‘The Outer Worlds’: An Anti-Capitalist Game That’s Too Much Work

On the first world of The Outer Worlds, I meet a man whose job is collecting taxes for grave sites. See, here on Edgewater all the graves are owned by the company that also owns the settlement, the factory, the food, the electricity, and probably the air by some devious legal loophole or another. So if you don’t pay your grave fee, you don’t get a grave when you die. In a settlement where plague is as present a threat as starvation, that’s a pretty serious issue. So for one of my first quests in The Outer Worlds, I help locals figure out how best to leverage their resources to pay what they owe, lest they end up dead and out of luck. On the far-flung space colonies of Obsidian Entertainment’s latest, unregulated capitalism rules. Turns out, space capitalism sucks.

The Outer Worlds is full of a lot of experiences like this, where the absolute bleak horror of a space empire run by lousy corporations melds with an intergalactic setting to produce moments that are stunning in their tragicomic brutality. The spacefaring world of the game is beautiful, brightly colored, a site of awe and mystery—and absolutely depressing to the core. The Outer Worlds draws its best moments from this contrast, and from the suffering and determination of the people living under the yoke of a really asinine economic system right out of the Gilded Age. If only playing in that world didn’t also feel so laborious.

The Outer Worlds follows in the tradition of some of the most lauded roleplaying games in existence. The last time Obsidian made a game like this, after all, it was Fallout: New Vegas, an inventive sequel to Bethesda’s Fallout 3 that remains one of the deepest, most thematically and narratively satisfying RPGs ever made. Obsidian’s pedigree has always been their ability to pay close attention to theme and narrative design, steeped in the old tradition of roleplaying as actually occupying a specific role in the world, as opposed to the generalist superhero favored by a lot of modern open-world RPGs. The company returning to this genre with The Outer Worlds felt like a thrilling development. Here are the people who get it.

And true to form, the moment-to-moment writing of The Outer Worlds is superb. It’s focused and witty, layered and satirical, with a thoroughness to it that’s frustratingly rare to see in games. Almost everything in the game, large and small, feels written to reinforce the larger themes of the world or to give that world unexpected depths, leading to a sense of place that feels lively and coherent. Combined with strong art direction and an emphasis on encouraging exploration, The Outer Worlds has a lot of what it needs to succeed.

Why, oh, why, then, does playing The Outer Worlds, a game that revels in its anti-capitalism, feel so goddamn much like work? Repeatedly during the process of reviewing this game, I found my eyes glazing over as I wandered from waypoint to waypoint, crossing off objectives and planning the next step in my journey like I was going down a shopping list. See, The Outer Worlds has a major, overwhelming problem with the way it structures itself. Like many games of its type, including the Fallout games it draws major influence from, quests are everything in The Outer Worlds. You have main quests and side quests, all of them objective-based tasks that are used to structure the play into chunks, some offering story, some amusement, some necessary in-game resources. The challenge of quest design is to shape them in such a way that they don’t just feel like running from place to place, tripping story or objective triggers in the game world. Done right, by injecting surprise, deep character motivation, and a level of complexity that defies basic quest formulas, these quests can feel like an entirely organic outgrowth of your character’s existence in the world. Done wrong, they feel like scavenger hunts imposed by an indifferent game designer.

The Outer Worlds‘s quests are mostly the latter. Despite the excellent writing, the experience of playing them is simplistic and familiar, turning the game’s great ideas into window dressing. The design is transparent in a way that lessens the game, and its goals become skeletons of themselves. This quest is really about going through a dungeon, or collecting resources, or just running from one place to another to yet another. While the narrative framework of a quest might be staging a rebellion, or helping a friend ask their beloved on a date, the actual objectives are much simpler and less interesting: talk to this person, get this thing, kill these enemies. It feels retrograde, a level of simplicity that would have made sense two generations of games ago but is absolutely grating from a developer of this pedigree in this era.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/the-outer-worlds-review