I like games that don’t try to hold your hand too much. I praised Hob for the brilliant way it encourages players to work things out for themselves, and often the most satisfying solutions in video games are the ones you arrive at with little guidance from the game. But there’s encouraging player experimentation on the one hand, and there’s absolutely taking the piss on the other, and I fear that Outer Wilds and Graveyard Keeper both fall into the latter camp.
Now, I know a lot of people have praised these games. Our own Percival Smythe-Pipton gave the early access version of Graveyard Keeper a glowing report. And many game critics I respect have been forthcoming in their praise for Outer Wilds, which came out on PS4 on 15th October. Just the other day, Jen Simpkins at EDGE was saying how Outer Wilds rivals Hollow Knight and Breath of the Wild.
And she’s far from the only critic who loved this game – Jason Schreier at Kotaku said it was one of the best games he’s ever played, for example. So why do I hate it so much?
OK, perhaps hate is a strong word. The start is brilliant, where you’re introduced to Timber Hearth, a tiny planet with a fledgling space programme that’s mostly based on wooden rocket ships. The game does a great job of introducing you to the characters and game mechanics you need in an engaging way, like the way it encourages you to experiment with manoeuvring in zero-G in a weird cave where gravity seemingly went out for a walk and didn’t come back. And the moment when you finally blast off to explore the solar system is glorious.
The planets you find are all wondrously inventive, like the cracked planet with a black hole at its centre, or the water planet that continually shoots islands up beyond its atmosphere on top of water spouts. I had fun visiting each of them in turn, and it’s clever how each one changes in the 20 minutes you get to play before a supernova wipes out the solar system – at which point a mysterious alien force resets the clock, but allows you to keep the notes and translations you’ve made. (Yes, it’s Majora’s Mask in space.)
But after those first few glorious hours, I was left scratching my head. “Now what?” I thought. Everything I’ve read about this game enthuses about how clever it is and how the ending is absolutely mind-blowing – but no one seems to talk about how frustrating it is.
The thing is, I have absolutely no idea where I should be going, and the game absolutely won’t tell me. So I’m left just wandering the solar system aimlessly, hoping I might stumble across something that might, I don’t know, advance the plot or give me a hint about what to do next. I’ve come across nothing of the sort so far. I’ve tracked down the other ‘astronauts’ using my signal scope, I’ve visited every planet and I’ve translated several notices from a long-dead alien race, but none of them has provided any real idea of where to go or what to do. And in the meantime, the solar system keeps resetting every 20 minutes, flinging me back to the start – often just when I’m in the middle of exploring a cave or something that might have an important clue in it somewhere. In between supernovas, I regularly end up running out of oxygen, crashing my unwieldy spaceship into a planet or otherwise dying in some sort of black-hole-based calamity, which also results in a reset.
In other words, I don’t know what I’m doing and I keep being sent back to the beginning. It’s like playing an NES game without a save system in Japanese.
I found Graveyard Keeper similarly frustrating in its lack of guidance. It starts you off with a simple task – tend to a dilapidated graveyard. But you quickly realise that doing this requires various tools and resources that you don’t have – and how you actually get hold of these tools and resources isn’t at all clear. My logbook screen quickly filled up with around half a dozen side quests that may or may not have helped me with my mission to tidy up a grave a little bit, and meanwhile I spent the first couple of hours just wandering around in a daze, with little idea about what I was meant to be doing. I mean, there aren’t even any markers on the map to tell you where the quests start, for god’s sake.
All I wanted to do was a bit of cemetery maintenance, yet the game kept throwing more and more confusion and obstacles into my way, introducing yet more mechanics while failing to properly explain the ones that had come before. You know how Mario games are so sublime because each level introduces a new idea, then gradually gets you used to that idea before finally subverting it in an interesting way? This is basically the opposite, where ideas are flung out like confetti and then seemingly forgotten about. Now what am I meant to be doing again?
In short, I love being able to experiment in games and be left to my own devices sometimes. But both the Outer Wilds and Graveyard Keeper show the dangers of giving players too much self-direction – you can end up just going around in circles and, ultimately, getting bored and walking away.
Outer Wilds was developed by Mobius and is available on PC, Xbox One and PS4. Graveyard Keeper was developed by Lazy Bear Games and is available on PC, Switch, Xbox One, PS4, iOS and Android, and the Stranger Sins DLC is out on 28 October.
Disclosure statement: code for Graveyard Keeper was provided by tinyBuild (although I bought Outer Wilds with my own cold, hard cash). A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.