It’s almost unbelievable to think about how much a rather janky-looking game from a niche Japanese developer has managed to change the gaming industry. Since its launch on the PlayStation 3, FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls has spawned a whole new subgenre in the industry – the ‘soulslike’ – and has effectively rewritten the language of games. Think back to those early days of the Xbox360/PlayStation 3 generation – to Bioshock and its giant yellow arrow guiding you through its levels – and look at where we are today. These days, games are proud to confound you, to offer up their deepest secrets only to the select few eagle-eyed players who try to go beyond the regular experience. Environmental storytelling is considered more vital than ever before – it’s not enough to weave your tales just with your characters and a number of set pieces anymore – the world itself has to bend to your narrative. Then, of course, we have the humble campfire. Or I guess I should say bonfire when talking about the Souls franchise. A staple of the video game industry, the fire took on a whole new life in the wake of FromSoftware’s games. Whereas the functionality of using them as save points or places to rest and recover has always been pretty similar, the dread that fills you as you meander through the worlds of Souls’ conjuring means that the campfire is now imbued with a palpable, real-life sense of relief. Thank goodness I don’t have to repeat that difficult stretch of enemies for the umpteenth time. In these dark, threatening lands where basically everything is trying to kill you (and doing a pretty good job of it) these fires are the only solace.
Outer Wilds, the seminal space exploration game released by Mobius Digital is another title that features the campfire, and they can serve a similar emotional purpose if not a mechanical one as those in the Souls games. Mobius Digital’s game sees you explore a dying solar system in an eternal loop as you try to understand its mysteries. The game boots up, and its title screen is there before you – soft guitar plays and the lone campfire burns on Timber Hearth as the game’s logo begins to break apart and gently float away. A feeling of gentle melancholy washes over you, and you press that button to begin your adventure. Your character awakes looking up at the cosmos, and then you look around you. A campfire and a friend await you. Marshmallows. You pick one up and you roast it over the fire, and you’re struck with this immediate sense of connection and relief that you’ve made it past the amorphous loneliness of the title screen. You pause here for a moment, soaking in the companionship, and then you’re off, out to explore the stars.
For the majority of your time in Outer Wilds, you’re alone as you explore abandoned ruins, crevices quickly filling with sand, planets with black holes at their core, and you begin to get used to it. It’s amazing how quickly you adjust to this new routine. Wake up, explore, die, repeat. An endless loop stretching out in front of you. But this largely silent world is punctuated with the odd signals of fellow travellers as they while away the hours in front of a campfire. Stumbling upon these campfires offers a moment of contact, a brief period of time to actually speak to another character. These moments are few and far between, which makes you, the player, cherish them all the more. Even more so as you remain the only known being in the solar system to remember previous loops. Encountering these friends is at once a relief and a weight on your chest – the relief of meeting someone else who could help you fit the pieces of the puzzle together, then that feeling of guilt knowing that their universe is going to explode in mere minutes. The campfire remains a place of connection, a place of shelter from the cold indifference of the planets around you.
Last year, the team at Mobius Digital released an expansion to Outer Wilds – Echoes of the Eye saw the arrival of a mysterious new object in the solar system and a whole new mystery to uncover. Echoes of the Eye is a somewhat more contained experience than the planet-spanning epic of Outer Wilds, and it offers a whole new perspective on those comforting campfires we’ve come to know so well over the years. Those little fires offering warmth and comfort, glowing orange beacons of connection and relief now burn cold green and welcome you into a world of unknowable darkness, inviting all kinds of horrors onto the player in their most vulnerable moments of sleep. It’s a brilliant inversion of what we’ve come to expect from campfires in the gaming world, and a great way to play with what is now coded into the language of video games. Campfire equals respite no longer. Welcome to the shadows, the darkness, the terror, and long for those beacons of the Souls games to return to you.
Both Outer Wilds and its expansion were widely praised by the gaming industry as something as yet unseen, something totally new, and I can’t help but feel that its the way that the titles play with gaming’s biggest tropes that has helped them become such a breath of fresh air in the industry. A space game with no combat, a time-limited slow-burn, an expansion in which fires bring no warmth. The Outer Wilds is a beautiful experience, one that shows us just how powerful the medium can be when we eschew the need to work our way down a checklist of gameplay features to include just because they are industry standard. As the indie scene continues to grow, it’s games like this that excite me and keep me coming back.