It’s hard to assign Outer Wilds to a genre; it’s a non-linear exploration game that plays out in a first-person perspective. If you’ve never played the game, I can’t talk much about the game; if you have played the game, you’ll understand why. Outer Wilds is set in space, and after a brief introduction, the player is set free to explore an entire solar system.
The game doesn’t give you an objective to pursue but leaves you to explore and find your own goals as you hop from planet to planet filled with puzzles and sometimes a fellow traveler recognizable by the tunes they will be playing.
I can’t say a lot about the game because it truly is a once-in-a-generation title. There is nothing quite like it. Games like Outer Wilds are few and far between.
It’s a first-person like no other; it’s an adventure game with a heavy emphasis on exploration, but it doesn’t restrict you with survival mechanics or crafting equipment to get you further. All your gear is end game proof from the get-go; all the player has is this solar system and mysteries of the worlds in it.
The game was critically acclaimed, but you can’t expect it to be as popular as the latest Battlefield or FIFA belonging to such a niche genre. Nevertheless, the game was showered with awards, and players thoroughly enjoyed the profound experience of the game.
Still, I’ve tried to include some games that will satiate your gaming itch after you’re done with Outer Wilds.
1. No Man’s Sky
The game was panned on release for not fulfilling gameplay promises like multiplayer and being an overall buggy experience with not much to do or explore. However, I’ve always thought of No Man’s Sky as a $60 early access title that has only recently come close to what was promised to us in 2016.
Since its launch, the game has seen plenty of updates, most notably the foundation update that allowed players to claim a planet and build their base on it. The game shares similarities with Outer Wilds when it comes to giving ample space to explore.
However, none of No Man’s Sky’s planets have as much personality as Outer Wilds’. While Outer Wilds does have an end goal, No Man’s Sky is pretty much the opposite as it just keeps increasing content with updates and adds new gameplay modes to improve replayability further.
The game is set for even more content, with the latest update adding new game modes and seasonal challenges. The latest update – Frontiers, has also been slated for release soon, adding more multiplayer functionality and community challenges.
The similarities and contrast between Outer Wilds and No Man’s Sky are very real; while both games feature exploration as a core gameplay loop, Outer Wilds solely relies on exploration and puzzles to carry the game, while No Man’s Sky features online game modes and crafting to keep the player engaged.
Subnautica exited early access in 2018 that is perhaps the closest thing to Outer Wilds. The game begins with players controlling Ryley Robinson as their ship crashes on an alien ocean planet. The game features four difficulty modes.
The easiest allows the player to be invincible with no HP bar and allows crafting any item regardless of blueprint discovery and the available resources. The hardest activates all meters for the player, including hunger and thirst and is a perma-death experience.
Subnautica does offer goals to the player, and unlike No Man’s Sky, it has an end game. The player is free to pursue objectives any way they like; although the freedom found in Outer Wilds might be missing here, it’s still a non-linear experience for the most part.
The gameplay loop might be similar, but again, Outer Wilds is a one-of-a-kind experience. As such, Subnautica fails compared to Outer Wilds’ narrative aspect with no deeper meaning to the plot or a sense of the bigger picture. Nevertheless, Subnautica is a unique experience in its own right and is an excellent game overall.
3. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
While Subanautica managed to match most of Outer Wilds’ gameplay with unique touches of its own, Ghost Trick works to match Outer Wilds in the narrative department. However, there’s a catch the game is only available for DS and iOS.
The game features top-notch writing handled by the creator of the Ace Attorney franchise, Shu Takumi. Ghost Trick puts players in the ghostly shoes of the dead protagonist Sissel; as a ghost, players can swap between the living world where time flows and the ghost world where time is stopped; a key mechanic, the players, will have to take advantage of in their journey.
The game features plenty of puzzles along the way with unique ways to solve them apart from time manipulation; for example, players can interact with objects in the living world, and the NPCs reaction might help in the solution.
The game is overall a satisfying experience; players who enjoyed Outer Wilds’ narrative will indeed have a great time with this title as players learn about Sissel’s past and his murder.
4. The Witness
The Witness is a single-player puzzle experience that might not be for everyone out there. It’s played in the first-person perspective; however, unlike every other puzzle game, it doesn’t rely on pushing crates or standing on pressure buttons to solve its problems.
The game is mainly open-world, so if one puzzle takes a toll on you, you can always step away and move on to another problem. It’s not a walking simulator, and there’s enough immersion and diversity in puzzles to set itself apart as its genre of exploration and mystery.
While many dismissed it on release in 2016 because of the 40 USD price tag for a puzzle game, the game features over 800 puzzles which the developers have estimated should take the average player around 80 hours to complete, that’s playtime surpassing what your average 60 USD title delivers.
The game is available on most popular platforms, and while it may not be for everyone, those looking for a relaxing time with a puzzle game, this will surely scratch that itch.
5. Return of Obra Dinn
Return of Obra Dinn was released in 2018 by the solo developer Lucas Pope popular for his 2013’s hit Papers, Please. The man is very popular in indie circles because of his innovative and unique approach to game development.
He comes up with simple gameplay ideas with deep narrative meaning and consequences. On release, the game was critically acclaimed for its art style, gameplay and narrative, winning several awards for the game of the year.
The game is set in the first-person perspective as players are tasked with unravelling the mystery of Orba Dinn, an East India Company insured vessel that has washed up to the port with all its passengers and crew either dead or missing.
Players have access to a magical pocket watch that allows them to witness the last moment’s of a victims death or hear their final moments enabling them to recreate events very much like Will Graham from Hannibal.
Players can also enter more corpses within the visions of a victim. As players traverse this dead realm searching for clues, everything is automatically logged in their logbook, allowing for retrospection.
The game also features a unique aesthetic; it’s monochromatic and has a dithering effect, very much like CRTs of old, making the game feel old very apt for the 1800s settings it’s based around. What seems to be an effect of the budget has translated well into giving the game its own unique feel.
Again, it’s not like Outer Wilds, but if you liked the exploration and puzzle aspect of it, it’s certainly worth a shot, and it’s a unique experience in its own way.
Released in 2016, Obduction is another first-person puzzle game in an alien setting as players are abducted by an alien species and transported to a strange world.
The objective is as simple as it gets – find a way back to Earth. Cyan Worlds, the developer of the game, are no strangers to puzzle games; Obduction is a spiritual successor to their previous adventure games Myst and Riven.
Like Outer Wilds, the game features impressive visuals that span over several alien planets. The player is left to their own devices as they figure out the puzzles. This game has no hand-holding, and I’d recommend this to the more seasoned players of the puzzle genre.
Obduction even allows players to make decisions that can influence the ending, a unique feature in a puzzle game. The mechanic of inspecting nearly every object in the game inspires players to explore more; for example, there might be hidden compartments in a drawer that have items that could aid the player in a puzzle.
Obduction is the closest it gets to Outer Wilds in terms of both its intricate puzzle mechanics and the story it has to offer. Perhaps it’s the only actual game similar to Outer Wilds.
Every genre undergoes an evolution as technology progresses. For example, The FPS genre, in the beginning, had no Z-axis. Later, Half-life came along and introduced a narrative-driven linear FPS experience that inspired many games to come; further on, the same company, Valve, released Portal, a fresh take on the puzzle genre.
I believe Outer Wilds and games like it are an evolution of the genre defined by Portal. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that only a few titles can even come close to delivering.