‘The Outer Worlds’ Is a Corporatist Hell Ruled by Choice and Consequence

If you’re an avid RPG player who spends any amount of time with the upcoming “Outer Worlds,” it won’t take you long to identify the minds behind it. From its neon-colored flora and fauna to its Gilded-Age-in-space setting, there’s no other studio in the world of video games that would try for this exact permutation of themes, which is both a blessing and a curse in a market usually-dominated by fun-but-derivative takes on the usual fare. But while aspects of the upcoming game might recall other classics of the form – the art deco environs recall the “BioShocks” of the world, and nearly everything about it echoes “Fallout: New Vegas,” arguably the studio’s best-known work – from what we’ve seen so far, “Outer Worlds” is very much its own beast.

Set in a late-late-capitalist hell-future, where privately-funded space colonization led to ultra-corporations becoming the self-proclaimed government on planets that they own outright, you play as a newcomer from Earth just waking up from the mists of cryo-sleep. Comparisons to the vast inequalities of the first (and our current) Gilded Age aren’t just set dressing – this is a fully-realized “retro-future,” with bizarre slang and chunky plasma rifles to match. As an outsider to these offbeat worlds of sleazy space-easies and corporate hit-jobs, you can choose to either try to rise to the top of a clearly-corrupt system or try to take it apart piece-by-piece – either way, it’s clear that you’ll probably get your hands dirty in the process.

Over the past few years, “choice and consequence” has become a ubiquitous piece of jargon used for games (usually RPGs) that seek to challenge the player with compelling moral dilemmas, allowing them to act out the option that their character would think is the correct one. While many games present black-and-white moral options with only the slightest veneer of complexity, Obsidian is one of the few game studios that’s managed to consistently deliver the high quality of writing and storytelling that this style of game demands. Without them, the whole package becomes a thinly-veiled morality play, and the illusion falls apart. As senior writer at Obsidian Megan Starks puts it, it’s not just about making sure that players feel that their choices are felt in dialogue trees, or in the quests they take.

As players level up their character, they necessarily prioritize certain abilities over others, which produces a distinct build that largely dictates how they will approach the game’s open-ended situations. From a design perspective, Starks says this manifests in a list of 30-or-so playstyles that the developers take great pains to support in the game’s every facet, from smooth-talkers who use their charm to convince their enemies to stand down, to crafty hackers who rewire the corporation’s machines to fight for them instead. But while there will always be a substantial contingent of players who toss aside all this supposed nuance and simply sally forth guns-blazing, Starks says that Obsidian doesn’t view this approach as any less valid: after all, this is a game where most characters spend most of their time staring down the barrel of a gun, one way or another.

“We were actually designing the game with a possible pacifist run in mind from the start,” Starks says. “That was one of the playstyles on the big list. But, we ran into some edge cases that prevented players from getting through certain parts of the game, and since we actually have to, you know, finish the game in time, we had to back off from that. Recently, though, I heard from Tim [Cain, director of the game] that he managed to beat the game without killing anyone, so maybe it is possible. We’ll have to see.”

The full extent of the open-scheme design was on full display in a behind-closed doors demo that showcased one quest from the game, where you’re tasked with shutting down the operations of a borscht factory that isn’t paying a cut to the local mob boss. The sample player’s build focused less on combat and more on tinkering with weapons and sneaking through the undergrowth, which allowed them to avoid several combat encounters on the way to the facility. Once inside, they used their charm and a convenient PA system to convince the employees of the factory that they would have to have dinner with their unpleasant boss, which made them clear out in a hurry. After stealthing their way through corridors patrolled by lethargic robots, the player confronted the borscht boss, who offered him a lifetime supply of the soup in exchange for the head of the boss that hired them. How the quest proceeds from there is ultimately up to the individual player.

Having finished the demo, I couldn’t help but remark to Starks that this reminded me of the moral structure of a lot of RPGs: doing jobs for one evil person at the expense of an arguably more evil person, with no true “better option” available. Considering we live in an era that seems to be veering dangerously close to the universe depicted in the game, I asked her if that bothered her. “I definitely think it’s always better to depict shades of gray in a game like this, and I think the dark humor helps a lot,” she says. “But, in the end, there are definitely options that are certainly more ‘good’ than others, depending on your point of view. Like everything else in the game, it’s up to the players to find that out for themselves, and that’s really what it’s all about.”

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