Outer Wilds and the Concept of ‘Going in Blind’
Don’t look anything up before you play it. Don’t google anything, don’t read the reviews too much, don’t even watch the trailer if you can avoid it – just buy it, download it, and go in blind.
That’s the suggestion that many people will get when told they should play science fiction game Outer Wilds (2019). Most people, when hyping up a beloved piece of media to their friends, will talk about it and their favorite moments or characters extensively. But fans of Outer Wilds will often do just the opposite.
They may give a brief explanation of it, saying that it’s science fiction, that you explore space, and there’s really good music, but beyond that it’ll likely be vague.
And in turn, many new players have, after playing the game, appreciated this vagueness. They’ve found going in blind, unspoiled, not really knowing what they’re getting into has improved their playing experience.
Of course, it could be said that this is the same for most media, that you’d be hard-pressed to find a game that was better after you’ve been spoiled for every plot point. But you’d also be hard-pressed to find a game for which spoilers are so locked down on that some players going in don’t even know the game’s central premise, where many reviews open by suggesting you go in without knowing too much or even read the review below. At times, it goes beyond traditional spoiler culture into something else.
So then why does it exist – and does this game really need such a culture around it?
Before this article begins in earnest, a warning: it will spoil the plot of Outer Wilds. If you want to go in blind, and discover just why it’s so crucial to do that by yourself, then do that. Otherwise, it will all be explained here.
Spoiling Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds is a space exploration game. The player is from an alien race which has only recently developed space travel technology – and has just been given the chance to explore space. After a brief tutorial, they can go to their own spaceship, and take off into the stars.
There are a number of planets out there, and plenty of things to see. They can experience the natural wonder of each planet, visit their fellow space explorers, or explore the ruins created by a dead alien race.
Around 20 minutes into this adventure, the sun goes supernova. The player character dies, and their entire solar system destroyed.
The player character then wakes up, back where they were at the very beginning of the game. They seem to be the only person to remember what has happened, and to the player the will objective seem clear – figure out why the sun went supernova, and stop it.
Over the course of the game, the player will be brought to every corner of the solar system to unravel this mystery. They will discover many secrets. Why they’re time looping. Where all the members of the dead alien race went. And of course, why the sun explodes.
But in this journey, the player will eventually discover that their initial assumption – that they will stop the sun from exploding – is wrong. All things must end, and that includes the sun. That includes the universe, and, sadly, everyone in it.
Instead, the game ends with the player ending the time loop. They watch the destruction of the old universe, and aid the new universe in being born.
This plot is a lot and can be quite emotive for many players, but there are plenty of science fiction stories with stories that are just – if not more – shocking and twisty. So then, why exactly is it so important to play this game in particular blind and completely unspoiled?
As with any story based around a secret (or a few), being spoiled for the central mystery can of course defeat the purpose of the entire game. When half of the tension is based around not knowing something, finding clues and slowly piecing it together bit by bit, knowing the final solution can easily take the player out of it. They might not find a mystery quite so compelling if it’s already been answered.
This is the argument generally posed against spoilers for all stories including a central mystery, no matter their medium, but it can be argued that for an exploration game like Outer Wilds it’s even more important – as it’s been constructed in a somewhat nonlinear fashion.
In a book or film, the central mystery will be unravelled by the characters in a precise order. While some readers may pick up on certain clues and figure out all the answers faster than others, they’ll still do so in roughly the same order. Books and films are a static medium, and while different viewers may get slightly different things out of the same story, their progressions of understanding the mystery or order of events will be relatively similar.
That’s not really the case with a game like Outer Wilds; solving the central mystery of your time-loop and sun explosion is a very different matter.
Exploration is one of the strengths of Outer Wilds. The moment you receive your spaceship, you can go anywhere you want. It’s a wide world, and while there are some suggestions, there’s nothing that you have to do in particular. As such plenty of players act in the moment, doing whatever tickles their personal fancy.
What all of this means is that there is no one set experience of Outer Wilds; each time a new person plays it for the first time, their journey will be unique and customized to their tastes.
There’s no set order to where you have to go, so different players will find different clues, different pieces of the mystery, in a different order. When you only have a part of the puzzle, it alters your perspective and understanding of it, so players can have wildly different assumptions based on what exact journey they took.
In addition, it’s possible to finish the game without finding out every last secret – there’s even a character it’s possible to never encounter, changing the ending slightly.
All of this adds up to creating a unique experience for each player. As such, spoilers aren’t at just at risk of ruining an enjoyment of a story by revealing the central meaning. They also destroy this unique road to understanding.
And of course, there’s also the fact that with other ‘static’ types of media like books generally do not necessarily require the reader to figure anything on their own. You can if you want to, but it’s not essential, and having that ‘aha’ moment won’t effect the actions of the characters as it will in a video game. As such, spoilers can also ruin that feeling of self-discovery, of piecing together the mystery and solving things on your own.
It’s this unique journey of discovery that many fans wish to preserve for new players.
What the Research Says
All of this, however, is just the feeling of players, their personal reasons for wanting to hide spoilers and encourage new players to go in blind. And it can be quite hard to be objective about one’s feelings.
Spoilers and the effect they have on a person’s enjoyment is a subject that has been studied extensively. However, research has at times shown inconclusive results as to whether spoilers really do completely ‘ruin’ enjoyment. As such, some researchers believe that the effect depends on certain factors such as the nature of the media, the person viewing it, and why they’re viewing it.
In J. E. Rosenbaum and B. K. Johnson’s article Who’s afraid of spoilers? Need for cognition, need for affect, and narrative selection and enjoyment (2016), they hypothesized that a person’s reaction to spoilers depended on what they were trying to get out of the piece of media.
They believed it was around the need for cognition – how much thought and mental energy you want to put into consuming the piece of media. If you’re not looking to put much thought into the media (say, if you’re wanting to watch a comedy movie to laugh at the jokes), being spoiled might not effect you as much as if you’re wanting to put a lot of thought and brainpower into it (say, if you’re wanting to watch a murder mystery and figure out the murderer before the protagonist does).
It’s worth noting that the conclusions to this article was based on studying reactions to TV shows and movies. Little to no formal research has been done on video games specifically.
This is crucial, as the medium of a work can effect how spoilers are received. In T. A. Daniel and J. S. Katz’s article Spoilers Affect the Enjoyment of Television Episodes but Not Short Stories (2018), they found that while spoilers could have a negative effect on how viewers enjoyed episodes of a TV show, they didn’t effect people’s enjoyment of short stories. A few possible explanations were given to why, but it seems likely that the different lengths of the media were a factor. A TV show is much longer than a short story, after all.
As such, it seems likely that spoilers for video games would work in a similar manner, with spoilers having a different effect on longer games than shorter ones. However, this wouldn’t be a one-to-one scale with video games, as many very long video games focus more on mechanics than story. If people are playing a game for the joy of playing it, and the story is simply set dressing and not considered important by players, being spoiled might not be quite as bad. This, however, is not the case with Outer Wilds, as although the mechanics may be fun, most players pick it up for the story and exploration elements.
Given the length of Outer Wilds (over 20 hours, though the exact length can differ between players), it seems likely that similar to movies and long-form TV shows, being spoiled would genuinely have a profound negative effect. Given its topic, central mystery, and focus on self-guided exploration, players are likely to have a high need for cognition while playing the game, once again making spoilers unwanted to say the least.
There is some evidence to show that people can and do overestimate the effect of spoilers on the enjoyment, however. This is the hypothesis in D. F. Yan and A. S. L. Tsang’s article The misforecasted spoiler effect: Underlying mechanism and boundary conditions (2016). This found that while many people believe spoilers will have a huge negative effect on their enjoyment, they often won’t be effected as much as they think.
However, they also found that the participants in their study could under-predict the effect a spoiler could have on their enjoyment – namely, when the spoiler revealed the process of a plot. It could be argued that many of the spoilers that Outer Wilds fans are trying to avoid fit into this category, but probably not all of them.
There are even those that argue that spoilers can have a positive effect, with the right piece of media in the right genre. It’s similar to the effect re-watching or re-playing something can have – when you know how something ends, you’re better able to notice foreshadowing, and will enjoy it in a slightly different way.
In B. K. Johnson and J. E. Rosenbaum’s article (Don’t) tell me how it ends: Spoilers, enjoyment, and involvement in television and film (2017) they found that spoiling a fantasy/thriller film could increase enjoyment, though they noted their data wasn’t of statistical significance. It could be argued that for some players, encountering minor spoilers could have this effect, and improve their playing experience. But it’s hard to know how far is too far, or what will work better for each individual.
Regardless, it seems clear that while it’s possible that Outer Wilds fans are overestimating the amount that spoilers can ruin a player’s experience, they can definitely have a real and tangible negative effect on enjoyment.
As such, if you’re looking to enjoy this game to the best of your ability, it does seem that going in completely blind could indeed be the right choice.
It also seems, however, that knowing a few plot details won’t completely ruin it, and might even make some parts more enjoyable. So if you know a few spoilers – like the ones shared in this article – it’s still worthwhile giving the game a try.
This culture around going in blind is understandable, and it can help some people enjoy the game more, but it’s by no means essential. And spoilers are no reason not to enjoy something.
What do you think? Leave a comment.