It's easy to talk about the brilliant puzzle design of Outer Wilds. It's a metroidvania of pure information. It runs about five layers deeper than you expect even after you realize how deep it runs. You begin as a naive newt; you can explore in any direction; and when you have all the pieces of the story, you also know what the game's goal is, and how to get there.
One hears less about the game's thematic unity. But as much thought went into the story's symbolism as its puzzle structure. They're both necessary and they build on each other. Outer Wilds wouldn't be compelling if it were just a barrel of puzzle mechanics. So let's look at the flip side.
I already wrote the non-spoiler review. This is the spoilery discussion. Seriously: all the spoilers for Outer Wilds. Do not read this post until you've finished original game and the Echoes of the Eye expansion!
So. The signifier of Outer Wilds -- the original game -- is the eye-of-the-beholder. The whole story revolves around the mysterious Eye of the Universe. On the mundane side, everyone has lots of eyes. (The Nomai have three; you have four because you wind up seeing more than them.) And of course the entire game is about observation. You aren't there to change the world -- all changes are rolled back every 22 minutes anyhow. You're there to perceive the world. Your progress is marked by what you see and read.
The theme of perception reflects up to the final goal -- "a conscious observer has entered the Eye" -- and down to individual game mechanics. Your tools are the camera-drone, the flashlight, and the radio receiver with bonus magnifier. Most Nomai machinery is hands-free, operated by a marble that follows your gaze. Quantum rocks respond to your seeing or not-seeing them.
When it comes down to it, everyone else is an observer too. Hearthians presumably build houses and cook dinner and raise kids, but the dominant industry of your pocket home is the space program. Your rocket seems to be the culmination of civilization (even before you learn about the supernova). Even more so the Nomai, science nerds of the first water. They build observatories and space probes and laboratories. They build spaceships, but only so they can fly around and discover cool stuff.
But perception is not the whole of reality.
Compare Outer Wilds with The Witness, another game whose principle is pure perception. As I've written, The Witness is aggressively coy about your identity and your place in its world. It refuses to commit to even being a world. Does the witnessed island have a history or a future? All you know for sure is what you see and what you can follow with your eyes.
Outer Wilds, in contrast, swells to bursting with history. You don't see it at first, but the more you do see, the more it... well, it haunts you. The game is haunted to hell and gone and from every direction. This is the deeper principle, which gives the Outer Wilds its impact: everything you perceive is the ash of a hidden history. You see that history through a glass, and its future reflected in the time-loop's opaque mirror. But both are present -- quite unlike The Witness's enforced distance.
I'm told that Derrida coined the term "hauntology". Not the study of haunting, but the ontology of the haunt -- the existence of what no longer exists. Outer Wilds, balanced as it is between observation and the haunted, concerns the perception of what cannot be perceived. I suppose that should be "epispectremology". But that'll never catch on. Stick with hauntology.
(Or perhaps the term which refers to both perception and spookiness: apprehension. I'll bet a dollar that's written on a whiteboard somewhere in the developers' office.)
The hauntology begins in plain sight (unseen) with the threat of "Ghost Matter". Invisible, deadly, overtly-named, evaporating over geological time: Ghost Matter raises specters of history. What was different in the past? What stemmed from that cause? What happens when the Ghost Matter is gone? You do not yet know. Moving on, you encounter a rock that moves, or perhaps fails to stay still, when unobserved. This is an uncontexted mystery, not yet connected to even the outline of a story. But as the game labels it: "extremely creepy."
Then you forget your questions, distracted by the immediacy of a rocket launch and worlds to explore. But the questions linger.
What you explore, you soon realize, is a Nomai graveyard. Their ruins and their bones far outweigh the system's tentative Hearthian foothold. It's easy to forget the Nomai are ghosts, as you read their chatty enthusiastic nerd-journals and imagine yourself walking among them. But when you turn around, they're all aeons dead. Sooner or later you'll discover why.
So the Nomai haunt you; and you haunt their ruins. But your fellow Hearthians are also ghosts in their way. They breathe, but their world is about to burn. If you know the future (and you do) they are already dead -- shadows on the wall. You know what they are going to say in response to any question. On top of that, the other Outer Wilds explorers have all given up exploring. Stranded, marooned, or merely on break, they all share a complacent passivity. Even Gabbro, aware of the loop, shows no interest in investigating the circumstances of his fate. You are the only one in the system who acts alive.
Or do you? As we said before, you are a silent observer. Your footprints, if you leave any, are immediately wiped away. You are a specter in all but name.
As you fathom the Nomai secrets, more webs of haunt swim into view. The inescapable blank-eyed Nomai mask that watches your life flash before your/its eyes -- what could be more Gothic? The quantum moon, as indeterminate as its smaller cousins. Lurking at its pole, the Nomai elder, caught out of time like a fey Schrodingerian thought experiment.
And then you realize: you are dead, to begin with. The great Nomai experiment does not prevent your death(s). Only your memories are sent back in time; they overwrite and destroy the mind of previous-you. So you haunt your own body, or you are possessed by the iterated Christmas spirit of your impending doom -- take your pick.
Lurking at the end of everything is the Eye of the Universe, the ultimate or original phantasm, waiting for time to wind down. The entire cosmos is haunted by the Eye's signal -- "older than the universe" -- a spectral whisper from something lost billions of years ago. The Nomai heard it and were haunted by it for the rest of their cultural existence, trying futilely to pin down the Eye. If you succeed where they failed, you plant your own ghost-seed of melody to haunt the next cycle of eternity.
Now we reach Echoes of the Eye. Again, if you haven't played the expansion, stop reading here; it's tremendous spoilers time for that.
Echoes is where this post began. Because the Giants are straight-up in-your-face candle-bearing Lyke-Wake-dirgeful spooks. When I first saw them, I said "This game is hella haunted."
(I see people use different names for the aliens introduced here: the Elk, the Owls, the Strangers. I settled on "the Giants" and I'll stick to that.)
I said that the signifier of Outer Wilds is the observing eye. Echoes inverts that. Twice!
The inverse of the observing eye is the projecting ray: the light that casts a (false) image. The Giants' technology is activated by focusing light on it. Their Wheel (and their story) is full of image projectors and film reels and hallucinations. Their sunny windows are, if you look carefully, digital display screens.
The other inverse of the observing eye is the blinded eye. The Giants' symbols (and your signs to find them) are the eclipsed sun and the extinguished flame. Their secrets are revealed by plunging into darkness. You will spent much of the game stumbling through gloom with a lantern that barely illuminates your feet.
(A second-order symbol: the Nomai write in literal branching dialogue. Whereas the Giants communicate in filmic images -- cut scenes, as it were. This doesn't tie directly to the themes of observation and obscuration, but it sure makes sense in game-design terms, doesn't it? I think it's one reason the Nomai feel so present as you read their texts, whereas the Giants remain impersonal shadows on the cave wall.)
This thematic stuff isn't sprinkled on like, like symbolism on a high-school essay. You can't plunge through the game and ignore it. It must sink in. It's how the doors work, and the secret doors, and the hidden passages. It's how you find the Stranger in the first place. It's the story of the Giants themselves. They heard the song of the Eye, but when they peered into it, they saw only the projection of their own fears. The end of the universe approaching in fire and ash -- the same truth you've been facing all along -- but the Giants saw a threat. And in their blindness, they blinded the Eye.
From the beginning, they preferred mirage to truth.
And the hauntology of the Giants? Surely I hardly need spell it out. Your first glimpse of them is decaying corpses holding spirit-fire lanterns. If you look farther, you might see them walking -- but not alive.
The Giants are everything haunted about Outer Wilds, only bereft of its campfire-warmth. They are haunted by the Eye of the Universe. They are haunted by the memory of their homeworld. They retreated into a dream of that home; they haunted that dream until they died; oblivious, they haunt on. Their symbols are illusion and the eclipsed sun. The occult, you see.
You haunt the world of the Giants. You discover them haunting their own afterlife. And then, of course, you die. Only as a ghost can you meet the Giants on their own terms.
This aye night, this aye night, every night and all
For the world only has this aye night left.
Fire and flet and candlelight
"Flet" is home, by the way. Hearth and home and candlelight; the Giants cling to them. Or to their cast shadows. If your wits are nimble and light, you can get there by candlelight... But it's an eerie light, no warmth to't, and the fire smells of drowning.
And Christ receive thy soul.