Scientific method is used to inspire curiosity.
“What is this strange material and how is it tied to this mystery location I want to explore?”
That question propelled my wife and I into Outer Wilds.
While exploring, we discovered a distinct and ominous material acting in a way that seemed altogether unnatural, unpredictable, and confusing. The odd material kept appearing across different planetoids, and as we learned more
about it, it seemed directly tied to a specific location we wanted to visit – a place which various notes left before me described as a place no one had yet been to before.
This felt immediately significant: the endeavor of solving its mystery ourselves was edifying.
Much of what is at first glance “unknown” and quite mysterious Outer Wilds turns out to be researched, experimented with, and “known” by those who have come before us. As we delved deeper into the mysteries of the micro-galaxy, our understanding of the various physics-based environmental hazards and how to navigate them was informed by our own experiences trying and trying again in conjunction with literal research conducted by others in-universe. The advance of
science only works when research and knowledge is recorded, after all, and this is expressed through the player’s recording of discoveries in their journal for their own future use.
“Behind one answer there are often more questions when it comes to understanding the nature of the world around us.”
Players will also be poring over the curling sci-fi language of alien scientists, who likewise recorded their own discoveries for others (like you) to find.
Unlike any other game I have played, knowledge is literally the main mechanic, and thus the experience is much more “spoiler-sensitive” in a real and meaningful way. That being said, it is worth touching upon one of the game’s primary hooks – death is a natural part of the experience. In a similar fashion to skill-based games (often of the ‘roguelike’ genre) which encourage learning from death, Outer Wilds encourages players to die, over and over, learning something new to apply to the next play cycle. Each cycle lived is, in a sense, one experiment conducted.
In this way, Outer Wilds encapsulates the scientific method, in all of its wonder.
The scientific method entails the following five steps:
- Defining the Problem
- Forming a Hypothesis
- Researching and Gathering Data
- Reaching a Conclusion
It would be fair to say that many video games encourage players to use the scientific method by proxy of their mechanics – how many of us have ever had to experiment or look up research someone else compiled to overcome a tricky section of a game? However, much rarer is it that a game not only makes the scientific method and the acquisition of knowledge its primary mechanic, but also its core theme and narrative device.
In many video games, these same steps are indeed helpful to use in a multitude of circumstances. However, oftentimes problems in games can be brute-forced with trial and error without too much resistance, and the character a player is controlling typically has little motivation or interest in pursuing this particular method.
In Outer Wilds, however, your character is part of a (seemingly gender non-binary) race of four-eyed bipedal creatures who actively are trying to understand the galaxy they inhabit, with many of them assuming scientific roles in different fields. As the player character, you’re fresh off the training regimen for piloting a ramshackle ship and, thanks to your prior research in developing a translation tool, are tasked with joining others who have explored before you in diving out into the unknown, attempting to translate passages left by another civilization.
Returning to the mysterious substance at the start of this piece, my wife and I formed multiple theories and hypotheses as to what the material was and how it worked (to give it away would perhaps ruin the fun), and from there, we set off to do research. We paid attention to every location the material showed up in. We began revisiting places we’d seen it before we understood its significance. We read research notes left by others who had studied the material before, and even
followed instructions they’d left behind on their own methods of testing their own hypotheses about how the material worked and the utility it possessed.
After we were able to reproduce these results ourselves, we uncovered a ‘testing chamber’ of sorts that acted as a kind of ‘exam’ for others to demonstrate their mastery of understanding, and after solving the puzzle ourselves, we felt confident that we could finally accomplish the task we originally had – to visit a special place inherently tied to this strange material.
What followed was a series of experimenting with all we’d learned, and with each failed attempt, we gained a new nugget of insight. “Ahhh, OK, so that’s how it works,” and we’d go again, making further progress than the last time. And just when we made that big discovery and arrived at the mysterious location, Outer Wilds did what it so often does and revealed that behind one answer, there are often more questions when it comes to understanding the nature of the world around us. Just as we reached one conclusion, we were hit with more questions, which entailed starting the cycle of the scientific method anew.
“Each cycle lived is, in a sense, one experiment conducted.”
The entire game is an intricate, condensed web of this loop, which can be explored in any order, at any pace. The game’s primary goal can technically be accomplished within thirty minutes from the outset, but only after the player has spent hours combing each location, following the scientific method to gain new understanding, and then applying that knowledge elsewhere, over and over.
That is how scientific breakthroughs are made, and by the end of the journey, I felt as if I had grown a greater appreciation for centuries of human scientists than any other piece of media had instilled – in part because I was lured into thinking, acting, and engaging like a scientist myself.
Outer Wilds is a sterling specimen of interactive media that accomplishes such a task in a manner I suspect will inspire future scientists in years to come.
Desma Palmer Fettig is a former retail worker, storyteller, and amateur visual novel developer who grew up in western New York, lived in the SF Bay Area, and now resides in Southern England.