In about any other circumstance, I’d find it loathsome to be doing a work assignment at 1 a.m. at night, but last Sunday, July 19, it was almost something of an adventure. Throughout that evening, I’d been watching the sky, and for a time, it seemed I’d fall asleep under an overcast blanket. Fortunately, the clouds began to clear between 10 and 11 p.m., and so I piled into my car, tripod and camera in tow, to capture our stellar visitor, comet NEOWISE, whose photos featured prominently in last week’s edition.
The inky darkness of space has been my preoccupation recently, as it’s featured in much of the media I’ve been consuming. Namely, I recently completed the video game, “The Outer Wilds,” and it put me in the mood for one of my favorite musical albums, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful,” by the Finnish metal band Nightwish. Both the game and album were on my mind as I gazed up at the brilliant streak that was NEOWISE that early Sunday morning.
For those out of the loop of the indie video game scene, “The Outer Wilds” was a critical darling released last year. It’s a non-violent, exploratory game where you take on the role of an alien astronaut, armed with only a spaceship, camera and translation device, and you are tasked with investigating the ruins of an ancient civilization scattered throughout your sun’s small solar system. Your investigation is repeatedly hampered, however, by the sun exploding, an event you survive only by virtue of being caught in a “Groundhog Day”-style time loop. Thus the game becomes a cycle of launching your ship and trying to use your 22-minute window to learn as much new information as possible before the Sun devours you.
“Endless Forms Most Beautiful,” on the other hand, is not about space specifically, but rather a celebration of science in general. The opening track, “Shudder Before the Beautiful,” begins with a quote from scientist Richard Dawkins, “The deepest solace lies in understanding, this ancient unseen stream, a shudder before the beautiful.” Throughout the track, the Earth is framed in a cosmic scale, “a vagrant island” among an “interstellar theater play,” and us humans on it, “voyagers.” Later songs, such as “My Walden,” “Alpenglow,” and the title track, focus on the beauty of both the natural world and Earth’s evolutionary history.
And where do this album and this game thematically intersect? I suppose it’s in looking at life from a cosmic perspective: something temporary and minuscule in comparison to the immeasurable infinity of space, but all the more amazing because it thrives in that space and strives to understand it. In “The Outer Wilds,” your stellar neighbors are long dead, caught in an extinction event, and there’s nothing you can do to save them. But you can learn from them, and, like you, it’s clear they were curious and thoughtful, driven to make sense of the swirling chaos of stars and rocks around them.
Of course, the game also suggests that you, like the civilization you excavate, are ephemeral. Every 21 minutes, a somber tune begins to play, and less than a minute later, you face the specter of death, before being thrown, paradoxically, back to the start of your investigation. But “The Outer Wilds” isn’t necessarily nihilistic, or it’s at least optimistic in its nihilism. “The deepest solace lies in understanding,” Dawkins says, and that understanding is at the heart of “The Outer Wilds.” Throughout your exploration, you can meet and talk with other explorers, and the ancient scholars you meet in through their long-forgotten writings become characters in their own right.
Through meeting this cast of characters, there’s an “understanding” to be found, and “a solace” of sorts. “The Outer Wilds” does have an ending. To lightly spoil it, you aren’t going to ever escape the sun’s supernova (true enough for our own planet, though none of us will live to see it); however, you can take millennia of lost research and work it through to its final result.
In Nightwish’s “Alpenglow,” the chorus repeatedly states “We were here.” And that’s not far off from the final lesson of “The Outer Wilds.” We were here. Civilizations may fade away. Their collective knowledge may burn away in one last fiery gasp of the sun. And some day, that’s what we’ll be too: another chapter in the ancestral history book, posthumously declaring our existence. But we were here, nonetheless.
And we were there, out on the Malmo dock on the first hour of July 19. I never learned any of my companions’ names. The three of them rolled up in a golf cart at about 12:30 a.m., as I was setting up my camera. They were there to see the comet, they told me, away from the city lights. Seeing NEOWISE is a once in a lifetime opportunity, as it won’t be back for another 6,800 years, long after the world as we know it has slipped into the ancient past.
We were there, the four us, looking up at the interstellar theater play before, shuddering before the beautiful.
Evan Orbeck is a Messenger staff writer.