You have to play Outer Wilds on Switch (and a chaise longue)

Donald Mustard, of Fortnite, Infinity Blade and Shadow Complex, once told me something very interesting about games that I’ve been turning over ever since. He was talking about the difference between designing something like Shadow Complex and designing something like Infinity Blade.

The difference, he made it sound – the main difference – was where the player sat. When they fire up Shadow Complex, they’re on the sofa in front of the big TV. They’ve maybe cleared a chunk of time, made themselves a drink. As a designer you can trust that you’ll have the player for quite a while. With Infinity Blade, though, well, where are they? On the bus? Waiting at the deli? Sitting at the dentist? You don’t have them as long – you can’t guarantee that you have as much of their attention and focus. And so you make the game differently. It works quicker. It rewards players in shorter loops. It dangles more threads to tempt them to stick around a little longer.

I often think about this. But last night I found myself thinking about it in a different way. I was playing Outer Wilds, which has just released on the Switch. I think maybe I was curious to see how the game held up. (And while I’m not Digital Foundry, I can say that it held up fine for me. Maybe a bit more loading, but everything else was exactly as I would want it to be.) But what I ended up exploring, I think, was how a single game can feel very different depending on the platform. It was a revelation.

Outer Wilds Switch trailer.

And again, it’s down to where I sat. Outer Wilds is a game about exploring a bottle solar system, puzzling out the clues to uncover what’s happened and then work out how you can stop a supernova from destroying everything after twenty minutes or so, at which point things loop back to the start again. If I had to use art maths to describe this game, I’d say it was Pohl’s Gateway combined with Majora’s Mask. And I’d also add that, while that gets at a certain something about it, it’s really its own thing. It is, I reckon, one of the best games ever made. It dazzles.

Anyway, when I first played Outer Wilds I was sat at my desk in the Eurogamer office. It’s a big, complex puzzle box, this game, and so I leaned in close, gave Outer Wilds my complete attention, and even kept notes as I played. Second time around, I was playing the Game Pass version – of all the games to leave Game Pass over the years, this feels like the greatest loss. Again, though, I was leaning close, completely focused, trying to spot everything I could and retain it all. It was a classic case of the Donald Mustard Sofa Scenario. I booked time out. I probably had a root beer nearby. This was absolutely what I was doing for the next few hours.

Last night, though, I was returning to a game that I already knew pretty well. But also, I was playing it on a handheld and lounging, laid out on our chaise longue. (I make no apologies for that sentence and everything it contains.)

An aside here, but it’s important. Our chaise longue is not fancy or vintage, but it does the job. What job? There is something about a chaise longue – stick with me – that makes me feel like Jimmy Stewart. I’m suddenly very aware of my arms and legs and how long and awkward they can seem when arranged like this. I am suddenly all angles and elbows. And, channeling Jimmy Stewart in something like Harvey, I instantly enter the Jimmy Stewart frame of mind, too. I am whimsical all of a sudden, prone to idle thoughts and sudden rabbit holes. It’s a pretty nice to state to be in.

A storm rages over the watery planet of Giant's Deep in this screen from Outer Wilds.

A bug-like spacecraft sits on the surface of a murky planet in Outer Wilds. Trees can be seen in the background, emerging from the mist.

The sun goes supernova in this screen from Outer Wilds. A huge ball of white light is racing outwards through space.

The Outer Wilds on Switch. | Image credit: Mobius Digital/Annapurna Interactive

Here’s the thing, though: I had never played Outer Wilds like this. And, because of Switch, because of the bright, precious screen in my hands, because I was lying down, because it was a random few moments of checking out a game rather than anything more elaborate – because of all this, I found myself playing Outer Wilds in an entirely new way.

Suddenly, I wasn’t trying to solve the riddle of the solar system. I wasn’t worried about the supernova or getting stuff done in the lens-flash of each little life the game gives you. Instead, I was playing in a very speculative manner. I took off from Timber Hearth, rising out of the redwoods, and then I did that lovely pitch and yaw of the craft that Outer Wilds absolutely nails, and I thought: where now?

I was on holiday, basically, in this compact and deeply cursed universe filled with wonders. I was a tourist. So inevitably I took in the sights.

I went to Giant’s Deep first. Plunging in out of the storm clouds, navigating the bottle-green twisters and landing on a roving island where the trees were sculpted and bent by the endless winds. Giant’s Deep is a magnificent puzzle in Outer Wilds, and it certainly was the first two times I encountered it. But this time, I was just taking it all in, going where I fancied. It was the difference between being an archaeologist or an anthropologist exploring a ruin and being someone on holiday exploring a ruin, or someone who lives near a ruin and just likes to walk the dog there. I was eating lunch in a quiet graveyard. I knew there was meaning all around me, but I didn’t feel the need to untangle it. Instead, I simply looked around, wandered, toyed with this and that, and had a lovely time.

Giant’s Deep was the first stop on a list that eventually covered the comet, Timber Hearth’s stubby little ashtray moon, and the White Hole Station, which marked the first time, I think, that I’d ever piloted my spaceship through the black hole at the centre of Brittle Hollow, rather than losing my footing out there in my spacesuit and just falling in like an idiot. My first time loop wrapped up at While Hole Station, actually. I emerged from the event horizon (do I have that right?) and the sun was already angry and red in front of me. Then it collapses to a crumpled white ball of scrap paper before expanding until it filled the screen and shook me to pieces.

In all this time playing Outer Wilds over the last few years, it’s the first time I’ve watched the full supernova process. And I watched it because I was exploring the game in a completely different manner than I usually did, approaching, you might say, from a different angle. And the game responded beautifully. And I think – I think! – it was all because I was playing on a different console.

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