Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye - title

When I played it last year (after waiting over a year for its timed Epic Store exclusivity to end), Outer Wilds quickly became one of my favorite games ever due to its innovative sci-fi, exploratory gameplay in its dynamic sandbox solar system full of interesting places that are genuinely worth exploring. It was a compelling sci-fi game about the nature of science and the desire to find out place in the universe. It was also a compelling player-driven mystery game that doesn't hold the player's hand and which provides genuine "eureka!" moments.

I wasn't expecting an expansion because the game seemed so perfect and self-contained that I struggled to even think of what could be included in an expansion. Would they add more planets to the solar system? Would it be a stand-alone prequel with the player playing as one of the extinct Nomai?

But I sure as hell was not going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

I wasn't going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

River rafting around the world

One of my favorite things about Outer Wilds is its open-ended exploration of the hand-crafted solar system. Each world is a little puzzle box for the player to unlock, with the solutions to every puzzle involving some sci-fi physics concept that the player has to learn and apply.

The puzzles of Echoes of the Eye don't seem to have that same sci-fi quality to them. Most puzzles involve the use of light, and feel like they could be puzzles in any earthbound adventure or fantasy setting. I just point flashlights at things to trigger mechanisms, turn lights off or on to trigger secret passageways, or turn off my source of light to sneak past photo-sensitive sentries in the dark. I guess I should praise the puzzle design for never falling back on the tried-and-true (yet rote) method of reflecting light off mirrors or through prisms. The actual puzzles are a bit more clever than this, but I just don't find it to be a very engaging or interesting gimmick, especially compared to how novel and creative the core Outer Wilds puzzle box is.

The use of light as the instrument for most interactions with Echoes of the Eye seems to be the result of a concerted effort by the developers to use base game mechanics that are under-utilized in the base game, such as the flashlight and ability to nap at bonfires. The puzzles just lack that sense of awe and discovery that comes with progressing in the base game.

Echoes of the Eye starts off strong with solving a space-based mystery.

Some of the late puzzles do start to embrace Outer Wilds's sci-fi nature. They hide some very fun and interesting surprises that really mess with the player's perception of reality in a very video-game-meta sort of way. But they are so esoteric that the game almost has to literally tell the player what to do. It's like "summoning the tornado in Simon's Quest" levels of esoteric at times.

Honestly, I think the single best puzzle in the game is the one that the player has to solve just to get access to the DLC! It's also the most "Outer Wilds" feeling puzzle in the game. The developers managed to cleverly hide the DLC in plain sight, as if it had been there all along.

The opening for the DLC tasks the player with finding a remote satellite and solving a simple puzzle involving it. Then the expansion treats the player with the awe-inspiring discovery of a massive hidden world that makes up the expansion's primary setting. After that, however, everything feels like pretty typical adventure game stuff. Instead of planet-hopping in a tiny space capsule, I find myself white-water rafting and watching home movies on slide projectors. Later on, there's some horror-adjacent exploration of dark spaces with just a flashlight, and even a little bit of hide-and-seek. Again, it's nothing I haven't seen in a hundred other indie games.

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Outer Wilds - title

I refuse to give money to Epic,
and waited for Steam release.

Outer Wilds was one of my most anticipated games in 2019. As such, it was immensely disappointing that it became a timed exclusive for the Epic Games Store. I have a lot of issues with how Epic Games runs its business, and with the ethics (or lack thereof) of the company, and so I refuse to give them a single penny of my money. Our daughter plays Fortnite with her friends, and we're not going to disallow her from doing such (and besides, her socialization options were incredibly limited during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, and I think playing Fortnite stopped her from going stir crazy). But I've told her that the first time she asks me for money to buy V-Bucks, it will be the last time she plays the game.

I could have bought Outer Wilds on PS4 a year ago, but it just looked like the kind of game that would be better experienced on PC. I've been burned enough times by Bethesda RPGs that I'm always skeptical of a console's ability to adequately run a game with a world of the scope and comlexity of Outer Wilds. So I bit the bullet and waited the year for the game to release on Steam.

The opening screen recommended the use of a game pad, and I obligingly started using my PS4 controller on my second play session. And I've read that the game ran just fine on consoles. So I guess I could have spared myself the wait and just played on PS4 from the start. Ah well, live and learn.

Outer Wilds plays best with a controller anyway, so there was no need for me to pass up the console release.

Now to go back to finishing Fallout: New Vegas while I await the Steam release of The Outer Worlds...

Knowledge is your upgrade

Readers of my blog know that I'm not a huge fan of most open world games. The sandboxy nature of those games tends to lead to stagnant stories and worlds that feel ironically dead. They also tend to be full to the brim of monotonous copy-pasted content that becomes a drag to play.

Outer Wilds offers an entire solar system as an open world sandbox for you to explore. Granted, the scale of this solar system is considerably shrunk down in order to accommodate a game, such that an entire planet is about as big as a small neighborhood, and the different planets are only a few kilometers apart from one another. It's fine. It works well enough with the game's cartoony aesthetic style.

You have an entire toy solar system to play in.

What's important though, is how rich with detail and intrigue this world solar system is. Nothing looks or feels copy-pasted. Every nook and cranny of the map contains something new that you haven't seen before. On top of that, the map is positively dynamic!

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Observation - title

It's real refreshing to come across a science fiction game that isn't just about shooting aliens with laser guns or blowing up space ships. If you're in the market for a thoughtful, well-presented science fiction experience, then I highly recommend that you check out Observation. If you're also into horror, then even better, because this game definitely has some horror elements as well. They're much more subdued, but this game does do a fantastic job of creating a building sense of tension and intrigue as its over-arching mystery is slowly unfurled.

The gimmick here is that you play as a malfunctioning artificial intelligence on a near-future orbital research station. The game is presented as a sort-of found-footage narrative (think along the lines of the Apollo 18 horror movie) told entirely from the point of view of the on-board A.I. Something goes wrong, the crew are all missing and possibly dead, and you help the sole survivor try to find the remaining crew and piece together what happened to the station. Think along the lines of playing as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Kevin Spacey's character in the [fantastic] movie Moon. You do this by jumping between different surveillance cameras (a la Five Nights at Freddy's, but, you know, with ambitions of being more than just a random jump-scare-generator). Through the cameras, you interact with various technology and station systems within your line of sight. You'll occasionally be asked questions or given commands by the surviving astronaut, and you chose how to respond.

You are an unreliable A.I.?

From the start, there's a certain degree of unreliable narrator going on. One of the very first actions that the game asks you to do is verify the identify of the surviving astronaut via her voice print. You are initially told that her voice print does not match, and you're given the option to accept or reject her voice print. If you reject, she'll repeat her authorization code, and you'll be told that it matches this time. Is she not who she seems? Are your own systems providing you with misleading information? Are your systems merely damaged? This creates an immediate sense of distrust. You (the player) don't necessarily trust the survivor, the survivor doesn't necessarily trust you, and you can't even trust your own perception and judgement.

From the start, it's unclear whether you can trust Emma, or whether she can trust you...

This immediately creates a dense atmosphere of intrigue and mystery and sets a level of tension that persists through the entire game.

This atmosphere is helped by the richly-detailed near-future space station that you inhabit. The visuals are immaculately detailed, and the station looks and feels like it could be modeled after the real-life International Space Station. The spaces are tight and claustrophobic. Accessories and stationary are strapped or velcroed to the walls, floors, ceiling, and desk surfaces in order to prevent them from floating off in the zero-gravity environment. Everything is believable.

The game further builds its atmosphere with its immersive U.I.. Every button press, command, and interaction has some in-universe context behind it that helps to keep you in the mind-space of your A.I. character. The U.I. is mostly easy to use, and most actions feel intuitive.

This game hooked me in with its setting and atmosphere, and I just had to keep playing to find out what happened and where this would go!

The space station and U.I. are believable and immersive.

...

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Terraforming Mars

Steam recently released a digital version of the board game Terraforming Mars. I haven't played the digital version (which is getting "mixed" and negative reviews at the time of this writing), but I have played the board game version. It's pretty fun, and in celebration of the latest NASA probe landing on the surface of Mars, I thought I'd launch a review of the board game.

Terraforming Mars has a wide variety of gameplay mechanics, which makes it kind of difficult to clearly categorize it. It also makes it a little difficult to teach the game to new players efficiently. It's not an overly-complicated game, however. It's just a lot of different concepts that you have to explain. Regardless, I've been able to get through learning games with new players in about three or three-and-a-half hours (including the rules explanation). So it's not overly burdensome to learn and play. It's also not terribly hard to simply play a sample round to teach the game flow, and then mulligan the game if any players feel they dug themselves into a hole.

Terraforming Mars has multiple distinct mechanics, ranging from tableau-building to tile-placement.

There's tile placement with adjacency bonuses. There's resource management. There's action economy. There's a little bit of tableau building and hand management. There's even a certain degree of bluffing. Playing with the non-basic corporations adds variable player powers, You can even optionally play with card drafting! Pretty much the only thing that we're not doing is loyalty / betrayal mechanics. Despite including so many varying game mechanics, nothing feels out of place, and everything fits together well.

The rulebook includes footnotes explaining the scientific basis for the rules and mechanics.

Depending on how you play, however, the actual game board and your tableau of cards can sometimes feel very disparate. If you're not actively placing tiles on the board, then the whole board can pretty much boil down to a score and prerequisite tracker. However, if you're avoiding placing tiles on the board, then you're probably going to lose, as I've yet to see a predominantly card-based strategy win the game.

The board itself includes a map of Mars' surface, and has notable landmarks on Mars clearly labeled. Unfortunately, the board only covers one half of Mars' surface, so there's some notable landmarks that are not included at all (perhaps the other side of the planet is an expansion?). The resource cubes are very shiny and pretty, and have an appropriately sci-fi aesthetic to them. The rulebook also includes little footnotes that explain some of the scientific bases for the game's rules and mechanics. it's like the kind of thing you might expect if Neil DeGrasse Tyson wrote a board game. Science and space nerds will probably really appreciate these efforts at scientific accuracy.

The resource cubes are pretty, but shift around very easily on the flimsy, card stock economy boards.

Other components besides the resource cubes are kind of cheap and flimsy though. The player economy boards are printed out on basic card stock. There aren't any slots or grooves for the production cubes to sit in, so they slide around very easily if the table is jostled, or if the economy board is shifted around. You may want to invest in some third-party replacements or overlays in order to solve this problem.

The box also doesn't have any inserts of any kind for storing components -- just a handful of plastic, zip-lock bags. They expect you to just drop all the cards in a plastic baggie and just toss them in the box haphazardly along with all the other pieces!

At a price point of $70 (USD), I expect more from a game's components! Fortunately, where the game lacks in production value, it more than makes up for in entertainment value!

...

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After reading through my complaints regarding the shrinking scale of the Star Wars film universe, a colleague of mine asked me to preview a novel that he was writing. He also grew up as a Trekker, and he sorely misses the optimistic science fiction that Star Trek represents, as well as the attention to technical and scientific accuracy that is sadly lacking in much of today's science fiction. Popular "science fiction" of today frequently focuses on special effect spectacle to the exclusion of cerebral or thoughtful stories and concepts, but there are still plenty of indie writers and film makers who try to offer more substance over pomp.

In his debut novel, Without Gravity, author David Pax explores an optimistic distant future in which humanity has spread across the stars, living in harmony with our technology and the worlds that we inhabit. It's not a vision of the future without conflict, however. Planet-bound humans are drawn into periodic conflict with a divergent culture of human "Spacers" who spend their entire lives within the confines of their zero-gravity space ships, making them virtually aliens to the rest of humanity.

When the Spacers launch a surprise attack on the mineral-rich frontier world of Tirimba, the citizens must take shelter within the cavernous mines and prevent the Spacers from acquiring the valuable resources that would allow them to build new ships and threaten the heart of human civilization. The Spacers aren't the only threat, as the citizens of Tirimba must also deal with one colleague who's selfish greed puts the entire war effort at risk.

Pax's vision of the future may be exotic, but it's also very grounded. The conflict is one of resources and logistics, as Pax pays diligent respect to the vast scale and distances of intergalactic conflict, and puts strict limits on the capabilities of the warships and technologies. Tirimba is remote, and is only a small piece of a larger conflict that happens mostly beyond the awareness and comprehension of the civilian refugees who remain stranded on the planet. This remoteness creates drama and maintains mystery and intrigue regarding the conflict. The story, after all, focuses on the civilians, and the personal cost that they pay, rather than on the military.

The novel itself is fairly short and a relatively light and easy read. Despite his engineering background and attempts to describe and develop the technologies and society that he has imagined, Pax doesn't drag the novel's pace down with unnecessary techno-babble. You don't need an engineering degree to follow along or understand.

Pax also writes short stories and maintains a blog. He's a friend and colleague of mine, and we share many common interests and perspectives. If you enjoy reading my ramblings, then I invite you to visit his site as well, and to support him and other indie authors who are trying to keep the spirit of science fiction alive.

If you do decide to purchase Without Gravity, use the promo code MEGABEARSFAN at checkout to receive a discount.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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Without Gravity

And check out my colleague, David Pax's novel Without Gravity on his website!

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