Review: Out There27 Feb 2014 0
Review: Out There
Released 27 Feb 2014
I met artist and developer Michael Peiffert--one half of Out There's production team--at Eurogamer's Rezzed expo last summer. Writer FibreTigre couldn't make it, which was a real pity. His nom de plume had me hoping that, Daft Punk-like, he would only appear in public wearing a stuffed tiger head and silently divert all questions to Peiffert. Alas.
Peiffert and Out There were set up right next to the demo of the Oculus Rift virtual reality googles, the very sharpest cutting edge of gaming, a technology that won't be mainstream for years yet. Out There couldn't be further removed from that.
Despite its futuristic premise, Out There is an unabashedly backward-looking game, one that celebrates old ways of playing and telling stories. It's a beautiful experience whose few flaws fall away once you get swept up by the magic of its setting.
The skeleton of Out There's story is an ancient one, among the oldest we've got. You're a castaway like Ulysses, adrift alone in a spaceship in an unknown part of the universe, trying to find a way home to Earth armed only with your cunning. It's a story that might be more potent now than ever before. In our permanently-connected 21st century where you're never more than a moment away from a video call with a loved one or a real-time map of your surroundings, we've never been more ill-prepared to be lost and alone.
Your ship, the Nomad, is flung to a far corner of the galaxy by a mysterious force and equipped with a "space folder", a device that makes travel across interstellar distances possible. You are pointed towards a distant star on the far side of the map, and then left to find your way there.
Every decision in Out There demands a careful risk/reward calculation. Every move between stars and planets and from orbit to the surface eats precious fuel and risks damage to your hull. Every mined mineral or cubic foot of fuel takes up space in your hold -- the same space that you need to install powerful new ship systems when a friendly alien species teaches you its secrets. You can never have it all, and Out There is constantly forcing you to choose. Running out of fuel or oxygen or allowing your hull to degrade completely mean that it's the end of your journey, so decisions that push the envelope must be approached with care.
Out There's greatest achievement is the creation of a truly alien place where even we who have grown up with the Mos Eisley Cantina and Jim Henson will feel out of sorts. The aliens you meet in your travels are genuinely bizarre and speak an initially unintelligible language that you will decipher slowly through repeated contact as you travel. Accidentally insulting an alien that might have helped when your ship is in dire straits is a heart-breaking experience that reinforces your isolation in Out There's universe.
You will be in those dire straits quite frequently. The pressure to shift your priorities to fix the newest crisis is ever-present, and on the occasions when you come across a larger ship abandoned in space you will gleefully, unsentimentally swap the poor old Nomad for it like a hermit crab that's outgrown its shell. Everything about Out There is calculated to reinforce its themes of survival and loneliness.
But equally, the universe in Out There is far too beautiful to be entirely gloomy. Peiffert's style evokes the comic book art of Steve Ditko and Frank Miller and the game feels like a lost graphic novel rediscovered from the 1980s. Every visual element of the game has been hand-painted by Peiffert, and the result is gorgeous. If your jaw doesn't fall the first time you see your ship in orbit over a star, it's possible that you're actually a robot. The production isn't completely perfect: the localisation could use another pass or two, and while that may annoy some it added a new layer of charm for me, making Out There feel like a French film with slightly wonky subtitles.
Not everything about Out There is a throwback. It's a decidedly modern (and brave) twist that the game chooses to eschew combat entirely. The interface is also as intuitive and responsive as a game built for touchscreens should be. But the unforgiving survival aspects of the game are too retro and the fact that hours of arduous journeying will all go out the window when you die will be alienating to many today.
Peiffert has made a number of provisions with replay-ability in mind. The star map is huge, and though not randomly generated, there's many potential paths to take through it. There's also multiple endings to the game. But Out There rides so heavily on its beauty and the strangeness of its setting that it is necessarily less enchanting each time you start a new venture. Perhaps some concessions to modern gaming would have been good here, too -- a procedurally generated universe would have been much easier to go back to after losing a game.
But I can't bring myself to award Out There anything less than top marks. Maybe it's not a game that I will put 20 or 30 hours into and replay again and again. But that doesn't diminish how beautiful and wondrous my first four or five hours with it were. I can find flaws in Out There as a game, but as an experience it is moving and unique and truly memorable -- and there's few games that merit that sort of praise.