Half an hour into The Outer Worlds, someone criticized my fashion sense. Thawed out from intergalactic stasis and thrown into the crumbling hypercapitalist nightmare that is the Halcyon Colony, I of course did the standard role-playing game thing: Ditched my paper-thin clothing for the first beefy set of armor I could “borrow” off a dead foe. Marauder armor, as it turned out.
And then the first civilized human being I ran into called me on it. “You uh...you may not want to wear that armor around here, lest people think you’re a marauder yourself. I’m pretty open-minded, but...”
My jaw dropped. Sufficiently chastised, I switched back into my civilian clothes and only wore clean and corporate-friendly space armor for the next 25 hours. Lesson learned.
There’s a famous Warren Spector thought experiment, the “One Block Role-Playing Game.” In it, Spector puts forth the idea of an ultra-compact simulation, a dense but meticulously detailed experience that inhabits only a single city block. It’s a fascinating concept, essentially the antithesis of most modern games.
I’m certainly not going to say that The Outer Worlds is Spector’s vision made reality. It’s not. But I bring it up because the key to the “One Block” dream is depth. Rather than spreading the same half-realized mechanics over ever-larger environs, Spector postulates that there’s an alternative path games could take, smaller but more reactive.
And it’s this latter approach that informed The Outer Worlds. Again, we’re still far from Spector’s ideal, but The Outer Worlds is nevertheless an interesting contrast to other RPGs of this generation, particularly Fallout 4. It’s a repudiation of the 100-hour grail, of the long-standing belief that more equals better, and that every player needs to see everything.
It’s hardly the first to subvert that doctrine, of course. Inkle’s entire Ink engine is built around lots of small choices that aggregate into larger story branches (see Heaven’s Vault), and I just brought up the same phenomenon last week when discussing Disco Elysium.
Obsidian gets to explore these ideas in the garb of a traditional Bethesda-style RPG though. When we saw The Outer Worlds at E3, I said it looked more like Fallout: New Vegas than I expected. And that still holds true! It’s a space-age take on the 1950s, and leans more into the anti-capitalist rhetoric than Bethesda-era Fallout, but otherwise The Outer Worlds consciously mimics the New Vegas aesthetic, from the way dialogue trees are presented to the fact you can slow down time in combat. There’s nothing subtle about it.
But it’s New Vegas ten years later, and with the lessons Obsidian learned from Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny. It’s New Vegas, but with smaller maps and more focus. It’s New Vegas, except there are dozens of skill checks littered throughout every conversation, and more rewards for role-playing nonviolent characters. Hell, I bypassed the entire final boss encounter by investing in hacking and lockpicking for the entire game.
Put simply, The Outer Worlds is a third as long as most modern RPGs, but with three times the depth. That’s some rough math—by which I mean, completely invented. But you get the idea. The Outer Worlds is “only” 20 to 30 hours long, but that comparatively tight scope belies a significant amount of player freedom.
So much freedom, you can derail the story almost immediately. The person who released you from stasis at the beginning, a certain Dr. Phineas Welles? He’s a known renegade, and you can walk up to the first law enforcement you see and...turn him in.
How does that play out? I don’t know, because I’m not an asshole. But the point is you can do it. The Outer Worlds empowers the player to make choices that other games don’t, which no doubt created a ton of work on Obsidian’s part but feels incredibly rewarding in practice. It’s good to feel like your character is supported by the fiction, a freedom you usually get from tabletop role-playing but rarely digital.
The Outer Worlds has a remarkable capacity to surprise you, as well. I already narrated the armor anecdote above, but it’s just one of many instances where I realized Obsidian had predicted a course of action and preemptively reacted to it. Every game has a few, but The Outer Worlds is chock full. Make a smart character, you’ll see relevant dialogue options. Make a character with low intelligence, you’ll see just as many—or maybe more.
Another great example: A little more than halfway through the game, one of your companions expresses a desire to reconnect with her family. They’ve been estranged for years, and she wants you to tag along and make her seem like a badass adventurer in front of her folks. I won’t spoil the specifics, but her parents are jerks and the meeting goes sour.
So I shot them.
I expected her to react, sure, but the way she reacted felt more realistic than I expected. She said something like “Hey, I didn’t like how things went down either, but did you have to go and kill them?” In other words, she reacted to the specific circumstances at hand. And sure, it’s perhaps not hard for Obsidian to predict that the player might murder these two characters after talking to them and plan accordingly—but many games wouldn’t.
That’s what makes The Outer Worlds interesting, I think. With fewer quests and a tighter focus, Obsidian was able to spec out all sorts of strange edge cases that wouldn’t make the cut in other games, be it for budget reasons, or time, or et cetera.
“Flaws” contribute to this feeling as well, albeit in a more mechanical way. Throughout the game you’ll be presented with the option to take negative traits in exchange for more perk points. Take a lot of damage from plasma weapons for instance, and you can earn a permanent weakness to them—if you want. It’s like the inverse of The Elder Scrolls and its “The more you use a skill, the better it gets” leveling system. Here, the more you screw up the more you’re prone to fail in the future, a calculated risk that’s offset by gaining more powerful perks. The system could stand to be more creative, as most flaws are just “Take more damage from certain sources.” It’s another way in which the world feeds into your character though, which I appreciated.
That said, The Outer Worlds is still a Fallout-style game and the interstitial tissue is underwhelming. For all the depth Obsidian’s built into its story beats, wandering the world is still remarkably frictionless. You can steal practically anything with zero consequences, walk into random homes without comment. The inventory system is a mess, and stores are functionally pointless. Secondary characters are glorified quest dispensers, and have nothing to offer once they’ve fulfilled their purpose. Locations too are wrung out and then discarded.
Worst of all in a game this reactive: Change is described, but never really manifests. At least, not to the extent you’d want. The first planet you visit will exhibit some surface-level differences depending on which faction you choose to support, but they feel canned and sterile—and that’s the best case scenario. Later choices won’t appear in-game at all, only manifesting in the pre-credits slideshow at the end.
The Outer Worlds is hardly alone in this regard, but it’s a notable shortcoming given how many choices Obsidian has you make. I wasn’t exactly expecting Dying Light II levels of reactivity here, but a few more signs of the player’s presence would’ve gone a long way.
It’s the uncanny valley though, right? The more Obsidian works to minimize artifice in certain parts of the game, the more obvious it seems in others.
I hope Obsidian gets to make more games like The Outer Worlds. That’s my main takeaway, when all’s said and done. I love Pillars of Eternity, don’t get me wrong. I want Obsidian to keep making little isometric games as well. But very few studios get the chance to make RPGs of this sort, and even fewer do them justice. The Outer Worlds isn’t as fresh-feeling as Fallout: New Vegas was circa 2010, but it does demonstrate once again that Obsidian approaches its worlds and its stories with more care than most developers. Best case scenario, Microsoft’s support allows for many more games of this size, even denser and more detailed.
And maybe other studios will take note as well. This generation’s been one of extremes, where even series like Assassin’s Creed have ballooned out to enormous sizes once reserved for the grandest of epics. The Outer Worlds proves there’s still value in the 20 to 30 hour RPG, that there are more ways for this industry to grow than outwards.