Remember how cute and fun the Outer Wilds was? Aside from being a jaw-droppingly clever game, it somehow managed to make this tale of entropy and lost chances oddly adorable, pootling around in a spaceship held together with little more than duct tape and optimism, exploring planets barely a mile across and finding alien friends with banjos. It was a little toybox odyssey that nonetheless showed fantastic creativity and intelligence, all imbued with a little spark of hope that refused to die no matter how many anglerfish tried to eat it.
Well, things are different now. Very different. I'm a few hours into Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye, the first and supposedly only DLC planned for the game, and I've spent a lot of the experience feeling nervous and tense, anxiety roiling gently within me like acid reflux. Outer Wilds isn't scary now, but it is… uneasy. Something is deeply wrong in Timber Hearth's little system, and I can't help but love it and hate it at the same time.
To timidly shuffle where no man has shuffled before!
I'll admit right now that I haven't cracked the whole DLC yet. Puzzles being what they are in Outer Wilds, you usually spend the first few loops in an area being lost and confused until you're scrubbed off space by a supernova and forced to restart with fractionally more knowledge. I'm a little further than that point at time of writing, but what strikes me about Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye is the pervasive, poisonous dread that seems to dominate all of its storytelling.
It started ominously enough when the game threw a little notification at me suggesting that I might want to turn on a special fright-free mode that won't make me pee in my office chair. I don't know what it would've done to the game if I'd accepted, but either way, a big warning telling me that something is going to be scary only serves to make me more scared, Mobius. A little part of me suspects you know that.
I definitely wouldn't say that Echoes of the Eye is a proper horror experience, only that it's taken a few storytelling cues from horror experiences that have been used to inform this oppressive, shuddering tone. Rather than Youtube-friendly jumpscares and creepypasta atrocities, the Outer Wilds' DLC is more about implication and drawing contrasts with the main game, creating a constant sense of wrongness that gets under your skin and stays there. For that reason, there'll probably be some of you who don't get any apprehension about it at all, who don't see what the fuss is about. Weirdos.
To put it simply, you go into Echoes of the Eye knowing what to expect because of Outer Wilds. But when those expectations get subverted, it feels like the ground is slipping away from under your feet. It doesn't always feel good, but I promise you'll never be bored.
A very nervous system indeed
The main addition, narratively speaking, is that there's a new faction of aliens with their own technology and history. But unlike the chirpy Hearthians or thoughtful Nomai, these new visitors don't seem so nice, and everything about them feels… off. For one thing, their technology is darkly-coloured and uses light triggers for activation, so you have to keep turning off your flashlight in dark rooms. That never feels good. They might as well have powered their spaceship by the energy gained from putting spiders down people's shirts.
Not only that, but their architecture is a little too big for comfort; you feel like a child everywhere you go, with tabletops at your eye level and ceilings high above, yet the walls are tight enough to feel claustrophobic and you can rarely see very far ahead of you. I've learned to dread blind corners as a result. Anything could be just around that curving, creaking staircase. Christ, how is it that the guarantee of the sun exploding frightens me less than some musty old attic?
Later on, as you start to find pieces of documentation, and as your stomach begins to sink as a series of grim realisations hit home... I won't spoil any major details, but our new friends are not doing well. Their history is marked mainly in frozen pictures and slideshows rather than the wry office Slack messages left by Nomai, and the result is a disorentiating lurch of tone.
The newcomers' expressions are cold and inhuman in those dusty old photos, except when they twist into something much, much worse. The silent motion of slideshows is a creepy cousin of the found footage movie (and developer Mobius Digital is not above putting in the occasional piercing music sting to really highlight the dread in certain frames), and the deliberate attempts by these newcomer aliens to destroy their own historical records suggests far greater horrors than even what you've already located. After all, considering how bad the intact documents are, you're left to wonder what they were trying to hide – whatever it is, it definitely isn't good.
Again, none of this is quite horror – I wouldn't say I was ever properly scared, and I don't think I'm supposed to be – but I'm fascinated by just how long Echoes of the Eye kept me feeling unnerved without ever having to break the tension with a proper fright or more dynamic sequence.
It's a real credit to the storytelling. Outer Wilds wasn't above frightening or freaky moments, like the anglerfish or quantum shifting, but when you take a step back those just felt like aspects of an authentically wild universe. The anglerfish are just big animals who want to eat, at the end of the day. The quantum stuff is weird, but it's not actually a threat. But Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye shows us the last remnants of a sick society still with a lot of power, and thus succeeds in making space feel a little less friendly along the way.