Midway through Obsidian Entertainment’s new role-playing shooter The Outer Worlds, I met a man miserably playing a corporate mascot, his head semi-permanently enclosed in a large, ghoulish moon mask. I spoke to him for several turns, hoping there was something I could do to help. But if there was a way to improve his life, he never suggested it, and I never found it.
This encounter feels like an encapsulation of my time playing Outer Worlds. Obsidian is perhaps best known for creating Fallout: New Vegas, one of the best installments of the post-apocalyptic Fallout series. Outer Worlds is clearly a spiritual sequel to Fallout, featuring a similar role-playing system, retro-futuristic aesthetic, and penchant for dark humor. But Outer Worlds also reckons with one of the biggest narrative tensions in Fallout — and role-playing games in general.
Non-specific spoilers follow for one version of The Outer Worlds’ branching story.
Fallout, like many role-playing series, is about an effectively superpowered player navigating a lawless world. Your character usually starts in some hidden vault or other isolated backwater, emerges into a post-nuclear-war hellscape, and becomes a wandering white knight, omnicidal monster, or something in between. Along the way, each game needs to explain what makes you so special — and why the characters you meet, who have theoretically survived decades in the wasteland, are constantly asking you for help.
The Fallout games (especially New Vegas) often suggest that you’re more convenient than superhuman. You’re mediating disputes because you’re an outsider, or doing dirty work for more powerful people — either because you’re a newcomer who needs money, or if you’re the type of virtuous character I play, because you’re honestly kind of a sucker. But by the end of the game, you’re still one of the most important people in the world.
Unfreeze more smart people
The Outer Worlds has a similar premise. Instead of a Mad Max-inflected Earth with a ‘50s Raygun Gothic aesthetic, it portrays a far future where the Gilded Age of robber barons never ended. Huge companies with old-timey names like “Auntie Cleo’s” have colonized a solar system called Halcyon, turning its planets into nightmarish company towns, hardscrabble survivalist compounds, or a labyrinthine prison. And instead of coming from a vault, your protagonist is an unfrozen passenger on the Hope, a long-lost ship that apparently holds some of Earth’s brightest minds in suspended animation.
But Outer Worlds doesn’t bother with false modesty. From its first few minutes, you’re effectively one of the most exceptional people in the known universe, and an eccentric scientist named Phineas Welles has dispatched you to save Halcyon from a terrible fate. The solar system has been mismanaged beyond repair by a corrupt corporate board. Phineas explains that there’s only one solution. Is it rallying the downtrodden but resourceful people of Halcyon to overthrow their overlords, drawing on their shared knowledge to build a better future? No, that would be silly. You have to unfreeze more extremely smart people from your ship, then ask them to save the world.
Outer Worlds is a political polemic built on video game logic. As many reviews have pointed out, the game harshly critiques corporations that exploit people. But Phineas’ alternative isn’t giving more power to the exploited. It’s giving Hope passengers the equivalent of an RPG protagonist’s “good” option: drop into an unfamiliar society, spend a few minutes talking to the residents, and single-handedly fix all their problems.
You can read this as a self-aware bit of meta text — most role-playing games are about noblesse oblige, and Outer Worlds just cops to it. In-world, though, it’s also remarkably dark social commentary.
Fallout games, for all their grim set dressing, are about people building a new life in the ruins of a fallen world. Societies have appropriated pre-apocalyptic symbols (from Elvis to the Atom Bomb) in creative ways, and characters have at least the illusion of agency. Many of Halcyon’s inhabitants, by contrast, seem irreparably broken by capitalism. Company town citizens suffer under horrific and draconian rules, too, indoctrinated by corporate propaganda to imagine a better life. Defectors are either indiscriminately violent “marauders,” rebels who are revealed to be callous and bitter, or genuine idealists who struggle to make a difference.
Halcyon’s decaying corporations poison everyone they touch
I’m used to the ridiculously powerful conversation options in Fallout games. But I felt almost guilty using speech checks in Outer Worlds, because its characters seemed so pathetically eager to be manipulated. I could walk away from fights by giving security guards a rare word of kindness, or infiltrate an office by transparently playing on corporate lackeys’ insecurities. It’s as if Halcyon’s creaky, decaying corporations poison everyone they touch — and the Hope’s passengers aren’t simply smart or strong, they’re uncorrupted by the rot. No wonder Phineas is so interested in them.
But over dozens of hours of planet-hopping, Outer Worlds undercuts these neat technocratic solutions. It’s hard to feel like a good person in Halcyon. If somebody asks you to save their assistant from monsters, your reward is hearing about how a dead protege would have damaged their career. Help somebody find their fallen comrades, and they’ll turn out to be indirectly involved in the killing. The game’s creepiest quest has you investigate an “early retirement” program for underprivileged citizens. It’s far more horrific than it sounds… but you can’t do anything to change it, and in the context of Halcyon’s bureaucracy, that makes perfect sense.
Outer Worlds ends with an epilogue similar to Fallout: New Vegas’, with a narrator explaining how you shaped Halcyon’s future. Unlike Fallout, The Outer Worlds offers a pretty clearly “good” and “evil” final choice, not a handful of morally varied options. My good decision, though, made me feel surprisingly small. Yes, I had technically saved Halcyon. But I’d done it by nudging the levers in a system that was far too big to control, then watching the effects play out once they were too late to stop. I didn’t feel like a hero forging my own destiny — just a cog turning the wheels of history, like everybody else.
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