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an image of a marshmallow being roasted in outer wilds. there is an alien sitting next to the fire. Image: Mobius Digital/Annapurna Interactive via Polygon

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How roasting marshmallows became the ‘emotional core’ of Outer Wilds

The squishy confections encapsulate what makes the game great

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Each time you start a new playthrough in Mobius Digital’s time-loop game Outer Wilds, your character blinks their blurry eyes open to see a night sky and you hear the light crackling of a fire. In the game, you explore a solar system 22 minutes at a time. At the end of each run, the solar system explodes and the game kicks you back to your home planet. And when you restart, the game settles you back into its world with the comforting scene of a four-eyed alien donning hipster garb and roasting a marshmallow over a fire.

Roasting marshmallows (or “mallows,” as they’re lovingly called by some) is a time-honored tradition in North America. Whether you’re camping or just hanging out around a fire in the summer, odds are someone will bring out a bag of the fluffy confection at some point. Whether you prefer to eat them by themselves or paired with chocolate and graham crackers as a s’more, you’d be hard-pressed to find a food that better encapsulates the spirit of summer camp of the warm, gooey years of old.

In Outer Wilds, you can press a button to hold out a stick over a fire and wobble it around to roast the mallow. If you hold the marshmallow the perfect distance from the fire for the right amount of time, you’ll end up with a golden crispy dessert that can heal some of your health. It’s a novel reprieve from the cold deadness of space, and as creative director of Outer Wilds Alex Beachum said in an interview with Polygon, it isn’t just some cutesy addition with no use. As it turns out, the concept was central to the creation of the game even in its early stages.

Beachum traces the origins of the marshmallow roasting to a series of prototypes for his thesis project over 10 years ago. Before Outer Wilds became the game it is today, Beachum had to figure out what the project was going to be. It was then when a friend suggested that he make an “emotional prototype,” so he made a little game where you sit and roast a marshmallow on a fire and the sun explodes above, sort of like a “serene firework thing and then all the planets get destroyed,” he said. According to Beachum, while that wasn’t his first prototype to resemble Outer Wilds, it was the first one to capture the “emotional tone” of the game he hoped to make.

“It always embodied the ‘camping’ part of the camping and space aesthetic,” Beachum said. He didn’t want the sci-fi adventure to have a “middle hallway” feel common to the cold steeliness of other space adventures, and roasting a marshmallow brought a warmth to the game’s world. Beachum also hoped to use the campfire as a way to emphasize the difference in scale between roasting a marshmallow and the universe exploding above you. “The whole game is all about things like nature, forces, and things falling apart beyond your control. And then the marshmallow being like this one small moment you can control.”

In an early version of the game, Beachum had even tinkered with forcing players to roast a marshmallow at the beginning, but ended up cutting the requirement. The team continued to play with the idea, though, he said, because it felt invested in it.

“We just loved the idea of making the most detailed simulation in this game of cosmic craziness,” he said while laughing. “And it’s like, No, no, no, the marshmallow is the thing that’s actually the most complicated.” At one point the team played with making the roasting system even more complicated than the one we see in the final game. That was also cut, but the general idea stuck.

It’s also an addition that’s deeply personal. As a child, Beachum grew up going camping and sitting around the campfire at night with his family. “[The fire] is just this one little beacon of light. One little place of safety and coziness in the middle of the big dark forest and, you know, the sky space above,” Beachum said. “And Outer Wilds is just the fantasy of that situation exactly.”