Review of The Outer Worlds
The Outer Worlds. Private Division, 2019.
The Outer Worlds is an open-world science-fiction roleplaying game. Released in 2019, the game is inspired by the Fallout series of games, with the directors of the game, Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, also being the creators of the Fallout franchise. The story follows “the Stranger,” a customizable character, who has been in cryostasis for 70 years aboard the Hope, a derelict ship floating through the Halcyon system. Dr. Phineas Welles, a mad scientist, boards the Hope to save the colonists. He only has the resources to wake the player up and, after joining him, the player is sent on a series of missions to collect resources to wake up their fellow colonists, which leads them to different planets and settlements in the Halcyon system. Along the way, they recruit people to their team: their objective changes into taking on the Board and the corporations that run the system.
The game shines with its writing, which is at times humorous and serious, but always thoughtful in its execution. The player is given absurd response options when communicating with various characters, but the writers understand when and where to pull back the humor enough to allow the significance of the events within the game stand for themselves. The player will sometimes be penalized for a certain choice—they may choose not to take on a quest, for example—but the dialogue options are not designed for “scoring” or punishing the player needlessly, though the actions still feel consequential. Like in the Fallout series, communication and player choice are important parts of the game, and the emphasis rests on these features rather than the combat, which is a standard first-person shooter.
The Halcyon system does not have a government in the traditional sense; instead, it is governed by ten corporations who together form the Halcyon Holdings Corporation (HHC). The HHC, referred to throughout the game as “the Board,” represents the primary antagonizing force in the game. Almost all the colonies and every planet are claimed by at least one corporation, with each one creating its own unique products and operating its own paramilitary force to protect its assets. Loyalty to corporate interests is paramount among Halcyon citizens, and the corporations go to great lengths to ensure workers are loyal and rebellions are quashed quickly. One HHC memo states, “please be reminded that acting against the interests of the corporations is acting against the interests of humanity,” emphasizing the connection between human status and the role of labor in the system.
Corporations are a common feature of many science fiction media, though their roles vary. For some, the corporations remain in the background, only existing to provide the reader, viewer, or player some level of recognition or worldbuilding. For others, particularly in the cyberpunk subgenre, corporations take on the role of government and represent the merging of consumerist and political spheres. In these media, a further subgenre is the self-referential parody, the texts that both portray the corporation as an evil entity, while presenting a distinct self-awareness. The Outer Worlds doesn’t necessarily break the mold in this regard, but it does provide an interesting text through which to examine corporate parody, and the setting in space allows the game to plausibly experiment with corporatism as the governing economy and philosophy. That the game is cognizant of its own depiction and active association with corporate interests allows it to provide a setting in which a player can fully realize the ubiquity of corporations without affecting those interests in the real world.
The overall tone of The Outer Worlds is humorous—a deep contrast to the Fallout titles and many other science-fiction video games. The use of humor in the game is not unlike the novel Snow Crash, where Neal Stephenson parodies the science fiction romp to imagine a dystopic world governed by corporate interests. In this game, the use of humor emphasizes the absurdity of not only the situation, but how corporations are governing the system. The humor is physical and dialogical. For example, the slogan of one of the corporations, Spacer’s Choice, is “you’ve tried the best, now try the rest—Spacer’s Choice!” This slogan, a required statement by all Spacer’s Choice employees, is catchy and boasts an uncomplicated and easily memorable rhyming pattern. Upon consideration, the slogan is expressing just how mediocre Spacer’s Choice products are. And yet, SC is one of the governing companies in the system, with the CEO of its holding company, Charles Rockwell, serving as Chairman of the Board of the HHC. The company should, in a perfectly meritocratic environment, be a failure, and yet, in this system, the corporation is successful, ostensibly pointing out the emptiness of meritocratic systems.
Because of the game’s focus on the absurdity of the corporations, it is debatable if the full scope of the corporate greed that established civilization in the system can be fully experienced by the player—while the horrors of the corporate machine are seen, the emotional connection to them is one of ridicule. Dr. Welles is the voice of reason and adds weight to the unethical corporate actions, but the gravity of the situation he presents is broken up by farcical events, such as the frequent mechanical failures that plague his ship. While it makes for excellent storytelling, such events take away from the game’s anti-corporate messaging, making it feel hollow and self-interested. But to its credit, it would be nigh impossible for any corporate product to simultaneously possess an anti-corporate message that included itself to the point of affecting consumer behavior. Here, then, the role of humor is integral: the text’s message is presented as an invitation to the player to join the game at the shallow end of the pool. Rather than shoving them out into deeper waters, the player is left in their comfort zone to synthesize the game’s message with their own ideology. At some point, they may wade out into the deep end—but the responsibility of the game is squarely in the shallow side.
Sara Walker recently completed her Master’s degree in English/Creative Writing at the University of West Florida. Her thesis, a creative piece titled “Moderator,” features a fictional social media company that uses algorithms and AI to manipulate its users. She writes short science-fiction stories and published “Pensacola 2045” in the student literature and art journal, the Troubadour. She is a nonprofit consultant currently living in Virginia.