Videogame (2019). Obsidian Entertainment. Designed by Leonard Boyarsky, Tim Cain, and Charles Staples. Platforms: PS4, Win, XBoxOne (2019); Switch (2020).
Not to be confused with the same year's release, Outer Wilds, The Outer Worlds is a comic, first-person action Computer Role Playing Game that pits players against a coalition of inept but dastardly corporations in the 24th century.
The Outer Worlds' designers Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky were the creators of the classic post-apocalyptic game Fallout (1997) and its sequel, but lost control of the franchise license when it was sold to Bethesda in 2004. Cain and Boyarsky were hired by Obsidian Entertainment, which had already produced a licensed Fallout game, Fallout: New Vegas (2010), widely considered the best-written and least-polished entry in the 21st century revival of that franchise. The Outer Worlds could thus be fairly described as "Fallout in space", and it carries the countercultural ethos of Fallout while dropping the wasteland aesthetic so lovingly recreated in Bethesda's sequels.
As in Fallout, you play a protagonist woken from Suspended Animation, this time aboard a Faster Than Light colony ship sent from Earth to populate the Halcyon star system. Due to a technical malfunction, you find that you have arrived in Halcyon sixty years late. Your lost ship has become a ghost story, and the Halcyon system has now been partially terraformed by rapacious mega-corporations who exist in uneasy truce with each other through a governing body known as "The Board".
All this is explained by the rebellious Mad Scientist who discovered you. Although the rest of your vessel's colonists remain frozen, the scientist offers to revive them in the hope that they will join with him to overthrow The Board. Thus begins a series of missions in search of the necessary restorative chemicals, during which you witness the absurdities of the hyper-capitalist system that is ruining Halcyon. Workers are born into corporate servitude, forced to save money for their own grave sites, and suicide is classified as "vandalism of company property".
As your character rises in social status, you meet the oligarchs of The Board and discover that they too are miserable. Their system, focused on the production and consumption of consumer products, cannot provide secure food or infrastructure even for its wealthy. Faced with food shortages, The Board are conspiring to cryogenically freeze the entire working class, thawing them only for brief stints of labour. Upon discovering the truth, the player can either join the ranks of corporate oligarchs or bring down their system.
While the venom of The Outer Worlds's anti-capitalist satire reflects the changing mood of America in the late 2010s, structurally, the game's succession of quests follow the well-worn design constraints popularized by the Bioware computer role-playing games of the 2000s. This is likely a result of budget constraints, but mean that the game world and its inhabitants have an occasional stiffness that detracts from immersion, and the sporadic violence is not particularly engaging. The game's strength is in its writing, and The Outer Worlds contains several well-scripted dilemmas that force the player to make hard choices between freedom to starve and servile security.
The colourful setting clearly hearkens back to the Golden Age of SF rather than the cyberpunk era more usually associated with tales of corporate dystopia, and the mild retro-vibe is supported by modelling the game's villains after the American robber barons of the late 19th century. Indeed, the game entertainingly derives its dystopia as the result of an Alternate History where President McKinley was not assassinated in 1901, meaning that his successor Teddy Roosevelt did not have an opportunity to "trust bust" the corporations.
This emphasis on 120-year-old history was perhaps a way for the production team to sidestep controversy – as was Leonard Boyarsky's unconvincing claim that his satire of murderous capitalism was not "politically charged." The designers can perhaps be forgiven, as while they were creating The Outer Worlds, Obsidian Entertainment was acquired by mega-corporation Microsoft. [JN]