CONTENT WARNING: Substance abuse, loss of friends, emotional subjects
While written with care to avoid spoilers when possible: the following piece examines parts of The Outer Worlds that may reveal minor plot elements and some key story points of companion characters. Proceed with caution if you’d prefer to experience the game completely on your own.
The Outer Worlds is an oddity in that while it comes from a long pedigree of Open World RPGs, it stands deeply in contrast to trends set by them in the past by inverting certain tropes that Obsidian had a hand in establishing. Prior to release, they revealed that none of the companions within The Outer Worlds would have any romantic storylines, a bold design decision in a genre notorious for developing ever-increasing ways to placate and enable audiences who wish to indulge themselves in romantic roleplaying. While we have gotten better at generating thought-provoking simulations in the medium, we struggle with justifying how the narratives that drive them revolve solely around the most player-centric design lens. After all, you’re the hero… right?
This buffet of violence, mayhem, interpersonal relationships, and factional disputes MUST be for you or so the commercialized logic runs. It’s a facile and reductive reading of the nature of choice primarily propagated by break-out hits such as Mass Effect or industry titans like countless among the Rockstar catalogue. Your companions enter the world as another weapon in your arsenal, your social interactions only serving as glorified window dressing, your objectives slowly stripping away their humanity in order to render them down to a two dimensional instrument of your will.
It’s a kind of world that exists for you until it doesn’t, a profit-driven constraint leading to hamfisted plot-holes and near-absurdist levels of meandering plot points to maintain retroactive continuity. Just another swashbuckling explorer adventurer, here to set things ‘right’ while continuing to perpetuate the worst excesses that age-of-sail imperial paternalism has to offer. No matter how well intentioned many of the writing decisions behind popular Sci-fi RPGs are, they all too often play out in a manner quietly complicit with a long history of exploitation and destructive do-gooding. Most video game morality starts and stops with the player’s ethical model of how the ends justify the means, after all, if you aren’t there to observe the implicit consequences of your actions, did they even really happen?
The Outer Worlds differs in that there are no easy choices to make, no idyllic easy-outs that gently coddle your conscience. Underneath the demure veneer of yet another open-world-adventure-game is a writing team eager to display their chops and disarm your expectations right before slamming your face into the steaming pile of shit you’ve left behind in your wake. ‘YOU did this’, the narrative exclaims as the queasy reality of what you’ve done starts to sink in.
When your morality falls out of step with that of your compatriots, you’ll find them chomping at the bit to decry your decisions as utterly loathsome, confronting you, incensed and more than willing to follow their conscience and leave you to visit your wrath on the galaxy alone. Sometimes it’s a mild unease and a gentle choice to part ways, other times a clear drawing of the line in the sand. These people don’t exist to comfort or soothe you, they have their own opinions and aren’t afraid to tell you things you don’t want to hear, their rationale and perspective standing independently of your own to the bitter end. Occasionally, like in any reactive world, the structure can miss the point and leave you with unexpected non-sequiturs and inappropriate conclusions to the dynamic direction the narrative has taken. No open world game is perfect, but given the limited resources at Obsidian’s disposal, it’s easy to feel that they did more than most would in an otherwise by-the-numbers genre that has been ultimately defanged over the years by watering down its trademark scathing social critique.
What The Outer Worlds lacks in subtextual immediacy with regards to commentary in the premise, it makes up for in the small moments. The most crushing discoveries show up in the least expected places: audio logs, text entries, a small piece of environmental storytelling you’d dismissed as simple visual lore building only to suddenly have an ‘Oh shit’ moment a few hours later when you finally connect them with their context. No part of the game exemplifies this better than the game’s companion side quests, an oft overlooked aspect of The Outer World’s core narrative. It’s a game that seeks to catch you off guard with emotional trauma in the same way that an experimental horror title does- employing doldrum monotony and empty tension to subvert your classically trained guard for a horrific uppercut.
A lot of the Outer Worlds’ most obvious emotional beats have a tendency to bounce off the most seasoned or cynical audiences, but the real deep-seated, painful, tear-jerking moments lay waiting for you on the sidelines patiently for the right time to strike. It’s not just the Vicar’s journey of self-discovery, Pavarti’s confrontation of her loyalty to the corporations that worked her parents to death, Ellie’s sudden realization of how little her family cares for her, or Felix’s crumbling naivety in the face of an old friend’s obvious manipulation, it’s the way in which these deeply personal narratives are experienced first hand. The player’s role in these interactions is not to take up space by being the center of attention so you can can simply pat yourself on the back for yet another good deed done, but rather to find yourself witness to discussions and arguments you have no stake in, to take the back seat to the resolution carried on the shoulders of these characters on their own.
It’s hard to think of someone more emblematic of Obsidian’s skill at conveying emotional nuance than Nyoka:
A hardened veteran of the sulfuric wastes called Monarch, you find her drinking her sorrows away in a dusty dive bar near the landing pad. After a quick quest to fetch her some stimulants, it’s quickly established that she has a less-than-healthy relationship with substances; it’s an aspect of her personality that would’ve been very easy to make the focus of your relationship with her, yet one deftly avoided by the narrative designers.
No, instead Obsidian chooses to explore something beyond the empty flasks and never-ending pursuit for an emotional panacea to drown out the sorrows of her past. In a rare act of self-interest, she asks for the last thing she wants in this world- help, specifically your assistance in uncovering the truth behind the little lies she tells herself to rest easier at night, the worries haunting her from a story left unfinished in her past. Her war-weary eyes see someone worth trusting in yours, and, once you prove yourself worthy, she begins to open up about her troubles to the first confidant she’s found in years. Nyoka, you see, had a chosen family, a group of people she regarded as her kin that she was willing to fight and die for, a morsel of meaning on this rotten acrid rock of corporate feast-or-famine mentality and dead dreams.
The problem with caring for other people, investing in situations where every individual has a mutual stake and equity, is that the cost is just as heavy as the shared burden, one that has no regard for how many remain standing when the dust clears. It’s a heavy weight meant for six that falls on one, an emotional Russian roulette where the outcome is nearly certain. With fatalistic odds like that, one begins to relate to why she turned to the bottle for so many years.
Like many of the companions in the story, Nyoka sees you as more than just a friend, instead finding the first real opportunity to seek answers off-world and wrap up loose ends that have been out of reach for too long. While you two have a mutual business interest in pursuing the objective of the main-line quest, the immense wealth of having a ship at your disposal becomes a massive resource for you to offer up as an ally in service of her own personal well-being and self-care. The kindness you can extend to any of the cast by leveraging your personal vessel, your time, your blood sweat and tears to help them with their personal problems isn’t just a way to win loyalty points, but to show that not only are you a real goddamned human being in the uncaring void of society and space, but that you see them truly equal in this.
Humanity is the rarest commodity of all in the capitalistic hellscape of unregulated investors and draconian labor laws bent on dominating the human will, grinding it into a fine powder to be sold to Byzantium in the form of trauma-tourism periodicals to be snorted by gleefully bored dilettantes who have never worked a day in their lives. ‘Dissident Hunter’ indeed.
In showing Nyoka that you actually give a shit about her as a real person, demonstrating that you aren’t just another faceless cog in the corporate machine but can truly relate to her stories of roughing it in the wilderness on more than a surface level, she starts to value you as equally as you value her. What began as yet another disposable errand on which to risk life and limb becomes a quest for healing, an opportunity to move on from the past. Like many of the situations where you step aside and give up the center stage for someone else, you start to learn something about the people in your life that many other games would’ve glossed over in service of more wanton destruction and excitement.
In one of Nyoka’s anecdotes she explains her rationale in giving the places she’s discovered personal names, regardless of whether or not they already had official ones, as a device to survey one’s memories and retain a sense of self that would otherwise be lost in the rugged signal-to-noise ratio of the wild expanse. She expounds upon this kind of memetic tether and teaches you how it can be used to remain connected to the past, to context- a lesson the Vicar learns the hard way in his own personal struggle for self-actualization. An example of this is how monuments are a physical extension of memory, an extrusion of human suffering and struggles that remains in the form of an environmental distortion- a medallion, a memorial, an upturned rock off the beaten path. This psychic residue serves as the breadcrumb trail you spend the entire game tracing from place to place, person to person, to learn who they really are.
These ludonarrative landmarks illustrate how The Outer Worlds stands apart mechanically from other Open World RPGs, treating the locales in a way reminiscent of old school text RPGs known as MUDs (an acronym for Multi-User-Dungeon). Many Sci-Fi MUDs offered the same sort of planet-hopping navigation that drives the high-seas-in-space atmosphere of The Outer worlds home, specifically in the way it features multiple landing zones per area. Your first entry into the world of Monarch may be the bustling port hub of less-than-legitimate commerce found outside the delicate corporate walled gardens of Terra 2, or it may be the relentless slough through viscera, bandits, and megafauna that is the desolate over-run Cascadia landing zone. MUDs, similarly, due to their heavy role-playing element encouraged players to bestow nicknames on places they’d come across together, sometimes you could even have the administration fabricate bespoke locales at your behest. It’s not entirely dissimilar to the way Nyoka and her crew established a home for themselves in the underground caves of Monarch, and goes to show how narratively valuable the idea of home is both for players and fictional characters in these settings.
In giving you multiple entry points that either unfold linearly or start off available to you, the game enables a sort of ‘choose your own story’ element that exists past the stock-standard inventory of dialogue options. In liminal spaces like video games, the way in which you engage with these environments transforms your perception of them on a temporal axis- that is to say you and the space are over time both forever changed in your notions of self, the context of your presence, and your idea of the places themselves. One player’s initial impression of Monarch may be of an out-of-the-way downtrodden marketplace, another may find it to be a dead world with unspeakable horrors: the truth is somewhere inbetween. It’s a method of deploying rote mechanical design in a way that truly acts as a supporting bulwark for the atmosphere and narrative that is fairly unique to The Outer Worlds, and a piece of narrative engineering that is definitely laudable.
The way in which this planet-hopping navigational style is implemented in the quest lines of the cast is integral to the plot, a vital means of both pacing the game and giving a memorable context to the traversal these personal journeys require. It’s about mapping the subconscious onto the physical cartography of space and time, to give these moments in your lives a name, a vantage point from which you can all find yourselves and remember who you are. Nyoka’s anecdote establishes this throughline to the nomadic nature of the wayward spacer and how losing sight of our context leaves us distorted, unrecognizable to ourselves let alone one another- no matter how well equipped you are for traversing the wilds, without the retention of our self-awareness, you may carelessly lose a part of yourself for good.
We’re exceptionally lucky for such a wonderful collection of recent releases that, at their core, remain true to the idea that more than ever we must reforge our connections to eachother and ourselves. To have not only this release, but also games like Death Stranding where violence is set aside in favor of understanding and rebuilding our lives, and CONTROL where the fractal pursuit of the truth buried within your own psyche and coming to terms with yourself disrupts the very fabric of reality is a breath of fresh air for the larger budget sections of the industry. The Outer Worlds is no less important a release in many ways, demonstrating the hidden labor we freely surrender to our oppressors and ourselves through obligations both fabricated and material, and the ways in which breaking free from them is not always as simple or clear cut as we would like. The ways in which we, too, become knowing participants in an endless game of exploitation, but with the hope that one day, with the right opportunity, we can stop the cycle and find a way to escape.
Each member of the crew teaches you how to find this escape, not through a direct line of enlightenment that paves the way clearly, but instead by showing you how each of them comes to know themselves. When each individual corrects their moral compass, they become a source of not just physical strength, but emotional courage to do the right thing. When Nyoka finally discovers what happened to her old family, she is recognizably distraught and confides her reconciliation with you. In one available line of dialogue, you can take a quiet moment to set aside your arms and join her in mourning her former family before pressing on with the mission.
It’s a mutual recognition, by coming to see her as an equal with dreams, desires, and agency, she recognizes you as her new kin. It resonates with an emotion far richer than any simple rubber-stamped romance option could ever hope to offer the player. It’s a moment I personally cherish, and in it I wept.
I have personally spent my life in the company of many close friends and loved ones, my chosen family, much in the same way Nyoka had. To take many individuals and form the cohesive unit of a whole is a human dynamic often lost in the whizz-bang flashy melodramatic narratives offered by many games, especially those that AA-AAA productions tend to employ. It’s an interpersonal experience that is hard to convey in cinema, let alone within the confines of interactive media and the constraints faced by writers trying to pair precise dialogue with unpredictable outcomes.
The Outer Worlds made subdued, slow-burn personal stories its guiding star, and the reward of this was an experience beyond that found in many other titles to date. For once it’s so nice not to be the center of attention, the main attraction of the event, to simply experience the reality of the world presented as a participant instead of the pivotal messiah in charge of saving the universe. The main plotline even focuses on restoring a sense of solidarity to a small, forgotten colony that has lost its way, the only thing at risk here were people that would’ve been forgotten to history regardless.
It’s a reminder that there are means to settle disputes and restore our humanity in ways that do not require perpetual bloodshed, that developers can craft narratives even in games that feature violent conflict to serve as a tether back to our empathy. The Outer Worlds demonstrates that we can make games that hold us accountable in both our larger actions and our smaller ones and give us the room to reflect on our wrongdoings just as much as our good deeds, that we can render characters in total definition that fleshes them out as meaningful people whose needs can take precedence over our own selfish impulses, and to grow alongside them.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice