Outer Wilds has always been a game built on discovery, and that discovery has been predominantly focused on the Nomai. Their ruins and text are what are buried at the most important and challenging places to reach in the solar system. As we delve further into production, the Nomai grow in complexity: in narrative, in technology, in art, and in how all of that all funnels into design. We asked Alex to explain how that evolution has occurred and what it means to Outer Wilds.
YOU’VE ADDED A LOT OF DIFFERENT NOMAI TECH SINCE THE IGF VERSION OF THE GAME. WHAT MADE YOU DO THAT THAT?
Well, we knew we didn’t just want to have buttons because there’s something weird about another species having interfaces that you can just arbitrarily use. So we were already doing a lot of vision-related tech with quantum objects and decided to see how moving things with your gaze felt, and it felt kind of weird and alien which hit the right tone. This tech eventually turned into these orbs you stare at that activate various things and we’ve developed a lot of different stuff from there.
Actually, even in the IGF Alpha version there was one place in the game that had a switch: it was on the Cave Twin, one of the Hourglass Twins. It’s the tower with the map room and we repurposed this Nomai staff we’ve made--I have no idea if anyone ever found this actually because we never playtested it--but we had this staff with an energy web on it and as you stared at it it would spin and then disappear. Then you’d notice that the energy field above your head had vanished...so even back then we knew Nomai tech should be gaze-driven.
ARE THERE ANY EXAMPLES OF OTHER GAMES THAT ARE REFERENCES TO YOU IN DESIGNING THE NOMAI TECHNOLOGY?
No...No, not really. The closest thing to what we’re doing is Metroid Prime. Because they also have this scanning mechanic--oh my god, we’re kind of doing Metroid Prime. I just thought of that. That’s pretty funny. Ok, Metroid Prime is apparently a big reference.
But we’ve got more things to do than Metroid Prime, alien tech-wise. A lot of our design is making the world feel like you can poke at it, because that’s always what I like to do as a player. If I’m going to be exploring the world I really hate it when everything in the game feels locked in place--we have all these big systems, we have physics that work, we might as well use them! The more we can get people to feel like the game goes beyond walking around and looking at stuff, the better.
YOU’VE ALSO INCREASED THE KINDS OF TECHNOLOGY THE PLAYER CAN ENCOUNTER TO READ ANCIENT TEXTS. WHAT WAS THE REASON FOR EXPANDING THOSE INTERACTIONS?
It was mostly for story reasons and having to justify certain narratives that exist in our world. Honestly we’re trying to keep it as consistent as possible. We have more types but it’s, you know, all to the same purpose.
HOW HAS HAVING DIFFERENT TECHNOLOGIES AVAILABLE CHANGED THE WAY THE DESIGNERS APPROACH GREYBOXING & LEVEL DESIGN?
A bunch of the technologies we created for very specific purposes, like Nomai Skype--which I’ll just say is a technology without explaining what it means--that we needed for very specific locations so we kind of designed the areas around them. So we created most of those locations with their technologies in mind.
The tech that has affected greyboxing the most is actually an old thing: tractor beams. We’ve been using tractor beams way more often as a traversal mechanic in a much more consistent manner: they look a lot better, and they feel a lot better. Gravity crystals are still a big thing. We just created the prefabs for a lot of these new technologies so I haven’t gotten the chance to use all of them in design yet.
The main tech I’m excited to use is the Text Projector, which lets you flip a switch and text appears all over the location. This lets us control the player’s focus better and design a better space.
I’m starting to redesign the Cave Twin, Hourglass Twin that fills up with sand, and I’m going to try and make that as...just a lot crazier, a lot more claustrophobic. Essentially you’ll have to find things underground that will illuminate paths for you, and if you don’t do that then the caves are just spatially confusing. Because right now on that planet we have a lot of “Just go from Point A to Point B” stuff and I want to open it up a bit, make it feel like this ridiculous cave system.
I FEEL LIKE DARK SOULS HAS BECOME AN INCREASINGLY PREDOMINANT DESIGN REFERENCE.
That was actually one of the oldest references. Some of the earliest iterations on the concept, way before the game even had the name Outer Wilds, were way more like Dark Souls than it is now, mainly in the survivalist feel of it. We use to literally have kindling in campfires, for example.
There used to be a more obvious emphasis on you trying to get from where you are to some difficult location and it was going to be more about the danger of that journey. There are obvious overlaps, but we don’t have as many long paths for instance.
Originally the game was going to be more linear, like “Get to this point,” but still in a fixed amount of time: kind of like FTL but in first person. Yeah. That sounds cool so I’m going to go with that.
HOW DID YOU END UP WITH SUCH A NON-LINEAR EXPERIENCE?
When I decided the thing I cared about was focusing on curiosity & exploration, that we wanted to make something that pushed the boundaries of the way players are motivated in an exploration game and figure out how you give them goals without giving them actual goals, and that just naturally led to something more open-ended. And then we created the whole time loop thing...
Oh, that’s what it was! Originally the reason it was going to be more like Dark Souls was that it was going to be a very short game with permadeath. It was essentially going to be a rogue-like, and it was going to have way more procedural content, kind of like a Dark Souls roguelike.
And now we have these handcrafted spaces and procedural things still happen but the levels themselves aren’t procedural, and that sort of happened out of necessity. And it ended up being clear that adding procedural levels would have detracted from the overall experience since we decided to specifically craft what makes people curious,and...clearly handcrafted content was the way to go. That’s what people are drawn to.
But then you have the unpredictable forces that differs on each planet, so it’s not about the memorization of how things work, but learning how to deal with all of the systems you encounter. There were parts of the game that I wish were more procedural because I don’t players to rely on memorization as a crutch like you can in Dark Souls.
I actually have no idea how hard this game is because I’ve been designing it for so long, I don’t know if people are going to react like they did for Hyper Light Drifter where they say, “Oh, it’s so hard!” or people are going to say, “No, it’s pretty fine.” I have no idea.
I THINK PEOPLE ARE GOING TO SAY IT’S PRETTY HARD.
It’s probably...once you get used to flying it’s not so bad. Hopefully we’ve made something that even if you’re not a master, you can still appreciate and learn. In all our playtests we've had that.
BUG OF THE WEEK!
Although we want Outer Wilds to feel like venturing off into the unknown, this bug in the way water distorts the player's HUD takes things to an extreme that even our best pilots couldn't manage. That's what getting stuck in an underwater geyser gets you: a distortion beyond comprehension!
This bug fixed, we look boldly forward to the next bug to confuse the heck out of us! Thanks as always for checking in with us here at Outer Wilds Ventures and wherever and whenever you are, we hope you're exploring!
The Mobius Team
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