I’m not quite sure what to say about the state of modern games that hasn’t already been said. We’re entering a hyper-monetized era for games where publishers are still clinging onto the idea of games costing $60 at launch to claim they aren’t increasing prices, while milking a lot more out of their most loyal players. It’s a deceptive practice that instead of admitting that the production of a top tier game means charging $100 for the full experience, instead players are being nickel-and-dimed through every stage with little being added in the way of value. I’ve written about this before, so I need not tread down the same path again, but it’s still important to have these values stated as a baseline before we talk about The Outer Worlds.
The Outer Worlds is a science fiction, first person RPG much in the vein of the modern Fallout series. In fact, it’s made by the team that made Fallout: New Vegas, an ambitious mess of a game that saw most of the issues originating from the underlying engine and policies from the publisher, Bethesda. Some of the team involved with the original Fallout games, which were heralded for their bold storytelling and morality systems, worked on New Vegas and now Outer Worlds. The truth of the matter is: if you like the Fallout games, Outer Worlds is a much better game that scratches the itch far better than anything Bethesda has done with the license. Hard stop.
Fallout 4 built a game on the same, broken engine that Bethesda has been using for their open world RPGs for a while now. While Elder Scrolls and Fallout feature different settings and combat mechanics, they’re essentially built off the same foundation. Fallout 4 quite simply wasn’t the graphical, technological or narrative leap forward that anyone was expecting, never mind the mess that was Fallout 76. At this point the franchise feels pretty dead, which is why Obsidian’s Outer Worlds felt special.
Granted, in a crowded release schedule that always is the Fall it is overshadowed by Hideo Kojima’s grand opus logistics simulator Death Stranding and the usual cavalcade of yearly releases, Outer Worlds took a bold approach by releasing in the Fall and including zero pre-order bonuses, special content for each retailer, season passes or any real promise of future content. Outer Worlds is a $60 game and that is an intentional, bold statement in a world of special editions, pre-order bonuses and season passes. You can’t buy any sort of boost or special content for the game, you can’t buy in-game currency or consumables. Everything in the game is just in the game already.
Perhaps that wouldn’t feel bold on its own until you delve into the actual content of the game, which pits the player against a hostile system filled with greedy corporations sucking the life out of the planets, the system and the workers, their intentions come sharply into focus. There is nothing about the Outer Worlds that is subtle. Everything about the game is brazen and in-your-face. The game does this without making any sort of solid political stance, somehow. While the corporations are seen as greedy, evil and wrong, in each instance there is some anarchist or fringe element that breaks free from the corporations only to see corrupt leaders abusing their own power.
This shouldn’t come as a shock considering Obsidian worked for a great deal of years with the South Park franchise, a series built off of the creators’ “everyone sucks, caring is lame” mentality that went from endearing and scathing to grating and preachy over the show’s continued run. South Park runs on the idea of exceptionalism, where the bold overcome the masses to make things better. The Outer Worlds takes a similar approach in which the player character makes bold decisions that can destroy entire towns out of spite or vengeance, or simply “knowing best.”
Still, you have decisions to make and every decision feels pretty rotten, considering the circumstances. That, perhaps, is a realistic approach because rarely in life will we find a sterling option that makes everything better without hurting anyone, it just feels fatalistic. After all, this is a game and there need to be decisions, people need to get hurt and there needs to be a conflict. Early on, the player is given a decision between two towns: one a corporate hellscape, the other an exclusive collectivist paradise. Only one town can thrive, the other starves. Much like the famous decision early on in Fallout 3 where the player chooses to explode a nuclear bomb in the town of Megaton or NOT detonating the bomb and facing those consequences, this is a similar “grey area” decision where no matter what you do things kinda suck.
You aren’t given a chance to convince either side to be better, help a better leader gain power and promise a better tomorrow, it’s just the same, binary decisions that games like these have. While it’s fun, it feels a bit droll considering how many games go down this path. A lot of the game tasks you with these decisions, although sometimes you do genuinely get to make people happy. Still, all of it unfolds while shooting a lot of people, machines and beasts with little in the way of variables.
The Outer Worlds is a good game, well worth the investment and will hopefully be the beginning of a franchise of its own, unscathed from the excesses of modern game publishers. The game makes a statement about modern games and society, it just does so without doing much different itself. It’s a lush, interesting sci-fi setting depicting what would happen if our own, corrupt crony capitalism extended out into the stars. It just doesn’t give any sort of vision of what would make a better future. Just like as a game it’s still fetch quests, shooting galleries, looting, leveling and crafting with touching moments of great writing, characters and dialogue randomly interspersed in to keep you engaged.
There’s a lot of science fiction in the world and there’s a lot to be gloomy about, always. What separates good science fiction from great science fiction isn’t just turning a mirror back on society, but also proposing a path forward. Things can be dark, but a faint glimmer of hope goes a long way. Star Wars wouldn’t have endured decades as an incredibly popular franchise without the glimmers of hope and light amidst the dark brutality of the Empire and whatever is in the sequels (who knows?). Star Trek has always shown that good can win, even in the face of Klingons, Romulans, and the Borg. The Klingons became allies; the Romulans chilled out the Borg were a mutation of wanting people to survive. Firefly had its oppressive government, but ultimately it was the people that wanted better.
This is where the Outer Worlds falters. They can’t present a better future without effectively “taking a side.” While they sort of take a side, that side seems to be against corruption, which as a concept doesn’t feel incredibly unique or interesting. They start to say things about corporate corruption and perhaps that the “anarchism” of Phineas Welles, the mad scientist, is the correct path, the attempt to build a game with ambiguous morality while the game itself is a statement against corporate greed feels very wishy-washy. Perhaps it’s asking too much from a subsidiary of Microsoft to make a grand statement against modern corporate greed, I don’t know. I look forward to what Obsidian comes out with next and hope to see them really nail their themes while evolving this genre of games a bit.
Parvati deserves better.
Seriously, she’s the only one.
I’m not kidding, there are a bunch of videos on YouTube of people doing awful things to people she cares about to see her reaction and this is why we can’t have nice things.
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