How 'Outer Worlds' Turned Me Away From Revolution into Maddening Pragmatism

Fight the power, crush the corp, and divert the energy from the local geothermal plant to the local dissenters trying to reshape society for the better? The decision, the first major one I was asked to make in Obsidian’s new sci-fi RPG The Outer Worlds, seemed so simple that offering an alternative seemed downright insulting. Outside of a “What if?” second playthrough, the kind of guilt-free roleplay where you’re explicitly pushing at a game’s boundaries, what monster sides with the greedy shits who’ve run this place into the ground?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59nagq/how-outer-worlds-turned-me-away-from-revolution-into-maddening-pragmatism

There’s one other curveball the game throws at you if you are very diligent about looking around the greenhouse and it further makes an already very tough series of choices even more complicated. It’s about the fertilizer Adelaide is using.

I couldn’t find the answer to this. Could you spoiler text tell me what it is?

For sure!

You can check Adelaide’s terminal in the back and get some vague talk about organic fertilizer, buuuuut…if you look very closely on a counter in that back room, you find a pile of gold teeth. If you’ve done the grave fees quest for Silas you may already know where this is going - Eugene, the cannery worker you learn of from the foreman and the barber in that quest who died, was buried with his gold teeth. It turns out Adelaide has been using corpses from the Edgewater graveyard to create the fertilizer needed to bring life back to the Vale’s soil.

If you do the route of diverting power to Edgewater but running Reed out of town and installing Adelaide and you know about this, she says the graveyard has enough bodies to create generations of fresh new crops for the Vale.

It’s definitely of a part with the whole “natural burials/returning life to the Earth” kind of thing we already have in our time, but yeaaah. You and Parvati both have the opportunity to call her out about it and discuss it and such. Adelaide also assures Parvati that her father is still right where he was buried in the graveyard due to him being gone so long that he’s far past the point of being usable.

3 Likes

Whenever I see people talking about this choice it just seems like nobody has played an rpg before which…I know isn’t true. It just seems incredibly over talked about for what it is.

5 Likes

I, The Woke Gamer,

the structural formula of this very specific type of game often demands a rigid “this” or “that” choices to drive players, limiting the imagination of the possible in pursuit of raw simplicity.

But that raw simplicity is part of the appeal, I think. People enjoy being boxed in between arbitrary choices that feel gross, given how often video games concoct some way to make sure the player is the kind of hero able to thread the needle and make everything a-okay.

Patrick is probably right here about how this makes most players feel, but personally, it infuriates me. He posits this as different from the hero fantasy games of this sort often propose, but it is fundamentally the same in one sense: you, the outsider coming into town, is the person responsible for this choice. The game makes you take the destiny of these various places into your own hands. Parvati has been in Edgewater her whole life, sure, but so have Adelaide and Reed. You’re not making a decision based on what the people with lived experience believe to be right, because those people have different positions. You’re listening to them and choosing to side with one of them and making them win out over the other locals, because you have that power. You’re as important to this world as any Final Fantasy protagonist.

The difference, of course, is that the fantasy the game is selling you is not the one of being the hero who can save the world: it’s the fantasy of being The Great Compromiser, the big sensible centrist who can get all reasonable people together and not create something that doesn’t suck, never that, but create something that merely sucks less. It replaces the naive escapist feeling of being someone with the power to change it all with the naive conservative fantasy of being extremely powerful and finding that barely anything actually needs to change at all. The podcast from yesterday featured the crew trying to figure out which Dem candidate this ideology best fits, but to me The Outer Worlds sounds like it wants you to play as Nancy Pelosi. And fuck that. I’m excited to try Disco Elysium.

9 Likes

I appreciate Patrick calling out the weirdness of the whole of the marauders being made unsympathetic. It was something that struck me as odd at first, but then just grew accustomed to.

5 Likes

I honestly don’t think what most Obsidian quest go for. I mean, arguably the best outcome in the town faction stuff in Pillars of Eternity is siding with the mob instead of the revolutionaries or the knight order, particularly starting a fight between the revolutionaries and the knight order by framing one for a crime. A lot of their quests don’t have a pure good outcome, and Outer Worlds seems to be carrying on with that. Even the middle choice in the quest between the two different towns argues the middle ground approach results in a lack of progress or hope for the society in the future.

3 Likes

I couldn’t agree more. Increasingly, I come to see this kind of thing as a way for people to wash their hands about their inaction. “Abolish ICE? Nice slogan, but it’s more complicated than that.” “Stop climate change? Nice slogan, but it’s more complicated than that.” “Fuck capitalism, go home? Nice slogan, but it’s more complicated than that.”

Except you’re never supposed to actually engage with the complications, not in conversation with other people (usually) and definitely never in these choice-driven games. You’re just supposed to drop it and stop making people uncomfortable with all your naive ideological convictions.

7 Likes

I’m still unconvinced that the ‘centrist’ option offered is the best choice, and not just - if you will - the Spacer’s Choice. That is, ultimately keeping a town like Edgewater alive, even under new management, is keeping the idea of Edgewater and all of the corporatism it is built on alive, while killing the Botanical Labs and their hope for a world outside of all that. Gita Jackson wrote in her piece on The Outer Worlds something similar to my thoughts, “I had taught the deserters something important about their dream of a life without corporations: to never dream.”

Agree with Pat on the marauders, though. Hope at least once I have an option to speak with them at some point in this game, (second area spoilers) I was happy to at least not have to kill the pyromaniac gang hanging out on the lower levels of the Groundbreaker. Sad I took his lighter, though.

4 Likes

I’m almost certain the devs designed this quest and outcomes with that pun in mind, awful and terrifying implications included. It just works on too many levels, otherwise.

It’s either that or double down on their in-game or real-life convictions in the thick of it, like the game is meant to test your convictions in a face of an imperfect world. That’s the idea of game design that (usually) validates the player: it’s hard not to walk away feeling placated from the game, if not satisfied. Especially when you know it’s inaccurate to your actual beliefs.

That said, I’d still say there’s an open discussion to be had of the political implications of RPG game design trends like “All (and I mean ALL) choices should feel like Crap” and “Good is Bad, and Bad is Good”.

2 Likes

Kinda off-topic but it came up in the podcast, but is a character really named Victor Maxx in Outer Worlds? Isn’t that the name of the fake inventor of the godawful Virtual Reality Stuntmaster add-on for the SNES/Genesis?

Vicar Max. He’s a religious man with sick shotty skills.

2 Likes

Obsidian referenced The Zybourne Clock in New Vegas so I wouldn’t be surprised.

2 Likes

The ending of the game recontextualizes the whole Edgewater choice even more.

At the end of the game you essentially dismantle The Board, removing their influence while also providing a large influx of new colonists who have no connection to the current power structure. Essentially the entire capitalist nightmare gets dismantled from the top down. So this means that giving the power to Edgewater would mean they only have to suffer for a few more months after which they get rescued from their conditions along with everyone else when the government gets restructured.

Except if you give the power to Adelaide at the Greenhouse she refuses any outside assistance basically closing her settlement off from the rest of the colony. Someone on the inside even has to steal her plant formula and give it to the outside because she refuses to help them even in the face of widespread famine. This in addition to most of the people in Edgewater dying of starvation when she refuses to let them enter her settlement.

I’m not sure if I misread it, but I got the impression that the plague was just scurvy.

I remember reading one of the terminals that said Adelaide’s group would find people in the wasteland, with symptoms of the plague, and a while after living with them eating their vegetables they would be cured

That’s the biggest reason I chose her camp. Edgewater was just going to keep being a terrible place and eventually everyone would get scurvy and die

1 Like

I couldn’t agree more. This kind of game design is infuriating, but I’d also like to point out that it leads to this particular case being doubly worse imo, as it means a complete failure of the superficial critique of capitalist relations the game is going for, because of writing that is unable to imagine any actual class struggle to improve conditions. Not to mention overcoming the flimsy options offered, by taking over and organizing production completely differently and according to need (There doesn’t seem to be much of a sate force in the area stopping this from happening btw.).
“Normal horrifying capitalist Town or resource scarce deserters” (whose leader, of course, also has some ridiculously forced moral conundrums going on) is just laughable.
You, as the player being, once again, the moral(-ist) center of agency in the universe just makes this full-on repulsive to me.

I’m only a few hours in, but at the moment this game seems like an ideological train wreck, not willing to actually explore in any depth, the topics it nominally set out to explore and write/design the game accordingly.

Good lord, I’m getting too mad about this :sweat:. Calm down me, it’s not worth it.

3 Likes