Here's my attempt at summarizing the game's backstory and plot, in hopes of making sense of the thing.
MAXIMUM SPOILERS FOLLOW, DO NOT READ IF YOU'RE NOT READY!
The Beginning[edit | edit source]
The whole thing starts some 281,000 years ago, when a clan of the Nomai, aboard their mothership, The Vessel, detects a signal from space. It is supposedly eye-shaped and older than the universe itself. They name the signal's source the Eye of the Universe.
Worried that the signal might disappear, the clan leader orders immediate warp to near the signal's source. Unfortunately, the mothership lands in or next to Dark Bramble, and is immediately attacked and torn apart by the vines. The Nomai onboard are forced to evacuate using escape pods. One lands on Brittle Hollow, one on Ember Twin, and one fails to escape Dark Bramble.
The surviving groups quickly discover that the surface of the planet they're on is too dangerous, and flee underground. They construct safe colonies and eventually stabilize enough to regroup, establish bases on all the planets and resume the search for the Eye.
First, they build a small detector on the north pole of Timber Hearth, but it fails to detect the Eye's signal. They then construct a large observatory on the north pole of Brittle Hollow, but that one too fails to find any traces of the signal, and they decide to abandon this approach.
At some point during all this, they create the warp tower at White Hole Station to let people who fell through Brittle Hollow's black hole to quickly return back. They then realize that according to measurements, people are arriving 0.0001s earlier than departing. They research this at the High Energy Lab on Ember Twin, and discover that warping from a black hole to a paired white hole indeed results in time travel. They also find that the time difference can be increased by feeding more energy into the system, however the power demand grows exponentially.
Having this new technology, they develop an extreme plan to locate the Eye: Fire a probe in a random direction, let it fly for a set time, relay its findings to the probe tracking module, and then send that information to the tracking module in the past. With this time construct, if the source of the signal can be found, it will be found, and the answer will be known instantly. If not, it will keep searching forever until stopped. The statues and masks are built to facilitate this time link, and provisions are made for Nomai to control it. To achieve time travel, they need incredible amounts of energy, which they intend to produce by making the sun go supernova and capturing that burst of energy via solar panels.
The Ash Twin Project[edit | edit source]
And so the Ash Twin Project goes underway:
The Ash Twin and its core become the project's hub.
The Ash Twin's core is enclosed in a protective shell made of metal mined from Timber Hearth. This allows the core to endure the supernova, receive energy while it is happening, and then perform the time warp before the shell shatters. (It is also an interesting place to be at to observe the end of the time loop.)
Warp cores are manufactured at the Forge on Brittle Hollow - one advanced warp core for the Ash Twin time warp system, six black for warp towers on Ash Twin, and six white for warp receivers on the corresponding destinations. (Some more are made for the Gravity Cannons and Shuttles, and yet more are in the Ember Twin Energy Lab's warp experiment room). Since warp receivers stay active after a warp and allow for a single return trip, this provided sufficient means of two-way travel and accelerated the transfer of resources required to complete the project.
Eight statues and masks are built in the Statue Workshop on Giant's Deep. The statues are installed on various Nomai sites. When activated, they pair with whomever's nearest. The masks are installed in the Ash Twin core. Each stores the paired person's memories and relays them back in time at the end of each loop. The statues automatically activate once the signal is found, or in case of a hardware malfunction (see writing in Statue Workshop). The Nomai can apparently also activate them manually ("We can stop it anytime we want").
The Sun Station is built and put into orbit close to the sun. Equipped with an experimental doomsday device that's meant to make the sun go supernova on-demand.
A probe launching station is built on Giant's Deep and lifted into space via a tornado. Its Probe Tracking Module is integrated with one of the masks and plays a key part in the time loop. It keeps track of all the probe attempts, and if the Eye of the Universe is been found, signals to the Ash Twin Project to activate the statues, so that the Nomai can end the loop and review the results.
The Doom[edit | edit source]
The Sun Station device failed to get any reaction from the sun. The Nomai didn't know how to fix it, and put the project on hold. At that point, by sheer coincidence, they detected a foreign comet (The Interloper) approaching the solar system, emitting an uknown signal. They decided to take a break from the Eye stuff and sent out a shuttle with 3 Nomai crew to investigate the comet. They traced the signal to inside the comet. Two of the Nomai went underground through an opening in the ice, while the third stayed in the shuttle. The two eventually reached the center, a large cavern with a sphere containing a super-dense cocentration of Ghost Matter.
At this point they didn't know what it was, but could tell that it was deadly to the touch. What's worse, the shell was unstable and likely to rupture once the comet got near enough to the sun's gravity field. One stated that the explosion would instantly blanket the entire solar system with the matter, and that they need to immediately warn the others. The other decided to stay and investigate further.
By this point it's too late. The shell ruptures just moments after the conversation. The first Nomai's body is left floating in the middle of the central cavern while the other is on the ground just outside of the cavern with crystals on their spacesuit. The Nomai that stayed in the shuttle was insulated from the blast of Ghost Matter and kept waiting for them. (There is no body in the shuttle. Where is it?). In the meantime, the entire solar system gets covered in Ghost Matter, and all life is extinguished instantly. This would explain why there are Nomai bodies all over, even in places that are clearly safe. If any Nomai survived the event, they probably died due to exposure or from not being able to go anyhwere. The underwater hot springs of Timber Hearth were apparently not affected (maybe Ghost Matter can't get in water), allowing the primordial Hearthians to continue evolving. After many thousands of years, most of the Ghost Matter slowly evaporated and made the surface habitable again.
The Present[edit | edit source]
It is now 281,042 years later and it's the end of the universe. All the stars will explode within the same 20-minute period and the sky will go completely black. The Nomai needed a supernova, but couldn't produce one on their own. They even joked about waiting for it to happen naturally in one of their writings. Well, here it is. All the equipment is still in place and intact (somehow), and was never shut down because the Nomai got instantly wiped out, right after setting everything up.
On the first loop, the dormant Sun Station detects the sign that the sun will soon explode, and signals the dormant Ash Twin Project to begin. The probe cannon fires in a random direction, the results are recorded and sent back in time. This cycle repeats until probe 9354 succeeds at locating the Eye. This is the probe that the player wakes up to at the start of a new game. The detection happens while the player is in the Timber Hearth museum getting the launch codes (note: see first plot hole below). The now active statue at the entrance links with the player, and the game begins for real.
The Game[edit | edit source]
The player has 22 minutes to explore and make progress in understanding what the main objective is and how to accomplish it. Then, in a single run, the player has to:
- Go to the sunken Probe Tracking Module on Giant's Deep to get the warp code for the Vessel. (optional: code is always the same)
- Go to the Quantum Moon's 6th location to meet Solanum. (optional: enhances ending sequence)
- Go to the Ash Twin Core after enough sand drains to get the Advanced Warp Core.
- Go to the Vessel's warp chamber in Dark Bramble and replace the core.
- Bring up the long-range warp console and input the warp coordinates.
- Enter the warp portal and complete the endgame sequence.
Plot Holes[edit | edit source]
Eye detection happens by the probe that launches when you first wake up. Exact detection time is sometime between when you enter and leave the museum, based on when the statue become active. Ordinarily, this will happen after 15 minutes of play time if the player first talks to everyone, trains, and explores the museum. If speedrunning, however, this can be as early as 1m30s. It's also possible to be at the Probe Tracking Module within 6 minutes, and get visual confirmation that this winning probe is really just at 1/4 of its expected flight path. And the mere fact that the statue activation time is locked to the moment you pick up the codes is problematic - clearly, here the world consistency was sacrificed for intro narrative reasons.
Further complicating the 1st loop's timeline is the fact that Gabbro's flute can be heard from Giant's Deep constantly, since the first second, throughout the entire tutorial, and before/after the statue sequence. This contradicts the timeline established by dialogue and plot points. Similarly, music from all locations can still be heard even after all the planets have been consumed by the supernova. I assume this is just a technical oversight or limitation of the game engine.
The Nomai statues can perform remote memory transfer to and from sentient beings. They can do it "anywhere in the solar system", it is compatible across alien species and it also works on electronic devices. This miraculous piece of technology is casually brought up at times but never elaborated upon.
Hal remarks that they integrated a piece of a broken Nomai statue from the Hourglass Twins into the ship's computer. They're aware that it is able to store information, but don't say anything more. This explains how the computer's data persists across time loops - it also has an active link. There are however multiple issues with this, like how did they manage to actually make it work at all. A more pressing question is why are there still only 3 reported active links, but 4 beings/devices being saved? I originally thought that the piece is from 'your' statue and thus somehow shares the same link as you, but this is not the case.
And finally, the big one - how come the the Nomai were so set on that '22 minute' time interval? From tests, they knew exactly how much power is needed to produce a 22-minute time warp, and from space observations they probably know exactly how much energy they can get out of a supernova before the solar panels and core's shell is destroyed. So they may decided on 22 minutes as a safe target to design for. But there is one glaring problem - for the whole thing to work without killing everyone, the moment they shoot the sun with the doomsday device at Sun Station has to still be within the 22-minute interval, so that the shooting can be aborted once the search is complete. If the sun takes longer than that to go supernova, the process can no longer be undone and everyone in the solar system is doomed. Yet all they had was an untested prototype that didn't even work. So if they couldn't even get that right, how come they were so sure about the Time-To-Supernova? If the TTS was longer, they'd have no way to stop it. If the TTS was way shorter, the probes wouldn't have enough time to fly a meaningful distance. Everything indicates that they knew and scheduled the sequence of actions accordingly.
Final Notes[edit | edit source]
I can't wait for searching "outer wilds plot summary" to actually give results. I still have many unanswered questions because a lot is left unsaid.