Archaeology In Space
Considering the scope and complexity of our narrative structure, it's pretty important that we test whether or not players can understand the clues, find the Curiosities, and piece everything together into a coherent story. Which brings us back to the bit about all of this taking place inside an astrophysics simulation. Testing for narrative comprehension is extraordinarily time-consuming when players can't even access most of your content without (among other things) learning to fly a spaceship. We needed a way for players to test the game's entire narrative structure in a fraction of the time it would take during a normal playthrough.
"It's Only A Model"
Overall the prototype worked surprisingly well. It gave us valuable insight into how players were interpreting the clues and understanding the story, and by essentially DMing each session I had a lot of flexibility to adjust content on the fly. We noticed that all of our playtesters quickly resorted to jotting down their discoveries on a notepad, which pretty much confirms that the onboard ship computer should keep track of your discoveries.
From Paper to Processing
In addition to the basic structure of the paper prototype, the digital version added simple probe, telescope, and ship computer mechanics, essentially making it a feature-complete demake of Outer Wilds.
One of the most surprising results was that the telescope mechanic worked better here than it does in the actual game. Whereas players tend to forget the telescope exists in the real game, players used it quite often to hunt down signals in the text adventure. As a result, we're actually going to modify the telescope in the real game based on the design of the text adventure!
Somewhat ironically, the biggest problem with both prototypes is that they were too effective at concentrating the game's narrative content. The story in Outer Wilds is designed to be experienced piecemeal over a long period of time, not devoured in one sitting. Several players were overwhelmed by the barrage of information learned at each new location. Of course these same locations are far more spaced out in the real game by, you know, space. Still, it's good to know that a bit of downtime is actually necessary to give players a chance to digest new information.