'Majora's Mask' Meets 'Apollo 13': Inside Annapurna Interactive’s 'Outer Wilds'

What started as a master's thesis project for game designer Alex Beachum is now the latest in a growing list of award-winning indie games at Annapurna Interactive.
Courtesy of Annapurna Interactive

Four years ago, at the Independent Games Festival event during the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, first-time game developer Alex Beachum took the stage to accept the Seumas McNally Grand Prize for his game Outer Wilds. The award honors the best in indie gaming, and represented what Beachum — at the time — viewed as the end of a long road for a project he originally created as his master's thesis while studying at the University of Southern California. In reality, it was just a new beginning for the game set to be released May 30.

Among those intrigued by Beachum's game was Masi Oka, perhaps best-known as an actor and star of NBC's Heroes. Oka had recently founded his own game studio, Mobius Digital, and was so impressed by Beachum's game that he hired the developer, his designer and producer Loan Verneau and the entire Outer Wilds team to develop the title at his new company.

"I went to USC’s demo day and found great artists, including Loan and Alex," Oka tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Alex’s master thesis had just won a Seumas McNally award and it was just like let’s do it. He said he wanted to do it here."

The team moved into a small loft studio space in downtown Los Angeles and began finalizing the game for release later that year, but the project had also caught the attention of an emerging publisher, Annapurna Interactive. Known for developing unique, award-winning indie games such as What Remains of Edith Finch and last year's Florence, Annapurna's support meant the Mobius team could spend more time polishing the game and fine-tuning its intriguing central mysteries. 

"We were ready to get it shipped out in September of that year, but then when you get a publisher like Annapurna involved, there’s now a standard that we have to meet," Oka says. "The scope gets a little bit bigger."

Beachum credits the game's unique design (think 1960's NASA meets U.S. State Parks) and subject matter (a 20-minute time loop ending in a solar flare that obliterates the small galaxy) for the influx of interest. "At the time we started, there weren’t that many space games," he says. "Even now, there’s not a lot that make you feel fragile."

Fragility is a big part of the experience, as players will die (a lot) throughout the course of their play-through. But, Outer Wilds is also built around a central mystery, both with its narrative and its gameplay. "It’s a game where, at the beginning, you’re seeing all these new things but at a certain point it stops being new and it’s more of understanding how the things connect to each other. The only reward you’ll get for exploring in Outer Wilds is figuring out what is happening," Beachum explains.

It all makes for a fun, rewarding gameplay loop that Beachum describes as "Majora's Mask meets Apollo 13 and 2001: A Space Odyssey," but creating a wholly new experience can feel intimidating when aiming at a broader audience.  

"It’s a weird game — in a good way," says Verneau, who praises Annapurna for their support and interest in Outer Wilds. "They give an amount of polish that most indie games don’t have. They are there to make sure you get a level of quality for that weirdness. That’s rare to find."

For Verneau and Beachum, the upcoming release of the game caps off a nearly seven year journey, but it also serves as the first title to be released by Oka and his new (quite small with only 10 employees) game studio. "We’ve learned a lot," Oka says. "This is our first game, it’s not just a college thesis anymore."

Even still, the team is already looking forward to the future. "We can’t say anything, but we’re kicking ideas around," Beachum says.

"We want to keep an indie feel. What we’re all excited about is fun, smart exploration adventure games that we all grew up on," Oka says of his Mobius Digital team. "We’re open to experimenting, but we like creating worlds."

Outer Wilds launches on the Xbox One and PC, exclusively on Epic Games Store, on May 30.