Everybody deals with the hopelessness and futility of existence in their own way. In a world flirting ever more coquettishly with authoritarianism and nationalism, it’s difficult to know what to do when it feels like you have very little say to resist it. Really, there’s only one thing you can do: laugh. With that in mind, when it comes to late October, I will cope with what may well be a no-deal Brexit by insulating myself with the chortle-a-minute riot that is Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds.
In an hour of The Outer Worlds gameplay, I’ve detected the nihilistic humour of the Fallout games, but also moments of unapologetic silliness. That said, there’s also satire in spades. This is a universe in thrall to gargantuan megacorporations that own you from cradle to grave and beyond as they terraform planets into uninhabitable hellholes for profit.
However, it hasn’t all been fun and games. The Outer Worlds’ Epic exclusivity has elicited strong feelings, most notably from former Obsidian writer Chris Avellone. Shortly after my hands-on with the game, I spoke to Obsidian’s senior designer, Brian Heins, about crunch, the most ridiculous ways you can play the game, and The Outer Worlds’ relationship with today’s turbulent world.
PCGN: The Outer Worlds’ flexibility is made manifest in the numerous builds you can create. What’s the maddest one you’ve seen?
Brian Heins: We did a UI revision, so you can’t do it currently, but someone actually went through character creation and gave himself the minimum possible on every single attribute – worst possible attribute scores, worst possible skill scores – and they never levelled their character up. They just kept going through the game to see how far they could get as the worst person in the colony, so that was entertaining to see them try.
In what way? What happened to them?
Because they had the lowest intelligence they got all the ‘dumb’ dialogue options. It was entertaining because they embraced the idea that they were just bad at everything. An NPC would say ‘can you do this farming’ and they’d be like ‘probably not, but I’ll give it a try’!
Could they complete the game?
They could, absolutely. But it was definitely challenging. At the time the game wasn’t completeable, but they got as far as they possibly could.
Given the various alliances in The Outer Worlds, all of whom you have a reputation with, what’s the trickiest situation in which a player has found themselves?
Obsidian is not a crunch studio
One of our producers on the game – his gameplay style is he doesn’t talk to anybody, he just shoots them. So, walking through town, he starts opening fire and killing people, just to see if you can play the game that way. And you can, but it’s a very lonely game! Everyone who could be a companion, he kills before they can do anything. Every quest giver, he kills, and you can complete the game entirely that way, but it is definitely much more challenging experience.
Some players try to play all sides, try to avoid making a choice between people who are opposing each other. But not everybody can be pleased, especially when you’re helping out their enemy. Then it came to the point where they actually need to make a decision that…
…will piss someone off.
Exactly. There’s a certain type of person that doesn’t want to make anybody angry. But there are also certain people that are just happy to work with you as long as you’re not working with their enemy.
There are two main endings. Can you keep playing after that?
No. When the game completes you’re shown how your choices ripple through the future of the colony.
Presumably there’s a time at which you can save before this?
We’ve created a save game right before you make the final choice, it says ‘hey, now you’re ending the game’, so you can always load that again and play more if you want to.
To me this is a game with real satirical bite. Could the world be more ripe for something like The Outer Worlds than right now?
I don’t know! I mean, obviously we weren’t very aware of the times and the culture as we were making the game, but yeah, with the corporate, financial situation the way it is, businesses the way they are – I think it’s very interesting that over the past couple of years comedy shows and sites are less like comedy and more like reality. I see an article from The Onion and I’m not altogether sure if it’s actually satire or just reporting.
I think with the humour of the game we’re taking the idea of corporate bureaucracy culture and extrapolating it to an extreme, but it’s still a relatable extreme because it’s all based in the situation we’re in as a society, definitely.
Over the course of the past two or three years, have your writers produced something that seemed ridiculous, but then became something like reality?
The choice of where to publish the game is Private Division's
I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I definitely know that people have talked about ideas that seem like ‘oh, that’s crazy, that would never happen’, and we have seen similar things, but not exactly that. Things like this business making this decision, or this PR spin that’s so obviously an attempt to pretend something’s not a problem when it is a problem.
I think that’s one of the things that makes the humour relatable – while you may not have intended a specific comparison, people will be able to derive their own comparisons from the humour of the situation, whether it’s a crappy customer service phone call that you’ve had to deal with, or trying to get an insurance agency to approve payment on something.
Do you think people will look back on The Outer Worlds as an important title given its cultural context?
It’s always hard for us to tell because we’re so close to it. I would love it if that was the case. I think that comes when a game resonates more than just within the year it was released, or something that people can play again and again and get something out of it.
On the one hand I would enjoy making something that continues to resonate with people. On the other I would love it if we change as a society, where that’s no longer relevant to people.
Then arguably there’d be no Outer Worlds?
What’s been Obsidian’s approach to crunch in relation to The Outer Worlds?
Obsidian is not a crunch studio, which is one of the things that keeps people staying there for a long time. We’ve had situations where, to meet a deadline for a week or so, they ask people to come in and put in extra time, but it’s always a request. And people who choose not to, or can’t because of family commitments or whatever, it’s fine, it’s not an issue at all.
There really hasn’t been a crunch or a death march or anything like that with the studio for quite a long time – as far as I can remember, anyway. That’s definitely one of the things that as a studio we’re very committed to. We’d rather cut something than try and get people to not have a life outside of the industry.
The Outer Worlds is an Epic exclusive, which has caused some controversy, most notably from Chris Avellone. How do you respond to that?
So ultimately the choice of where the game is published is Private Division’s decision. We really didn’t have any say in that matter at all. I didn’t actually see Chris’s comments.
Do those conversations filter through to the team as the game’s being made? Does it have any impact – perhaps on morale?
People have questions about why the decision was made. We had a team meeting where Feargus [Urquhart, Obsidian CEO] let us know what the decision was, why it was made, that sort of thing. Most of the team just wanted [to know] ‘does it affect the release date?’ and that kind of stuff, and the answer was no, so ultimately it hasn’t had an impact on the team with respect to getting the game done. We’re aware that some people have pretty strong feelings about it one way or another, and we’re just focused on making the game as good as we can.
Obviously it’s important for you and the team for as many people to play the game as possible. Is The Outer Worlds being on Xbox Game Pass important for that?
Xbox, PS4, Windows PC store, Game Pass, and the Epic store: there’s a lot of ways for players to purchase the game and enjoy it. Definitely I think Game Pass is a great option for players. We’ll see how it works out, but I’m hoping that, because a lot of people can get very intimidated by the scope of RPGs, being able to drop in and try it out to see if it’s their type of game – for however long it’s available on Game Pass – [is a good thing]. Then they can purchase it if they enjoy playing beyond that.
How do the writers strike a tonal balance between satire and fun with political topics that some players might resist?
So that’s one of those things that comes through iteration. Whenever we work on an area there are a few story points that Leonard and Tim want to make sure get hit by the writers. They’ll do a first pass, then play it through and give feedback.
Sometimes people will write a joke that’s just not landing. Some of it honestly is in delivery from the voice acting. Generally when we do an audio pass we do text-to-speech auto generation, which is very flat and monotone, and a lot of the things people laugh at now were just not funny when it was just text-to-speech.
As we were doing the VO for the narrative the writers were giving them the feedback, like what they intended to be funny, what the punchline was supposed to be, but the actual voice actors’ delivery brought a lot of life to the characters.