The very first quest in The Outer Worlds, Obsidian’s highly anticipated first-person RPG out October 25, asked me to make what felt like an impossible choice. On one side was a community of outsiders frustrated by corporate control. Their outpost was something like a worker’s paradise — they were well fed and mostly happy, surviving by relying on each other. I admired their leader, Adelaide, for the passion that she had for her people. On the other side was the corporate-owned town they left, led by Reed Tobson, an idiot that didn’t seem to realise that asking his workers to only eat canned fish (for protein!) led to the population being ravaged by plagues.
Despite how much I hated Tobson, he was right that the people working for him suffered because of the workers that had abandoned the town to form their own community.
I still don’t know if I did the right thing.
The choice I would make would destroy one of these two communities permanently. I managed to find an in-between option, which disbanded the outpost of deserters but also allowed for deep reforms in the town. I was satisfied with this for a short while, but when I got back to my ship, I saw that I’d received a bit of memorabilia from my adventure: a town sign. As I sidled up to examine it, its description told me that I had taught the deserters something important about their dream of a life without corporations: to never dream.
The universe that The Outer Worlds takes place in is bleak. Halcyon is a corporate-owned colony consisting of two planets of workers, a mining outpost on an asteroid, a ship called the Groundbreaker that acts as a waystation for groups of workers going to and fro, and a prison planet. Things are in dire straits, as the workers suffer low wages and long hours while the wealthy live in a gilded city, unconcerned with their plight.
Several questions drive the game: How do you create the ideal society? And who is at fault for bringing this one to its knees? What adequate punishment exists for those responsible, if there is one at all? The Outer Worlds acts as a mirror this way; you answer these questions via the myriad choices you can make in the game, your moral standing met with visible consequences. You can also avoid all these questions in favour of just shooting everyone you see and taking everything in sight, though as time goes on, you will see how your selfishness affects the people around you.
You play a variable that the corporations hadn’t accounted for in their quest for total economic and social control. The scientist (and outlaw) Phineas Welles has unfrozen you from 70 years of cryogenic sleep. You were a passenger on the colony ship The Hope, which houses some of the greatest scientists, artists, and philosophers Earth had to offer but never made it to its destination after being knocked out of its planned route.
With their help, Welles thinks that Halcyon can recover, but he needs you to find the chemicals he needs to wake up the rest of the colonists, who have been frozen for so long that they would otherwise experience what Welles calls “explosive cell death” upon being thawed. Your perspective as someone outside of the colony is one that will eventually shape its future.
For players concerned about Obsidian’s past issues with buggy releases, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The game isn’t quite bug free — my game had a hard time whenever I visited the abandoned, monster infested town of Cascadia, with texture pop-in and longer loading times, and for some reason it believed that one of my companions was dead, making it impossible to finish their personal quest (and snagging me a deadpan explanation that they didn’t survive at the end of the game). Neither of these issues were exactly game-breaking for me, and my playthrough didn’t suffer for them. This is the Obsidian game that people have been begging for: one with polish.
The Outer Worlds
BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE
What happens to a dream deferred?
TYPE OF GAME
Class struggle simulator
Extremely thoughtful writing paired with gunplay that's just as sharp.
Because the game sets the bar high, the places where the writing doesn't go far enough are glaring.
PlayStation 4 (played), Xbox One, PC, Switch (eventually)
October 25, 2019
Around 40 hours
Being frozen for 70 years has some advantages: You gain “tactical time dilation,” which allows you to slow down time for combat. By slowing down time, you can target specific body parts that will temporarily give your enemies debuffs. Shooting an enemy in the eyes will blind them, making their shots less accurate. It’ll also allow you to reposition yourself, to peek out of cover with just enough time to take down an enemy and run to waist-high wall.
The weapons themselves are fun enough to use that even though I tried to talk myself out of violence as much as I could, I never dreaded violence when it occurred. You can find and buy different modifications for your weapons and armour that change how they work, making almost every weapon and armour set work for every playstyle. If you like the hunting rifles but need something that takes out the automechanicals (robots that often have guns), you can add a mod that changes their damage type to shock rather than physical. If you like a certain set of heavy armour but need to sneak by a couple enemies, you can modify that set of armour so that the sounds of your footsteps are quieter.
The Outer Worlds serves the player’s needs mechanically at every turn. As you level up, you can unlock perks for even more abilities, like the capacity to carry more items, recharge your tactical time dilation faster, or get a little health with each kill. You can also take on flaws, which will allow you to unlock another perk while giving a permanent debuff to your character. Flaws unlock based on your own weaknesses as a player. If you get sprayed by acid too many times, you can take on a flaw that makes acid that much harsher. I ended up not taking on any flaws, wanting not to continue to suffer for the ways I am deficient as a player, though I can see how this system will drive other players to change up their strategies in order to grab that one perk they were hoping for.
These gun fights are fun and sometimes satisfyingly tricky, but it’s hard to get around the elephant in the room when it comes to Obsidian games. Yes, The Outer Worlds mechanically resembles the Fallout series. It was made by the same team that worked on the first two Fallout games as well as Fallout: New Vegas. It’s built on the skeleton of Dungeons and Dragons, with the player assigning points in perception and intelligence in character creation and as you level up.
You will have to pass checks on those stats to unlock dialogue options that allow you to finish quests in different ways. This is not dissimilar to what Fallout has become under the ownership of Bethesda, though I will say that I have not felt as motivated to finish Fallout 3 or 4 as I felt to finish The Outer Worlds. The writing is centred, focused on getting the player to confront its class struggle, the universe built with that goal in mind. As a bonus, it’s also quite funny. Early on in the game, I laughed as a corporate guard told me that they were busy dealing with marauders, and worse: parking violators.
You and your band of companions will eventually uncover some dark truths about Halcyon. From there, you can reshape it to fit whatever your vision of humanity’s potential is. For some, this will be a reflection of what their politics already are. As a socialist, I knew that whatever I ended up doing would be in the service of a colony that put the rights of workers first. Others who are more sympathetic to corporatism and capitalism will also have paths to enact their visions.
If you see fit, you can even side against the scientist who unfroze you, Welles. The Outer Worlds will challenge you to make hard choices in your quest to find a better way of life, offering viewpoints that run directly counter to your own in a way that always felt fair and compelling. By the end of the game, I felt like I understood my own politics better.
The key to making this feel naturalistic is by challenging the player to really commit to their ideals. When I first encountered the Iconoclasts, a faction of sorta socialists that are dedicated to their cause with a cult-like fervor, their community starved under a leader who spent far more time on empty rhetoric than on praxis. (In a turn that made me laugh, he’s also a former journalist.)
It’s safe to say that the leader of the Iconoclasts is a pretty bad person, but on the other hand, under the control of the corporations, workers don’t have bathroom breaks or weekends. If you play your cards right, you’re probably going to find a way to stay true to yourself without leaving people in power that aren’t serving their communities. But in order to get that far, you’ll have to actively care, and the game provides enough deep character writing to give you avenues to care about what happens to the people of Halcyon.
You companions act as guideposts to the many different walks of life that make up Halcyon. Their personal quest lines reveal as much about these characters as the world itself. Parvati is so used to not belonging that when she meets someone that she’s interested in romantically, she doesn’t know how to handle it. Her quest is both an examination of what it is like to be a square peg unable to fit in a round hole as much as it is a touching queer love story.
Vicar Max, like other followers of his faith, is looking for peace in some kind of grand design, to make an uncertain world make sense. He is also, as the kids would say, daddy. One of my favourites, Felix, is an orphan who is fleeing Groundbreaker after starting a fight with his foreman over sports. He isn’t well-read, but his convictions are strong — he doesn’t need to study theory to know that workers are being exploited. Your companions will have strong reactions to the main story quests and the decisions you make in them. In fact, it was Parvati’s reactions in that first quest that led me to the choices I ended up making.
No matter your politics, you’re not going to finish The Outer Worlds without addressing issues of labour head-on. I’m a union rep for Kotaku, and at times playing this game reminded me of the things we talk about in our meetings: How do we meet the needs of the workers, how do we placate the bosses?
As someone not contracted by a corporation, you’re referred to as a “freelancer” by quest givers, which amused me. One quest even had me negotiating between striking workers and their boss. Labour is at the centre of everything in Halcyon. The issues that are destroying the colony are directly related to the division of wealth between bosses and workers. Halcyon feels full and complete — at the edges of your understanding of its history lies the implication that nearly a century of life has unfolded in this colony.
As my time in Halcyon went on, I ended up parsing what the game was asking me to think about through the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem.” What happens to a dream deferred, in space? Throughout the game you will see the result of dreams that have festered, dried up, crusted over. Once I got that idea in my head, it was hard not to notice to limitations of such a laser-focused pursuit to interrogate class struggle.
Halcyon being called a colony certainly made me bristle at times, though conveniently, there are no sentient races that the colonisers have displaced. In The Outer Worlds, all social problems are filtered through class. Sexism and racism don’t meaningfully exist even though race does; many of the people you meet across classes are black and brown.
Race and gender go essentially unacknowledged from the game’s core narrative to its tongue-in-cheek riffs on PR buzzwords, which was frustrating in a game so deeply embroiled in power dynamics. In our world, class and race are inexorably tied, and a world in which questions of class are more eternal than questions of race strikes me as dishonest. I trust in Obsidian to broach those issues with the same grace as they do issues of class, so I wish they had gone there.
The Outer Worlds is so impactful that it made me question and ultimately settle more thoughtfully into my beliefs. My game ended with what felt like a utopian, worker-led vision for Halcyon, and the game gives you the room to enact whatever your personal vision may be. It pushed me without feeling preachy and gave me some fun shootouts between the politicking. In the end, The Outer Worlds aligns itself with Hughes. The dream of paradise that Halcyon has deferred exploded. How you pick up those pieces is up to you, for better or worse.