When Obsidian Entertainment revealed The Outer Worlds at E3 2018 it was hard to ignore the radioactive elephant in the room. A dystopian sci-fi RPG with dark humor and madcap characters? Bethesda's Fallout series immediately spring to mind.
And that comparison wouldn't necessarily be wrong. After all, Obsidian Entertainment is the studio behind Fallout: New Vegas, arguably the series' most popular title. And, following the disappointment that was Fallout 76, there's most definitely a space in our library for a whacky new RPG.
But has The Outer Worlds got what it takes to fill void left by Fallout?
Following a hands off demo of The Outer Worlds at E3 2019, we sat down with senior narrative designer, Megan Starks, to discuss balancing dark themes, underlying politics and living in the shadow of Fallout.
Corporations and capitalism
We've been extremely excited for The Outer Worlds but recent history has dictated that often AAA titles don't end up containing what was labelled on the can. So, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Obsidian Entertainment seems to have gone above and beyond our expectations, creating a title that masterfully walks the line between cynical commentary on capitalism and humor.
The overarching theme of The Outer Worlds is inherently bleak. Your character awakes from hibernation amidst a conspiracy to destroy Halycon – a colony residing at the edge of the galaxy driven by big-brand corporations. In The Outer Worlds, corporations are king and Obsidian take advantage of this to deliver comedy with a bite.
A perfect example of this was showcased in the hands off demo: The mission you're given is to find a gentleman called Clive who runs the Boarstwurst canning factory. Boarstwurst, for those wondering, is a meat that's gathered from Cystypigs. As we discover on sneaking into Clive's factory, Cystypigs are oversized boars that grow disgusting pustules on their body. When those pustules are 'ripe' they are harvested for Boarwurst which is then canned. Yummy.
There's no denying the entire 'Slaughterhouse Clive' mission is offering some sort of
commentary on animal farming practices, but it never feels like you're being force-fed a moral lesson. It's a comparable experience to Abe's Odyssey in that the tone of humor balances out these darker themes and never makes it feel like you're getting a lecture from the developers, rather it feels like Obsidian are poking fun at our capitalist culture.
"I think it’s really interesting because the two game directors, Tim [Cain] and Leonard [Boyarsky], represent each side of the humor," Starks tells us. "Tim has a lighter, quirky funny, Futurama style of humor and Leonard is very dark and almost philosophical in it. When the two come together it strikes a really good balance."
However, Obsidian claims its not intentionally trying to deliver a political message and instead openly admit primary inspiration was drawn from the Fallout series.
"Tim and Leonard wanted to create this new IP similar to Fallout – in the sense that it’s a dark apocalyptic world," Stark explains. "Here we wanted to create a future that is a slightly dystopian society. We thought 'what would be an interesting take on that but also funny?' and we just ran with that."
It's refreshing that Obsidian doesn't hide the influence Fallout has had on The Outer Worlds, especially given that studios typically will go out of their way to argue against such things.
But having Fallout as inspiration doesn't mean The Outer Worlds is a mere rehash – it stands as a game in its own right. While features such as perks, companions and combat feel particularly similar, it appears that Obsidian has taken the genre and ramped it up to 10 adding character flaws, more impactful choices and more in-depth characters.
"A lot of it is the setting and the humor for sure, it’s just that personality that you get with the game," Starks explains when we question what will set The Outer Worlds apart from Fallout. "I think what people are excited about with the game is – if you’re familiar with Obsidian games – we try to take it to the max.
"The things you love about the games that we make, we want to provide to you in The Outer Worlds. It is very player-choice driven, we want a really rich story but everything you do has reactivity to it and you can play the way that you want to play whether that’s good, evil, psychopath, whether you want to side with the scientists and try to save the system or whether you want to join the board and reinforce their agenda or if you want to double-cross both of them and do a lone-wolf thing.
"I think that’s part of it. The games people already like from the studio, you are going to get that same experience here. "
In the demo we watched, Obsidian's branching narrative was definitely prominent. We'll come back to Clive's Slaughterhouse, as it's the perfect example.
In this mission alone, several choices were presented. Firstly, do you choose to take the mission which involves usurping Clive for a ballsy lady called Catherine? The next option is how you approach getting into the slaughterhouse. Do you sneak? Go guns-blazing? Or maybe smart-talk your way in?
But the biggest decision comes when you actually find Clive, a raccoon-eyed man who makes Hannibal Lecter look like a reasonable guy. Clive offers you a lifetime supply of Boarstwurst (remember, pustules) in return for bringing him Catherine's head. The choice you make will affect the entire game- and be ready for these choices a lot.
"There are a lot of examples of choice from the highest level, like do you want to be the board or a scientist or neither?" Starks explains. "Even on a small level, say if I’m playing a dumb scientist character and I make certain choices in dialogue, other people will react to that and the dialogue will play out in different ways."
Starks presented the example of Marauder-infested areas, which can be cleared out. If you choose to do so then you may find wildlife take over the area later in the game. Similarly other choices affect character reactions (including whether companions choose to abandon you), narrative and environment. "We do in every way try to have the game react to what you’re doing in the world," Starks explains.
From what we've seen, The Outer Worlds looks like Obsidian Entertainment at peak form offering an tongue-in-cheek RPG that doesn't shy away from the grimmer aspects of our potential dystopian future. And we can't wait to get our hands on it.
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