I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a character creator as aggressively bland as the one in Outriders. All the faces are minor variations on Beefy Woodsman. Hair colors range from black to dull brown. Every decal is an unobtrusive scar, except for a lone chrome eyebrow implant that may as well be a shiny pimple. From this clay, I molded the world’s least interesting man. Moments into starting the game, however, I met the character I would have made, if only I had the tools.
Jack Tanner is the captain of the titular Outriders, a spacefaring group trying to find a habitable location for the last vestiges of humanity. More importantly, he is a cowboy. In pink sunglasses. Why? No clue. Nobody ever explains, and if there’s a diary entry that covers this, I have yet to find it. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’s the kind of out-of-place sore thumb freak abomination I would have made in a different game’s character creator. Immediately, I was fascinated by him. What was his deal? How did he end up in this game, specifically? Did he take the wrong bus?
As Tanner, my character, and others disembarked onto a seemingly peaceful (but ominously unexplored) forest planet, I endeavored to learn more about him—to find out what made my outer space cowboy dad tick. He did not divulge much, but he encouraged me to create a new life on the planet we were exploring. “You get to build the future,” he said. “Don’t waste it.” Inspiring! Then he told me that while his brother died back on Earth, his daughter was one of the few who made it onto the ship we’d just disembarked from—and she was pregnant. My character gently ribbed Tanner for being in such a good mood.
“Don’t push it, Outrider,” he said.
“Yessir, grandad, sir,” my guy replied, chuckling.
It was an endearing moment, albeit a fairly generic one. I was expecting a little more from a man who—while rushing to evacuate Earth—made absolutely certain to grab his cowboy hat, pink sunglasses, and duster jacket. Is that why his brother died? Did he forget to grab his brother? Needless to say, I was interested to know more.
But I was also flagging. The tutorial forced me to shoot at harmless holograms and look at some cow monsters. It was all very Important and Serious, according to the characters around me, but it was also very boring, according to me. It felt weird to be playing such a self-serious shooter from the studio that brought us Bulletstorm, one of the genre’s most-beloved bits of satire. Plus, I’d heard that story and setting weren’t Outriders’ strongest suits. If this was gonna be the whole game, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go along for the ride.
Then, after about 20 more minutes of game time in which we got attacked by floating goo and the outer space aurora borealis, a mad scientist shot Tanner in the head (to “contain” the goo, you see). So ended the journey of a man out of place and, as it turned out, time. To be honest, I figured he was only going to stick around for a couple hours, tops. But nope, old Tanner didn’t even last that long.
His death was sudden and unceremonious. He yelled for someone to tend to the wounded and got a hole in the brain for his troubles. And yet, in death I found him even more intriguing than in life. Here was this weird-looking dude whose entire presence in Outriders begged countless questions. Instead of answering them, the game gave us one conversation about precisely none of the things I was actually curious about. Then it killed him—and specifically, he was murdered in cold blood by a different man in different glasses who spoke exclusively in yells.
It wasn’t all that different from your standard stakes-establishing video game opening, but everything about it was bizarre enough. It all happened comically fast. Four different characters wore funny glasses (and three of them died). Even the most self-serious characters looked and behaved a little strangely, and Tanner was the crown jewel of that motley lot. If the game was going to throw all of this at me in 40 minutes, I wanted to know what else it had in store. I wanted to know how weird it could get when it wasn’t holding back. I was in.
Before long, my character got shoved into a cryo-sleep machine and awoke years later in a setting that can best be described as Heavy Metal Magazine Presents Warhammer 40k’s Mad Max. It’s not as self-effacingly dumb as Bulletstorm, but make no mistake: It’s dumb. I’m here for it.
Thank you, Tanner, for showing me the way. You and your bad hat and weird glasses died for a good cause. I don’t know if your daughter is still alive, but if we’re being real, probably not. Anyway, RIP to a real one.