a collection of geysers that serve as a town square. There’s a viewing platform that serves as a nice view of the village and also as a directional marker, notating where north, south, east, and west is. A small cave leads into a massive cavern that for some reason has very low gravity, and it’s used for up and coming pilots to practice moving in zero gravity space. You meet a Hearthian child throwing rocks at a collection of ghost matter, a substance invisible to the naked eye that will burn and vaporize anything it touches. The observatory is filled with artifacts and pictures of the pilots who found them and make up the whole of Timber Hearth’s space program. Speaking of the pilots, each of them have their own distinct and different personalities, but each one is no less happy and inviting than the other. Every Hearthian you meet is equal parts charming and approachable, with their own little backstories and relationships, and they’re all happy to see you. Besides the village in Timber Hearth, the pilots and their individual campgrounds are the only areas of the game where you truly feel safe.
And then the music kicks in, and a minute later, you’re dead. It doesn’t matter where you are, or how far you run, or who you’re with. It happens, and it will continue happening, and you will continue reliving it each time it happens. No matter what kind of progress you’ve made, what new revelations you’ve had, you will die, and you will restart that loop and end up right back where you started. This is what life is like for me, what I’ve been going through since my abuser left. I don’t even get to say that I’m the one that left; she left me after, presumably, finally getting bored of the control she had over me. I do get to say that I’m the one that ultimately cut contact, but even then, that was almost a year after the fact. Almost a year of giving her chance after chance after chance to just recognize, to really, truly understand how and why she had hurt me, and then apologize for it. She never did. She presumably never will. And yet, I went through that cycle with her, over and over again, hoping for something different at the end of each one.
I know what this sounds like, but this isn’t a story about my inability to get over a bad break up. I’ve had break ups before and after her, and I’ll presumably have them again. I’ve remained friends with past flames, and I’ve respectfully stopped talking to others. But what I went through with my abuser is different, it’s something no person should ever have to go through. Like many other survivors of abuse, I had to be told what was happening, and even then it took the professional opinion of a counselor to convince me it was the truth. It’s hard enough when you invest so much time, love, and energy into a person for so long, only for it to ultimately not work out. But I promise you, this wasn’t that. This was me investing my whole existence to the satisfaction of my abuser. This was me constantly navigating her shifting requirements for basic love and affection, all the time wondering what I was doing wrong. This was her slowly stripping away what little confidence and self worth I had until it was all dependent on her opinion. It was me making major life choices and leaving behind everything I knew to make her life easier, and her pulling the plug on the relationship at the perfect time, close enough to a cross-state move that it was too late for me to back out, but still far enough away that she could convincingly claim to others I decided to make the move anyway and she’s not at fault.
It was her bragging afterwards about how her new partners were better than me in all the specific ways she knew I was insecure about myself. It was her demanding to see pictures of who I was interested in so she could “jokingly” compare her looks to them and declare herself the winner, a reminder that she believes I’d never do better than her. It was her forcing me to admit to her all my sexual preferences, despite my initial refusal and discomfort, and then shaming me for having them by calling me disgusting. It was her being insulted about me pursuing a relationship so soon, even though she began dating almost immediately after we broke up. It was her only contacting me to hear about my dating failures, or to gas herself up by boasting to me about her successes. It was her contacting me for reassurance when she was feeling sad or lonely, but being cold and distant when I contacted her for the same in return. It was her publicly dragging me through the mud, purposely lying about details of our relationship to paint me as a predator, simply because I chose to speak out about my abuse without ever naming her. This doesn’t scratch the surface of her abuse, but to go into it all in detail is something I’m not sure I can do in a healthy manner, at least not now. This whole thing I’ve decided to do here will no doubt reach her eventually, and I’m sure there will be some sort of repercussions for this.
So why do this? Honestly, because of this. This is the video that finally explained to me how everything that had happened to me, happened. How it got so bad, and why I had been feeling the way I did for so long. The person on camera and creator of the video, Abigail Thorn, put it best when she describes abuse as a poison that you slowly ingest over time. You do this, ignorant to the fact that you’re even doing it, until you stop functioning, because you trust the person that’s been feeding it to you. They’ve made sure that you do. This is the video I sent to my brother when I told him something had happened to me, but I didn’t know how to explain why. Nearly a year later, and I find myself with another piece of media giving me the words I didn’t realize I had. Outer Wilds helped me understand how that abuse had permanently affected my life. There’s no cure for PTSD. Medication and therapy are extremely effective in treating it, and I don’t think I would be where I am now had I not decided to seek professional help. In truth, I don’t think I’d be here at all. There are countless people out there who live fulfilling lives with their PTSD, and I sincerely hope I will be one of them some day. But it’s something that I’m always going to have, it’s forever going to be a part of who I am. And, when my triggers come into play, it’s something that I’m going to have to relive time and time again.
But, much like the game, it wasn’t all terrible. There were incredibly good parts of that relationship, too. The times I was afforded that affection were nothing short of incredible to me. We took amazing trips together all over the world. I met her friends, who are to this day some of the most amazing and kind people I’ve ever met, and who never failed to make me feel welcome in a country I could never call my own. Every date, every kiss, every moment of affection. The feel of her body next to mine, her hand held firmly in my own. The sparkle of her eyes as I caught her glance, the curves of her smile whenever she saw me, the way she snorted when she laughed especially hard. We had a very similar sense of humor, so almost every joke we made to each other landed, and her laugh was one of the few things that never failed to bring me joy. I was eager to share with her all of my favorite things, and eager to explore all of hers. She had an incredible sense of style, and she was the brightest personality in the room anywhere she went. Her warmth, presence, and affection were one of the few things I could consider a safe space in my life. The scariest thing I ever told her was that when I died, she would be the person whose presence I would always yearn for. It’s what I truly meant at the time, and thinking about it still tears me apart inside.
That’s the blessing and the curse about my PTSD; reliving those cycles of abuse means feeling both the good and the bad. It means never being in a position to just put things in the past. When you endure abuse for a prolonged period of time, you inherit a whole host of trauma and triggers that can be activated at any time, anywhere. Sometimes it can be hilarious, like watching a horror movie and recognizing a bridge my abuser and I drove on constantly while it gets destroyed, leading to me internally panicking as the collapsing bridge mutilates various characters on screen in cartoonish fashion. Other times it’s frustrating, like when I try to play Undertale on my Vita at work only to realize my abuser was the last person to play it, so the game keeps constantly showing me her name as I desperately try to find a way to start a new game before deleting the game entirely. Before replaying Outer Wilds, it was hard to find the words to describe my experience suffering with all this. How do you tell people your mind has been rewired to constantly make you panic anytime you’re reminded of someone without them assuming you’re just hung up on that person? How do you tell anyone you’re romantically linked to without them just assuming you’re still in love with that person? How do you even pursue other romantic interests without fearing that, just like her, they’ll reveal their true colors way down the line, once you’re so hopelessly in love with them that you never even notice the poison they keep slipping you? It’s happened before, who’s to say it won’t happen again?
What if I just don’t make it out this time?
The wild thing about this all is that Outer Wilds isn’t a game about abuse. There are no awful people in this narrative. The only villains in this game are universal entropy, those anglerfish, and your own lack of information. For every terrifying thing you have to do, there’s a wonderful character, piece of dialogue, or hopeful tune to keep you going. It’s not a depressing game at all, and I don’t believe anyone behind the development of Outer Wilds had the experience of abuse and PTSD in mind when making it. But video games, more so than any other art or entertainment medium, have the ability to affect folks in ways that are entirely dependent on their own personal experience. There are plenty of people who have played Outer Wilds who came away with vastly different interpretations than my own, and some who just didn’t find the game all that engaging. Their opinions are no more or less valid than my own, or yours.
It’s ok to find meaning in the art that you consume, even if that meaning wasn’t the intention of the artist behind it. Finding the meaning in the art I enjoy has been how I cope, and also how I gain inspiration to continue going, to continue bettering myself, to go through that loop again and again and again. It’s not an experience that’s exclusive to me, either. I have two separate friends who have built that connection with Red Dead Redemption 2; one is using it to cope with a very recent and tragic loss in her life, and the other uses it as a safe haven from their anxiety. A recent ex I’m still happy to consider a close friend built a connection with Final Fantasy 15, and became emotionally invested in the camaraderie the four main protagonists share. Others found meaning in Destiny 2, not with the story of the game itself, but with the experience of playing it with others. It’s ok to become emotionally attached to the media you consume. It’s basic human nature, and for many folks like me, it’s a means of survival.
There is no happy ending to this, I’m sorry to say. It’s a story that’s ongoing, and will keep going until my time has passed. That’s something that Outer Wilds taught me, too. The last loop in the game ends when you finally locate the Eye of the Universe, a mysterious signal older than the universe that the Nomai were convinced would stop the universe from ending, the answer to the mystery of why the sun is blowing up. What follows is a frightening sequence of reality warping nightmares and quantum shenanigans until you’re dropped into a dark forest, surrounded by small lights representing the last few stars burning in the universe. One by one, every star begins to go out, shrouding you in more and more darkness, until eventually all that’s left is an empty void. And then a campfire lights up near you. Your signal scope begins to pick up signals all around you, and as you follow the source, you find all the friends you’ve made along the way. You reach out to them in the void, each one taking their place around the campfire once you’ve successfully reached them. They patiently wait for you to return, and on your cue, they begin to play their songs. If you didn’t align their signals in space before, this is where you finally hear the tune every pilot plays on their respective instrument, all in sync. Their music conjures up a ball of energy on top of the campfire, a ball that will eventually explode to create a brand new universe, the last thing you will leave behind before you die.
You have time, though. All the time you want. Your friends do not mince words, making it VERY clear that activating the ball will lead to your death, and that it is necessary for a new universe to spring forth. But you don’t have to do it right away. Time means nothing at the end of the world, so you can spend however long you want there, by the campfire, surrounded by friends. Your friends, your support network, your beacons of light in the countless terrifying cycles you’ve had to endure to get there. That campfire at the end of the universe has been a metaphorical safe space for me, one to replace the space my abuser ripped away from me. A campfire surrounded by the circle of family and friends I’ve had for a decade now, the ones who stuck with me through it all. The ones who told me what was happening, who fought with me to understand, who stuck by me during the worst period of my life. The ones who continue to stand by me, who I know find it frustrating when I vent about the same person and the same events time and time and time again, but who are nevertheless there every time, because they know I need it, and they would rather be frustrated with me than not have me at all. The same folks whose presence I’ll yearn for when I die, sitting around a campfire, joking and laughing and playing games and music and watching shows and telling stories, enjoying each other’s company, because time doesn’t matter when your world has ended; all that matters are the connections you made along the way, and the impact you’ll leave behind.
And who knows, maybe she’ll be there too. Not my abuser, I sincerely don’t know if I could ever tolerate that person again. I mean the girl I gave my heart to, the person I was ready to give my life to. The person who I believe either died a long time ago, or never really existed, and was simply a mask my abuser wore. Whoever or whatever she was, she’s the one who made me feel things I never thought I would feel before, and I’m scared I’ll never feel again. The last time I ever felt safe in that relationship was with this person. It was the first time we got to meet, in San Francisco. We were cuddling on a hotel balcony overlooking the moonlit city, laughing and crying and enjoying what little time we had left. It was the end of our first trip together, and we were about to leave back to our respective homes over a thousand miles away, not knowing when we’d get to see each other again. We talked a lot about the future then, our future together. The family we would create and the kids we would have. The jobs we would strive for to support that family, the houses we would buy once we saved up enough. Family vacations, weddings and anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. We even had the names of our future pets planned out. When we left, we had made a promise to do it, all of it, as soon as we could. I often wonder if that was the last time I saw her too, this person I was ready to give everything to. I wonder how long after that night it took for my abuser to push her way in, and replace that girl I made that promise with. Not knowing is one of the many things I hope I’ll make peace with, but if not, I always have that campfire with my friends and family to look forward to. We’re going to have a lot of music to play, and we’ll have all the time in the world to do it.