Outreach takes the narrative-focused space exploration of titles like Adr1ft and injects a hefty does of historical accuracy and an unshakable eeriness. Pixel Spill’s four-man team has been cranking away at the project for about two years, and during E3 last week I got to play the game's unnerving first 20 minutes.
“I love sci-fi. I watch Star Trek on my lunch breaks,” James Booth, producer and writer, said. “But something I wanted to do differently with Outreach, I wanted it to be steeped in the history of space travel rather than being alternate history or future.”
Outreach draws inspiration from the space race between the then-Soviet Union and the United States and how the Soviets beat the Americans by sending the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space. Chiefly, Outreach explores the “lost cosmonaut” conspiracy theory that alleges that prior to Gagarin, the Soviets secretly launched cosmonauts into space. However, all of them perished and the government covered up the mission. Additionally, espionage films such as The Hunt for Red October provided further influence.
Set in 1986, players control a lone Soviet cosmonaut (voiced by The Wolf Among Us’ Adam Harrington) sent in orbit to investigate a space station and determine the fate of its crew. Booth says that while Outreach plays off events from the 1960's, the game takes place a few decades later to allow for the existence of a full space station. Pixel Spill values historical accuracy above all else. Archival footage and historical designs were referenced during development. The composition was made using actual Soviet-era synthesizers, creating a soundtrack that captures the authentic sound of the period. There are no jetpacks – Soviet cosmonauts didn’t have them at the time – so players must push themselves off objects to move around.
“It’s literally set in 1986. All of the technology is era-specific.,” Booth explained. “The space station is based on pictures of the real thing. You can look at the two side by side and you probably couldn’t tell the difference apart from the fact that one’s a game.”
While Outreach can be classified as walking simulator sub-genre, Booth refers to it as a “floating simulator” due to the zero gravity exploration. The unique control scheme took a fair bit of trial and error for me to adapt to. One shoulder trigger pushes forward while the other halts movement. Moving the left analog stick spins your view. I bounced against the station like a pinball before I got comfortable enough to navigate the station somewhat competently. Although movement felt strange and mildly nauseating, it did a decent job of selling the sensation of being suspended in zero gravity.
You might think Outreach would be a perfect fit for VR. However, Booth cites the occasionally stomach-turning traversal as the primary reason Outreach won’t be coming to headsets. “It works [in VR], but don’t do it. We’d have to ship it with a branded sick bag.”
After receiving my orders from my commander, I set out on the search for the crew. I soar from room to room, inspecting floating objects including letters and audio tapes, which can be played on a recorder. Booth promises that although the game is story-focused, Outreach will feature more gameplay than the average walking simulator thanks to richer mechanics, puzzles, and mini-games. At one point, I interacted with a terminal that featured a working game of Pong.
After exploring the pods and finding no trace of the crew, only one area remains for inspection. Unfortunately, I break the latch off the door trying to open it, leaving me locked out. The only way around is to exit the station and reach the area from the outside. This is where Outreach’s intensity took really off.
Since jetpacks aren’t a thing, the only way to make my way across the outside of the station was by a series of rungs on the station’s hull. The process involved kicking myself off a platform and carefully steering myself close enough to a rung to grab. It was an extremely nerve-racking segment thanks to how little control you have in maneuverability and the intimidating ambiance of space. Unlike many walking simulators, players can die in Outreach. In order to allow this, Pixel Spill needed to tweak the facts a bit.
“Historically, you would have a tether that would connect you to the station,” Booth said. But we took that out. It’s kind of one of the only things we don’t do realistically because we wanted that fear of death.”
Missing a rung and veering into orbit led to a very intense scene of the character quickly panicking as he realized he’d be helplessly hovering for the rest of his life. That emotional performance completely sold the terror of being stranded in space and only raised my anxiety about screwing up. I held my breath with every leap to a new handhold.
After a few more trips to the scary death scene, I finally reached my destination, where the demo concluded. I welcomed the chance to calm my nerves, but I felt I’d just gotten the hang of the controls enough to inspire me to play more. On top of being an effective thriller, Outreach feels like it could be a great period piece of 1980's space travel thanks to its painstaking attention to detail. Most importantly, I left my play session wanting answers to the game's primary questions. What exactly happened on this ship? Are any members of the crew alive, and if so, where are they? These answers will have to wait until later this fall when Outreach launches for PC and Mac.