Spoilers for the Echoes of the Eye DLC and main game of Outer Wilds
It’s clear from the outset that the Stranger is haunted. Small crops of slowly decaying wooden buildings are fitted with paintings and signs pointing to the culture that once lived there. Pictures of groups of beings photographed like early 20th century people hang in the empty structures. The problem is there are no signs of life, no expired food, burial grounds or corpses that would signify what happened to the population there. It’s immediately eerie, a space version of an old pioneer ghost town. The farther you probe into the mysteries of the game the more you realize how literally haunted the Stranger is. The Stranger’s inhabitants wander around a dream world, isolated in a prison of their own making. And much like a traditional ghost story you are trespassing are their domain. They don’t know who you are but they know that you are unwelcome. The DLC has been likened to horror games or at least a more horror-oriented approach than the base game. In a lot of ways it is, tasking you with completing puzzles while trying to avoid enemies in the dark. The enemies themselves aren’t trying to kill you however and your mission is ultimately one of connection with the ghostly figures of the Stranger.
Both Emily and I are not horror fans (I at least am much too chicken) so we were very cautious about playing Echoes of the Eye. We couldn’t not play it, we had such an amazing time doing our original Let’s Play! But at the same time we found the Stranger to be very spooky. I was also going into this Let’s Play completely blind (I had played the base game before we recorded the corresponding Let’s Play) so I had no idea what potential horror moments lay ahead. The new “Reduced Frights” option also gave us some pause, what would we possibly need that for? I think the option is a good addition though, any accessibility improvements to help players through the story is great to include. The DLC is perfectly calibrated to build dread. The music is eerie and the usual orchestral swell that accompanied new and strange information is switched out for dreary and downbeat folk music. The new lantern mechanic played on a big fear; moving around in the dark. Entering the Dream and having it be the dark of night made navigating it creepy. Who knows what lay around the corner! Where could I find the next candle to help me see ahead? The woodsy aesthetic of the Dream evokes dread similarly to the way Twin Peaks depicts being lost in the trees. What horrors lurk behind the trees? It plays on your imagination to build an anticipation that something could happen to you.
The DLC however isn’t as scary as it initially appears. The jump scare moments when trying to navigate past the Strangers inhabitants to get to an important vault of secrets aren’t quite the horror fueled moments that we had originally imagined. They are undead beings in a sense but inside the Dream they appear as just living beings. There were no monsters or terrifying creatures on the Stranger, only the digital consciousness of misguided people. The way the base game approaches meeting new species helps punctuate some of the fear. When you meet Solanum the Nomai on the Quantum Moon, it’s an exciting moment. You get to exchange information and learn more about this ancient civilization that you’ve been learning about. It was a moment of joy and excitement! So hilariously we approached meeting the new aliens with the same level of excitement. Running across the Shrouded Woodlands Dream area to meet the Stranger Inhabitant was a cool moment for us until they picked us up and blew out our light. Our naivety with how our interaction would go really helped punctuate any fear we had around them. We never had any to begin with because we wanted to meet them! Understandably they wanted nothing to do with us and took actions to remove us from the Dream. We interact with them as different beings and there’s no body horror or supremely scary features to make that unpleasant. We are trespassers, always have been, and we are working to uncover their deep and regretful secrets. Of course they want to protect it and remove us. It’s very in line with traditional ghost stories; hauntings are used to scare what ghosts see as trespassers out of their domain. Haunted houses contain the stories of how the ghosts met their end and the unfinished business that keeps them around. The Stranger’s inhabitants are no different, haunting the dream and preventing anyone from seeing their failure in following the Eye of the Universe. This understanding and their lack of demonic appearance prevents them from ever being seen as horrifying. It only adds to the tragedy that we can interact with them as individuals. That’s not to say we didn’t react to the jump scares, it’s surprising when you accidentally bump into them in the dark! The violin strings that accompany the sneaking in the dark moments also heighten the tension. Those moments though felt more like playing hide and go seek or the feeling when you accidentally round a corner and almost hit someone. You’re scared for a moment but quickly level out.
That’s not a bad thing though! It made me understand better how traditional horror is laid out in a way that was safe for a horror scaredy cat like me to engage with. Once the fear had dropped away I could see the mechanics of how they produced the anxiety in me and the thematic reasons that the horror existed. Realizing what the haunting actually meant retroactively helped me understand ghost stories. That new framing for the DLC, the more haunted house approach, is a bit of why I’m not as enamored with it as I was with the base game. That’s probably an impossible task; Outer Wilds as a full experience is absolutely incredible. The awe of experiencing the planets’ natural rhythms (Giant’s Deeps’ tornadoes, the corroding surface of Brittle Hollow) matched with the fear of landing and exploring an unfamiliar locale can probably never be bested. It makes sense then that Echoes of the Eye tries a different tact with a smaller condensed location nestled into the wider map of Outer Wilds. It preys on more everyday fears; fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of a creature attack. It’s effective at provoking horror but it’s not as impactful as the fear of being a miniscule object in a large universe. The more traditional horror isn’t as unique as having the ground drop out under you unexpectedly and falling into a black hole or entering a giant cavern for the first time. Echoes of the Eye is more in line with the anglerfish on Dark Bramble; definitely scary but in the more horror movie oriented approach. It’s not quite the vibe I come to Outer Wilds for; I wasn’t awed or humbled by the vastness of the natural world.
I’m more than happy to report that the story and mysteries are really engaging. Exploring and following clues around the Stranger was very engaging even though the details are spread out more sparsely than before. The DLC relies more on you self navigating around the spaceship rather than laying out a more set path like the written messages did in the base game. We spent the majority of our playthrough having no idea what to expect but the sudden rush of figuring out one minor solution always hit. Echoes of the Eye doesn’t spell things out for you instead leaving you to interpret images. That meant that we could see a puzzle solution but not entirely understand what it meant. We see going through the door, but how do we turn off the lights? Figuring that last part out was always satisfying and usually netted us some exciting new information. There are some truly exciting puzzle reveals. I was blown away when we found out that we could navigate around the Dream and see the code like we were in the Matrix (I really wanted to title that episode “I know Kung Fu” but decided it might give too much away). The final puzzle solution of dying was genius and plays with the game’s usual idea of failure. Instead of trying to avoid death which would restart the loop, you have to die to finish the game.
The story of the Stranger and its inhabitants is a piece with the rest of the game telling the story of a different alien civilization who also chased the Eye. They too were blinded by their ambitions but with much larger clarity than the Nomai had. The Nomai essentially turned lemons into lemonade establishing a home within this new solar system they were stuck in. They attempted to live in relative harmony with its ecosystem and used nature to their advantage. Their biggest and selfish reach luckily didn’t come to fruition; they were never able to cause a supernova. Instead they were unceremoniously wiped out when a stray comet exploded with ghost matter. The Stranger’s inhabitants by contrast were the architects of their own destruction and by proxy the Nomai’s. They destroyed their home planet in their zealous pursuit of the Eye. That piece adds to the uncanny environs on the Stranger, a replication of nature produced by the destruction of it. While the Nomai also chased and studied the Eye with near religious ferocity, the Stranger’s inhabitants worshipped the Eye. The churches and Eye symbols show their devotion to a godlike natural phenomenon. When they find that the Eye foretells their destruction, they can’t accept their failure and the consequences of their pilgrimage. Their covering of the Eye betrays their refusal to face their actions and they choose instead to live out their existence as ghosts within the Dream. It’s what makes your eventual meeting with the Prisoner so tragic. They were the one being who pushed for reckoning with their mistake and were summarily locked up for hundreds of years. They are left alone for an unending existence at the bottom of the cage. Their cry when you reveal the physical state of the Stranger shows their anguish over how far things have degraded. The final vision of you and them in a boat is a peaceful and tragic resolution to their long sentence.
I’m really glad we played through this and even revisited the original ending. It’s a really special addition that tries telling a different story but still fits right along with the world of Outer Wilds. You can find our full playthrough on YouTube now along with our full thoughts on the game in our final episode: