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I didn’t get my son’s favourite video game – but it got me | Games

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About a year ago I tried to bond with my 17-year-old over Sea of Thieves. It did not work. Since then, he has harangued me about trying Outer Wilds, which he claims is the most profound gameplaying experience of his life. I have delayed to Hamletesque degrees: what will I do if another of his favourite games doesn’t connect with me? Would that mean I can no longer connect with my son?

As I discovered last month, it can sometimes be a struggle playing games in your 50s, and dropping down the difficulty can reduce the stress and help me enjoy myself more. But what if I’m losing the patience and mental forbearance required to really get some games now? Gaming subscription services don’t help with this. We have access to so many titles, it is easy to dismiss them too quickly because of the Netflixication of our brains. Too much choice has gifted us with the discernment of a drunk in a kebab shop. If I’m not in the right frame of mind, it doesn’t matter how good the game is – I’ll stop playing after 10 minutes. And this is why I have delayed playing Outer Wilds. It is a very special game to my son, Charlie. And I don’t want to disappoint him again.

Finally, I decide to get on with it, because he will be off to college soon and our bonding days are limited. I wandered around a little village preparing to launch a spaceship. As training levels go, it had wit and weirdness. After learning the ropes, I took off, selected the planet destination, hit autopilot … and crashed. Immediately. Into the observatory I’d just taken off from. I couldn’t reach my ship to repair it, so I summoned my son for help.

Something to do with an ancient grove … Outer Wilds. Photograph: Outer Wilds

“Wow, Dad,” he said. “It is almost impossible to crash your spaceship so soon after taking off and leave it in an unreachable position.”

“Bollocks to this game, son,” I declared.

“Stick with it. It’s amazing. Just go to the moon.”

So, I went to the moon. Some cool stuff happened. I won’t give any spoilers away. But then I tried to run and jump on the moon. And fire up my jetpack. And I ended up dead, sucked into the sun. So I stormed off.

“Sorry son, I can’t play this game. It’s not meant to be.”

“Dad, this game is life-changing! Try again tomorrow.”

The next day, work stress had made me grumpy. I couldn’t remember the controls or what I was supposed to be doing. I ended up pointlessly floating around, lost in space. My son appeared, triggered by my suppressed sobs.

“Go to the ship’s log, Dad.”

I did so.

“Maybe if you hover over one of those question marks it will tell you what to do.”

Smart arse.

“OK, son, so should I go to the south pole of Brittle Hollow and investigate what the aliens may have been building there?”

“You could do that,” he says, and disappears in a cloud of cologne.

So, I do. Just to show I am not intimidated by an 18-year-old’s attempts at enigma.

I head for what I think is the south pole, fall through a chasm in the middle of the planet and get spat out the other end. There are fragments of stuff that look like I should move towards, but I can’t control my space suit to get near them. Charlie helps me out again.

“This is weird, Dad,” he says. “Did you change the controls?”

“No! I went into the menu to remind myself of the controls, but I didn’t change them.”

Charlie goes into the menu section. I have indeed changed the controls. Unknowingly and accidentally. Charlie looks at me and sighs.

“It’s not often somebody messes up because they change the controls of the whole game. This is an entirely new situation to me, Dad.”

Screenshot of Outer Wilds of a robot playing a banjo by a camp fire
The most profound game I’ve played, badly … Outer Wilds. Photograph: Mobius Digital/Annapurna Interactive

That is it for me. “OK, son just tell me. What is so life-changing about this thing?”

And he sits and tells me: it’s a story of supernovae and time loops, orbs and musical harmony, probes and sun stations, dark matter, and warp cores. It’s a tale of quantum this and collapsing that and universes dying and something to do with an ancient grove and how “the future’s always built upon the past even though we don’t get to see it”. I am utterly hypnotised by the words coming out of my son’s mouth. I still don’t have a clue what the game is about, but that’s not important. What’s important is that he does. This game has expanded his mind.

I watch my son grow before me. I see how enormous his mind is now as he enters adulthood. And games have played a part in that. This game in particular. As fathers we are used to seeing our sons grow physically stronger than us over time – but I now see my son surpassing my ability to imagine. I am sad that my middle-aged mind has lost that capability, but I’m so proud of what his brain can do and will go on to do. And in this way Outer Wilds becomes the most profound game I have ever played. Even if I technically failed at everything in it.

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