Feature Article

The Outer Worlds: The Familiarity And Flaws Of Space

Role-playing among the stars.

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Despite taking place in the vast reaches of space, The Outer Worlds hits close to home. The newest game from Obsidian Entertainment is a spacefaring adventure rooted in our own world, from its alternate-history roots to the familiarity of its systems. At a glance, it could be mistaken for a follow-up to Fallout: New Vegas, and in many ways it is. The Outer Worlds is a part of a long lineage of sandbox role-playing games emphasizing player choice within a richly detailed world.

But our look at PAX East, followed by a chat with creators Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, showed a renewed ambition and comfort in creating a new setting for storytelling. Cain is best known for creating the Fallout series, while Boyarsky was one of the key developers of Fallout and went on to be the lead world designer for Diablo 3. The Outer Worlds is their first collaboration since 2004’s Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, but if there was distance between them in the years since, the two didn’t show it. In our chat, the pair seemed utterly at ease with each other and their vision for their latest project.

Anarchy in Space

Fallout was never overtly political, but parts of it are intrinsically tied to political theory--more academic study than a call-and-response to current events. The Outer Worlds takes place in a future run by corporations, and Boyarsky and Cain have implied that they see the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 as where their alternate future diverges from ours.

"Ironically, we had been talking about what’s the opposite of pure capitalism and it’s pure anarchism and certain modes of philosophy," said Boyarsky. "So we started talking about people in our colony pushing anarchistic ideas. Not pure anarchistic, but that sort of strain. The fact that McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist was weird, it was almost like it was waiting for us to go there."

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That kernel of an idea informed the factions and class critique at play. The slice of gameplay shown at PAX East took place on Byzantium City, a gilded utopia on the planet Halcyon that most citizens never even see for themselves. Counter to Halcyon is the planet Monarch, an anarchistic world full of monsters--and a direct contrast to many of the other worlds. Propaganda plays a role in keeping the population of Halycon docile--both in maintaining the illusion of success in the city even as the facade is starting to crumble, and in telling citizens to be afraid of Monarch and to discourage them from traveling there. At this point, the commentary turns a little more pointed.

"Somebody asked me, how could anyone imagine living like that [in the game]?" Cain said. "Let's see, can you imagine living where you get a job and you’re supposed to work until you can’t anymore, but then you don’t have healthcare and they expect you to just die? What a weird society that would be. So to [these characters], this isn’t weird. This is just how life is. And because they [on Halcyon] don’t want anyone to think there can be anything else, the people on Monarch are just weird, anarchist, crazy people."

A Hero With Flaws

While the team has spent a lot of time imagining an alternate history and the political factions within this fictitious space future, much of the gameplay demonstration revolved more around the systems that operate within this world. The most compelling is the new Flaws system. If Fallout has become known for Perks, The Outer Worlds' Flaws are the counterweight. These elements pop up when you’ve engaged in actions that might make your character afraid of a given scenario. You can opt to adopt the Flaw, giving you a permanent, irreversible debuff when put into that kind of situation, in exchange for an immediate stat point. If you’re afraid in a given situation, your health or damage output could suffer. The push-and-pull of a dynamic, build-your-own-difficulty option is one of the most distinct elements of The Outer Worlds, but it didn’t come together overnight.

When you do adopt a Flaw, you’re told the debuff penalty and the condition associated with it. If you’re acrophobic (fear of heights), for example, you’ll be alerted when you’re near an edge and suffer a penalty, and so you’ll have to plan your strategies to avoid fighting on perches and gangways. Another, called "robophobia", might impact your choice of companions to avoid auto-mechanicals.

"There were actually some Flaws we got rid of because they weren't really negative," Cain said. "There were also some Flaws that we dropped because it wouldn't make sense if you were really susceptible to the kind of damage that doesn't happen until the last half of the game. Or a monster that dominates in one location, so that's a free Flaw. We tried to limit ourselves to things that were about making more of a direct challenge. You have to think about what you're going to do. If you're afraid of the dark, then don't stay in the dark areas. Claustrophobic, you can't go in small areas. Those are the kind of things that I think that can make the game more challenging without necessarily making it a different game. Also, it's entirely in your control and it's based on what you've done. You don't have to do those things that trigger the flaw. You'll never be offered the flaw, or you can just simply say no to the flaw."

"That’s what I love about it," said Cain. "If you get a Flaw, it’s permanent. It’s very The Hero of a Thousand Faces. You, in this game, become more powerful than when you began but you're not perfect. You're flawed, and that's actually the way myths have always been. I love the fact that your character has these issues and you just have to adjust how you play."

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Not all of the Flaws are focused on combat. At the same time, some didn’t make the cut. At the demonstration, the developers mentioned one that would trigger if you lied a lot, and eventually prevented you from ever telling the truth. It was ultimately removed. In the interview, Cain and Boyarsky also recalled another cut Flaw called Impulsive, which would pop up if you were going through the dialogue trees quickly. If you adopted the Flaw, dialogue options would disappear on a timer, until it just randomly auto-selected one for you.

Difficulty And Flexibility

For those who just want to experience the narrative, The Outer Worlds will have a separate Story Mode with easier combat. At the same time, the game aims to meet the player where they are in terms of difficulty. The Flaws system is one element of that, letting you ramp up the challenge to your own comfort level. But simply going through the story and reacting to NPCs can have a big impact as well.

"If you try to be a nice person and you can be friends with a lot of people, you can do that," Cain said. "The reason we're not 100% [certain that] pacifism works is there are some situations where you're wandering through, especially in the monster planet, that monster doesn't want to talk to you. And you come over the hill and it's right there and it just attacks you. It's like, ugh, you may have to kill it, but I often run away when I'm playing. I just run away and see if I can get away from things. I've been trying to get through to the end. I've played the game four times now. Melee-only was hard, but I did it. I'm trying to play a pacifist character. I'm trying to get all the way through. I want to do it before we ship, to know it's possible."

At the same time, part of the appeal of this style of sandbox RPG is the clockwork machinery that goes wrong. Sometimes this gets adapted into a gameplay element, such as a new weapon showed at the presentation called the Mandibular Rearranger. The science-based melee weapon came about as a result of a bug, and it randomly changes enemies’ faces as they’re struck. Obsidian has a history of allowing those elements of randomness in and letting players experiment.

"Some people have a hard time with that aspect of the way we design games," said Boyarsky. "So many happy accidents made Fallout what it was. We try to build in those blank areas where we're just like, we know this kind of thing's going to happen here, and people were like, you've got to figure that out. It's just like, no, it will happen. And invariably it does. But most times it's like we've had things, you know, fill in those blanks that we wouldn't have been able to come up with until we started making the game."

Obsidian has built its reputation on that creative process, and it shows in its final products. The machinery that moves their games is defined as much by how players interact with the systems as the systems themselves. The Outer Worlds looks to recreate that sensation in the far reaches of space, and what we’ve seen is a promising start--flaws and all.

The Outer Worlds is coming this year for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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