Before one of the designers of The Outer Worlds talked to me about the game he worked on, he commented on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer patch on the back of my denim vest.
Brian Heins, senior designer at Obsidian Entertainment, liked the patch. We’re both big Buffy fans, it turned out. My mother and I devoured the series in highschool, once staying up all night to finish the fifth season. The patch on my vest features an illustration of the title character and a quote from the fifth season finale: “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”
That quote was at the top of my mind as I played The Outer Worlds, which comes out on October 25 for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It’s a role-playing game set in the far future where a capitalist nightmare has overtaken the galaxy. How would I live in this world? What kinds of choices is it forcing me to make? What, if anything, do I believe in?
The visual motif of The Outer Worlds is “Norman Rockwell, nostalgia-style artwork, that idealized view of life, but used as a tool of propaganda,” Heins said. “Everything related to a product is very happy and cheerful. The corporations are trying to make their employees feel better about their lives: ‘Look at all these wonderful things you can buy! Isn’t it great that we give you these things?’”
In The Outer Worlds, you may not be the chosen one, but you do end up navigating a complicated, conflict-filled world, trying to figure out where you fit. It is a world of dueling perspectives, and as the player, you have the power to decide who to empower.
Heins said that although the situation seems pretty grim for some of the characters you meet, things are actually going just fine, as long as you’re the head of a major corporation.
“This is the idealized capitalist utopia because there’s no regulations, no restrictions. What matters to them is maximizing profits,” he said. “It’s a little bit of the 30s to 50s, that whole idea of a corporate town. Everything comes from the company you work for, there’s a company store you buy things from. So all your money goes right back into the company.”
The influence from history is clear in The Outer Words. Each of the corporations has a distinct flavor, promising different benefits to its employees. In Fallbrook, the town I visited during my time playing the game in the Take-Two offices was run by the corporation SubLight. They were rough and tumble, with a bit of a western flair. Unlike other corporations I had seen, they seemed a bit more willing to admit that their gains were ill-gotten. It was as if the mob got incorporated.
“One of my favorite characters is one you haven’t met yet. She’s a representative for The Board. She’s fairly high up in The Board’s organization,” Heins said. “She’s just got a very brutal practicality to her. It comes from a space where the colony must be run efficiently for everyone to succeed and survive. Anything that gets in the way of that efficiency must be eliminated for the sake of the entire colony—which gets very dark, very quickly. But it’s all from the perspective of, ‘yes, I must make these hard decisions so everyone can prosper and succeed.’”
The Outer Worlds is fantastical, but its problems are ones that are familiar to me. Even the corporate phrases are ones I recognize from various meetings I’ve had to sit through.
Heins said that “we’re all a family” is one of his favorite examples of corporate phraseology. “When you have CEOs making hundreds of millions of dollars a year and people making below minimum wage or barely minimum wage to get by, those aren’t the same teams,” he said. “They’re not even the same game.”
Framing these issues in science fiction terms made it feel less like I was being lectured to. That distance creates a space for self-discovery, where you can learn a lot more about what you can believe through the choices you make.
I remember gasping in delight as I wandered into Fallbrook, which is forested by saturated purple and orange trees. The warm, orange glow of the light made the whole town seem comfortable and homey, until I went up to people and started talking to them. It’s easy to get engrossed in The Outer Worlds, as it’s just enough like our own world that we recognize it, but far away enough that it doesn’t feel like a rehash of the day-to-day. Both in the tone of its writing and its atmosphere, the game plays a delicate balancing act between the things that you recognize and the things that you don’t.
This interplay between the fantastical and the ordinary was put there with a purpose. “At a certain point [in development], everything was just alien. It just started being normal, and not interesting and unique,” Heins said. “The fact that you keep going back and forth between the mundane and the extraordinary—the extraordinary retains its feel of being something new and unique.”
The Outer Worlds doesn’t create something new out of whole cloth. It weaves familiar things from history and our current political issues together into something that allows you to understand yourself better. Even Heins said that he felt challenged by some of the points of view of different factions in the game, but the exercise of judging your reaction to differing viewpoints is what helps you form your own.
“There’s a quote I remember—I don’t remember who says it, but it’s like, ‘the unexamined opinion has no value,’” Heins said. (He may have been thinking of Socrates.) “If you’re just saying it because that’s what you’ve been told to say, then you’re a parrot.”