A screen shot from the video game Outer Wilds
Image courtesy of Annapurna Interactive

'Outer Wilds' Fails to Capture Lightning in a Bottle Again With Its New DLC

The time and space puzzle game was an unexpected highlight a few years ago, but its expansion feels awkward and forced.
September 28, 2021, 4:00pm

Open your eyes. High above, the satellite explodes in front of Giant’s Deep. Time for another go around.

Since Outer Wilds released in 2019, people have been clamoring for more of it. The timeloop puzzle game’s premise—you are a new astronaut sent into the solar system to explore the mysteries of the civilisation who came before, only the world keeps ending, so you should probably figure that out, too—belies all of the game’s wonder and charm. But despite being difficult to explain, it garnered massive critical acclaim, and became one of my favorite pieces of media, that year or any year, game or otherwise.

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Outer Wilds has stolen every night (and a couple of days) from me for the last week, and I’m thrilled that it has,” wrote Austin Walker in his review for Waypoint. “I don’t know that I’ve ever played anything like it, and I don’t know when I’ll get to again.”

Of course, that "when" is now. Echoes of the Eye is an expansion that fits right into the base game, playable at any point within the narrative’s open-ended structure. And, at its core, it’s more Outer Wilds. It’s more of the compelling mystery; more of the moments of wide-eyed wonder; and more of the thematic exploration of connectedness, curiosity, and mortality.

If I was reading this review rather than writing it, that might have been where I closed the tab, satisfied that that was all I wanted. Unfortunately, more Outer Wilds is not the uncomplicated premise that it might first appear.

It starts familiar. Waking up at the campfire, a blanket of stars overhead, a rickety ship ready to take you to them. In 22 minutes, the sun will explode, but for now, you’re at home. The only clue that something has slightly changed in this otherwise endlessly preserved solar system is a new museum exhibit. This thread will unravel into the discovery of a whole new location. Almost the entirety of the expansion plays out there, and finding and first exploring the area has all the joy of a fresh Outer Wilds playthrough. Careful study and navigation lead to moments of gasp-out-loud awe. 

But that feeling can’t last.

Though revisiting Outer Wilds’ celestial bodies over and over again is a key component of the game, it usually relies on its complete open-endedness to sustain its sense of marvel. If you’re stuck, or just in the mood for something different, jetting off to a totally new planet is not only possible but encouraged. Echoes of the Eye, on the other hand, is trapped by its need to be self-contained. If a player has already completed the base game, there’s no way to jumpstart that feeling again once the location becomes familiar.

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The samey-ness of being in one place also undermines Echoes of the Eye’s sense of mood. It’s intended to be a scarier experience, even coming with a warning and option to reduce the worst of it. And there are long sections that do deliver near-constant high tension. After a particularly intense moment, I caught sight of the sky out of the corner of my eye and, somehow, was jumpscared by the sun. Not the supernova, even! Just the bright redthing that is quite literally central to the game and its world. It’s hung over me for hours upon hours playing this game, but I was so highly strung by the previous few minutes that it still managed to catch me off guard.

Over time, though, this tension completely wore off. And at points where the scary parts merged with mechanical challenges (if you’ve played the main game, think Dark Bramble), they became so frustrating that I ended up turning on the low-scares mode in an attempt just to make things easier. Ultimately, though, I couldn’t entirely tell what had changed. Some of the frustration remained, and there was at least one major scripted jumpscare regardless.

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Players who are getting into Outer Wilds for the first time with Echoes of the Eye included may not experience these problems, since they’ll be able to explore the universe in a more flexible order again. But I have my reservations about that, too. For one thing, Echoes of the Eye is long. It’s hard to tell exactly how long, because it will depend on how quickly any given player figures out the puzzles and the order in which they explore. But by my estimation, it’s at least as long as the base game by itself.

This gives Echoes of the Eye an outsized influence compared with any of the other planets or subplots in the game, and that threatens to throw off Outer Wilds’ delicate interconnectedness. In the original game, every new bit of information is tied into a central narrative. Almost all of that narrative is necessary to understanding the game’s core mystery. With Echoes of the Eye, that’s no longer true. Its subplot is connected to the universe’s broader questions, but by necessity it can’t be a core part of the tightly woven story. Ultimately, a player playing both parts together will be functionally experiencing two narratives. Both are approximately equally sized, but one is made of dozens of small, satisfying pieces scattered across a universe, and another is mostly separate.

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Echoes of the Eye also feels more poorly paced than Outer Wilds’ base game, as well. Figuring out the solution to a puzzle when playing the main narrative would feel like a major step forward, creating a constant momentum. In the expansion, puzzle solutions more often feel like they’re giving just a tiny sliver of information. Worse, the knowledge that should be a gratifying reward for figuring something out sometimes mostly overlaps with things you already know or could at least intuit from elsewhere. The plot, and its associated satisfaction, ends up spread much more thinly.

Echoes of the Eye is trapped by its need to be self-contained.”

In terms of both puzzle setup and atmosphere, the expansion contains bits that feel like all the other planets in the solar system. But in cramming them all together, it feels not so much like a denouement as a prototype. So much of what makes Outer Wilds special is still here. The way most of the information is revealed is, dare I say, even better than translating the Nomai text in the base game. The sound design is just as good; hair-raising and tearjerking in turns. There are moments of narrative brilliance, including its ending set piece.

But Outer Wilds exists, and feels like it’s taken everything from Echoes of the Eye and refined it. It’s more of what’s good in Echoes of the Eye and, crucially, cuts out almost everything that wasn’t necessary or wonderful. And yet somehow that’s backwards to the reality of the release order.

At times, playing for and writing this review I have wondered if I am remembering my first playthrough of Outer Wilds too fondly. I do remember getting stuck—often. And I had the luxury of time to think it over and hints from the internet, neither of which applied to my Echoes of the Eye playthrough. But the reason I can look back on Outer Wilds with such fondness, despite its flaws, is because of how carefully put together it is. Everything else falls away in comparison to how its threads branch and connect to form an intricate whole.

Echoes of the Eye both can’t achieve the same trick, and can’t fully be a part of the one Outer Wilds already pulls. Though it does have an impact on the ending if you play the final loop of the game after having completed it, and does carry thematic weight when considered as part of the whole, it’s nothing that improves over what the original already presented. 

From anywhere in Outer Wilds’ solar system, you can hear other explorers playing their instruments. In fact, the further away you get, the more signals you can pick up at once, bringing them all together. It’s beautiful, and the narrative draws on it for one of the best thematic climaxes in a video game. From the new location where the expansion unravels, you can’t hear anything. 

Echoes of the Eye floats through space, alone and silent. It’s a metaphor that the developers surely didn’t intend, but is nonetheless the most fitting.