Outer Wilds is the best video game I’ve ever played. Its art style, storytelling, soundtrack, and freedom of exploration are all excellent. If you haven’t played it and there’s any possibility you might, please skip ahead because this will spoil the ending.
Now, as you already know since you’ve played it through, the premise of the game is that you’re a rookie astronaut in a solar system at the end of its sun’s life. 22 minutes after the game begins, the sun explodes and destroys everything, game over. A relic from an ancient civilization brings you back and you get to play those 22 minutes over again. Everything is reset. Other characters in the game have no idea you’ve lived and died however many times. But you retain your memories of all your previous playthroughs.
It’s like the movie Edge of Tomorrow. Much like Tom Cruise builds on each life cycle, gaining knowledge and experience to defeat an alien invasion, you play through Outer Wilds exploring your solar system and reading ancient runes to, ostensibly, stop the sun from blowing up. It is a game where you learn how to play as you learn why to play.
And once you’ve pieced all the histories and mysteries together, and bring the thing to the place, the game calmly guides you through a beautiful ending sequence… and the sun still blows up. You see your friends you met along the way one final time, and everyone makes peace with the inevitability of their time having come. I wasn’t ready for this.
• • •
We all have a time; for most it’s unknown, which can either be scary or comforting. A clearer idea of that time, from the diagnosis of a terminal disease for example, certainly reschedules the rest of one’s life. I’m far from the first person to write about how Outer Wilds helped me process the concept of death, let alone the first player to be affected by it. A tangential comparison of the in-game comet made of toxic material to a cancerous tumor really took me aback. My uncle Mike, who was almost like a second father, was living with lung cancer as I played through the game.
This facet of death, what to do with what’s left of your life, is debilitating. Some are able to embrace it, check items off the bucket list, do what they set out to do. Others chase immortality, if not in corporeal form then by monuments to their name and/or likeness. Mike’s time, at least what of it I got to share with him, was more toward the first end of that spectrum. He joined the local Browns Backers chapter and watched football in a bar before the pandemic, and at his house during. He cooked all kinds of meat on his outdoor electric grill. He got into the last phase of the Marvel movies and the John Wick trilogy. Of course it was being there with him, yelling at the TV refs, modestly insisting that the chicken was too dry, and cracking up at Ragnarok, that’s the forever stuff.
It’s a different version of “experiences, not things.” I’ll never forget playing the scenario of a genie granting three wishes with a friend. Mine were juvenile, like a bajillion dollars, good looks, and another Jackass movie with the original cast. Her first wish was to be fluent in every language. Of course that would unlock the world in ways money can’t, leading to authentic experiences that mean so much more. I don’t remember the other two, that was enough to get me to change my outlook. Maximize authentic experiences, don’t amass things, because the stories of what you did and what you learned are what’s passed on to, and held by, the next. By next I mean those who stay behind, but who knows, maybe it’s like the video game after all and they persist with whatever comes after for you as well.
Because that’s the other facet of death, the what comes after. After finishing Outer Wilds, I stopped trying to figure that out. My grandpa Yesh passed away in 2018, years after a cancer diagnosis and many, many years after being born (but how many, we’re not sure). One of his doctors told him “you don’t die from prostate cancer, you die with prostate cancer.” So even though he was going through a rougher patch than usual that spring, I didn’t cancel my flight across the country to attend my niece’s first birthday party. When I left for the airport, I told him “see you when I get back.” He died the morning of my return flight.
It took a while, but I don’t beat myself up about it. I could fill a book with memories of my grandpa Yesh. I still lapse into his accent and mannerisms when joking around with my family. I had moved to Florida the year before to be with him and make those extra memories. Not that being there at the exact moment would have been meaningless, but placing so much weight on the event itself does a disservice to the lifetime that preceded it.
My uncle Sonny passed away in 2019. I had moved into my grandpa’s place, and Sonny lived in a unit one floor up. He could connect to our wifi and send stuff to our printer, and I would run it up to him. One day that fall I went up to drop off something someone else had printed for him, said “I’m always downstairs if you need anything else,” and left. There are more details, but they’re not mine to tell, and a few days later he was gone.
The Hemingway line about bankruptcy happening “gradually, then suddenly” may as well be about death. I’ve thought about that a lot. Mike passed away this past March. He was declining at an accelerating pace, and people were coming in to spend time with him. A whole bunch of us got together at their place on a Sunday afternoon. Even though he was still cracking jokes and Venom impressions, I heard him whisper to my aunt Ceci at one point that there was “too much energy.” So we gathered our things and slid on our sandals. There were hugs and handshakes, but I hung by the door, not wanting to stir things up any more. I made eye contact with him across the room, and tried to send a glance that implied “see you later.” At least, I felt I got a similar glance back from him. He died the next morning.
I’m writing this a couple days before his memorial service, so obviously I’m still thinking about it. To have said a see you later to three close members of my family instead of a definitive goodbye ended up reinforcing my favorite memories of them, for months and years to come. So I don’t regret it. Putting so much into death and the void afterwards takes away from the rich and long story leading up to it. And as trite as it may sound, a video game that appealed to all my regular video game sensibilities and ended with a surprise reckoning about death helped me understand that.