To Seek Out And Understand: Navigating Outer Wilds After Cancer

Warning: Major spoilers for Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds below.

Outer Wilds opens in much the same way as a typical day: wake up.

Coincidentally, that is what I kept begging of myself for pretty much the entirety of 2021: this is a nightmare, you are in a nightmare. Wake up.

There are very few certainties when you get a cancer diagnosis, other than the certainty that you will be lost, you will be in freefall, and there won’t be enough oxygen to fill your lungs. The same can be said of the core experience playing Outer Wilds.

I could go on and on about the similarities between the two experiences, but that doesn’t ultimately tell you what Outer Wilds is about, and it also doesn’t tell you what it’s like living with cancer. In the end, I’m not sure there is a way to describe either of these experiences without living them. Despite surface appearances, a game like Outer Wilds is more than just a series of puzzles to entertain and escape reality. It’s a practice in patience, reflection, failure, and acceptance – in no particular order. It’s about how these qualities inform who you are as a gamer, as a person, as a living being in tune with the universe.

Astronaut Riebeck playing the banjo at a campfire.
Riebeck’s strumming beneath Brittle Hollow is a small comfort amidst the crumbling biosphere.

Outer Wilds takes place in a small and volatile solar system, where you take on the role of an alien space explorer belonging to the Hearthian race. Hearthians have recently developed space flight, and you are their newest astronaut. Thus, you take off to explore your solar system and uncover the mystery of what happened to the Nomai, an ancient yet advanced alien civilization that was mysteriously wiped out. The uncovering of this mystery becomes complicated by the fact that you find yourself trapped in a time loop, reliving the final 22 minutes before the sun goes supernova and destroys the entire solar system. So, no pressure, right?

I got the nudge to play Outer Wilds about 6 months after I’d finished chemotherapy. That sounds far enough removed; but in my head, the battle still raged; there was no concept of how much time had passed. Everyone around me saw what was on the surface; my hair was growing back, I’d returned to work, the strength was returning to my body and I was able to do basic tasks again. For them, I wasn’t sick anymore, and they needed that to be true. So did I. Yet, nobody prepares you for the mental hurdles you face in the aftermath; when you look in the mirror and see scars, dark rimmed eyes, a pale scalp. They want it to be over, and you find yourself pretending it is. Because maybe if you pretend long enough, it will be over. The scars will disappear. Your hair will grow back. You will wake up.

To wake up demands a pilgrimage. It just so happened that mine came in the form of Outer Wilds, and that tiny, volatile solar system at the end of the universe. I spent many of those early loops aimlessly exploring a solar system I hardly understood; a planet falling apart into itself, another made up entirely of massive water cyclones, and another still infested with massive, carnivorous fish. It felt like some giant fog of obstacles without an endpoint. Over and over again, I found myself staring into the maw of a supernova, vaporized, and awakening under the light of a campfire without a scratch. Yet, I was burdened with the knowledge of what came before, and what would soon come again. Your fellow Hearthians are unaware of the time loop, and so you carry the burden of knowledge alone. What do you do with this knowledge? With this scant 22 minutes in a crumbling solar system, with nothing but your ship, your log, and a signalscope to guide you? Where does the burden of knowledge lead you?

Characters playing instruments around a campfire.
The end of one universe gives life to the next.

I was diagnosed after a 13 hour wait in a crowded emergency room at the peak of the COVID pandemic. The physician who told me couldn’t have been much older than me, but the trauma of the pandemic had worn into the lines of her face, weathered her. She said “this is consistent with cancer,” and much like my Hearthian, the burden of knowledge became mine. And I’d have given anything not to know it.

In the span of those 30 seconds between when she walked into the room and when she said those words, there existed innumerable possibilities. It inspires awe, simply to know that an infinite number of possibilities can and do exist, in a single moment, before they inevitably collapse. This is all we know for certain and if I reflect on it too long, if I think about all of the ways this could have gone. Thinking of how many ways this cancer could have, should have, burned itself into my being, I become overwhelmed. So what was there to do, other than submit to the eight hour surgery, the two months of physical recovery, the six months of chemotherapy that made my bones burn, and the countless days and nights I spent on the floor of the bathroom begging for it all to end? There was nothing but the fog, the aimless wandering, searching for something. Not knowing what it is, but knowing there’s something.

Back in Outer Wilds, I found myself floating above the core of Giant’s Deep, the water planet with its surface lined with cyclones. The water was dark, the current split into opposite directions. The core radiated electricity, but no matter how many times I made contact to enter, I was shocked and vaulted backward. All around me, giant orange jellyfish continued to sink into and rise out of the core without issue. They were the key, but no matter how many times I got close to the jellyfish, I was once again vaulted backwards with a blast of electricity. Time after time. Loop after loop. After nearly two hours of streaming, and throwing myself at various electrical currents, I rubbed the bridge of my nose, looked at my Twitch chat, and took a deep breath.

“I need help, guys.”

Outer Wilds Dark Bramble
It’s always okay to reach out for help.

There is no failure in asking for help. For reaching a hand out of the ring and tagging your partner in. When I realized I couldn’t physically or emotionally keep up the act anymore, the façade of courage in the midst of this disease, I asked for help. I didn’t have to be brave. I didn’t have to put on a tough face. I didn’t have to act like being bald and gaunt and exhausted was okay. It wasn’t. It never was. Having cancer is not a contest in courage. Every experience is different, and each is totally valid. Asking for help is not weakness, it’s not failure, it’s not cowardice. As a matter of fact, it’s the greatest display of courage in the face of the disease.

Because of the love and support of my friends and family, I made it to remission. Because of the love and support of my Hearthian friends, and on the backs of the Nomai who never got to see it, I found the Eye of the Universe. Every victory is built off a failure. I’m here because so many others couldn’t be, and I think of them every day. Every day I see that scar on my stomach, or feel the aches in my hands and my legs from the permanent arthritis thanks to chemotherapy. I remember that the advancement of medical innovation, of treatment, is possible because of so many that never got to live to see it.

When the credits rolled, the piano faded in, and the cello began to hum, I remembered this. I remembered all of this and cried. There is so much to be learned from the little Hearthian astronaut at the end of the universe, who carried the burden of knowledge, who threw themselves over and over again at every obstacle, to blaze the trail to the Eye that the Nomai gave their lives finding. The symbiosis of what came before, what is, and what will be.

I think that’s a pretty beautiful way to wake up these days.

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1 month ago

Beautiful! Thank you for sharing your experience. ::’)