Skip to main content
A cartoon depiction of the author, wearing a hoodie and smiling

Bystander at the End

This is an extremely February-ass post. I'm in full-on doomer mode these days. You have been warned.

I had the pleasure of watching Leon stream some more of Outer Wilds, one of my favorite games, during my lunch break today. I don't want to spoil too much of the game if you've never played it, because you really should play it or watch someone play it (it unfortunately does require a significant amount of complicated navigation in 3D space). But to say something concisely that may obliquely spoil your first half-hour of the game: it is a game about the end of times. And it's sad, a huge bummer, but it's beautiful too, and I appreciate that.

There's not a lot of beauty innate to what I'm witnessing happen in the world at large right now, but while thinking about the doom part of Outer Wilds, it surprised me a bit to see a bit of a transcript from a podcast discussion between Ezra Klein and Zeynep Tufekci about COVID-19 come across my Twitter feed just shortly after watching the stream. The text reads:

If the world was vaccinated, if people for whom vaccines didn't work as well had immediate access to functioning antivirals that were really effective, maybe we could develop antivirals for other things too. And then we had airborne mitigation so that the burden from influenza and other diseases also fell.

It's amazing. You're not just getting rid of the pandemic part. You're also preparing yourself for a much better future. And here's the part that always gets me. We are in such a wealthy moment in history, and our science and our technology is so advanced, relatively speaking, obviously, is that there is nothing but getting over our dysfunction that's holding us back.

If you're in 19th century, and you're just puzzling over yellow fever, and you don't even have germ theory, and you don't understand mosquito vectors— it's hard. It's really hard. I read those histories, and I'm kind of going, it's the mosquito. I want to give them clues, but they're looking around, and they — of course, it's hard. They can't do it.

It's almost eerie to read, because in a lot of ways, the first experience of Outer Wilds is a hopeful one. You don't know how it ends, you don't know what the possibility space is. Leon was saying some stuff about his hunches of how the game would unfold that to me sounded hilarious and wild and interesting, but that I knew were totally incorrect. Watching someone else play the game after I've spent ~50 hours in its world, exploring its boundaries—he's the 19th century scientist, and I'm the journalist reading about it in 2022.

There are a lot of reasons why I don't believe there'll be someone reading these words in the 23rd century, dying to tell me what the silver bullet to our problems are. I hope there is! And if so, I hope you can emulate a copy of Outer Wilds on whatever technology it is you have, and you play it, and I wonder in what ways it'd resonate with you.