Not The Best Choice: ‘The Outer Worlds’ & The Toxin Of Centrism
A fear of polarity drags the player ever toward the center in Obsidian Entertainment’s latest RPG.
The Outer Worlds is a game directed by the people credited with the creation of Fallout back in 1997, and its pedigree both mechanical and creative has been a specter haunting the conversations around it. I have always been told, by those more capable of engaging with the Fallout franchise’s games, that the games are satirical; rich with themes and ideologies that play out in little dioramas influenced by the player. The Outer Worlds isn’t anything like that; it’s a trite and cynical gallery of neoliberal centrist apologia.
I want to start with the first major story mission: the conflict between the Edgewater employment community and the deserters in the Botanical Gardens outside their walls. The town exists to facilitate the cannery, which provides canned fish to the colony at large. But the land is poisoned, and the people have nothing to eat but the fish they sell (which leads to a plague), and corporate life in the Halcyon colony involves such clauses as having to pay money to rent your own gravesite because the workers’ bodies are literally company property (to the point that one character characterizes suicide as vandalism).
Basically, life sucks for the Spacer’s Choice employees who live in Edgewater.
So, an unhappy crowd forms and splits away from the town, establishing their own independent community. Thanks to using their dead as fertilizer, they have brought agriculture and farming back to the Emerald Vale. There is no plague in the Botanical Gardens, and no corporation. There are dangers, certainly; marauders roam the countryside (we’ll get to them later) and hulking monsters called primals live nearby.
At this point in the game, you need a piece of equipment for your ship. You can take it from either faction, provided you go to the geothermal plant down the road and redirect power away from that community, forever. Who do you choose to spare: the corporation headed toward its own collapse, or the community trying to live outside the corporation’s control?
The fascinating thing about this quest is that basically every facet of the game I want to talk about is present in it. The first detail comes up pretty quickly if you already know what choice you’re going to make, as I did. As I walked through the geothermal plant prepping the machinery to redirect the power, my companion NPC Parvati, a resident of Edgewater, gave the same comment, three times, about how she didn’t think I was doing the right thing. The Outer Worlds thrives on this simulation of gravity; the more committed I was to my choice, the more I could feel the game trying to rubber band me back toward the center of the issue: the decision point. Not the outcomes, not the possibilities, but the moment of making a choice.
The people in the Botanical Gardens are the kindest and most competent people in the entire game; the first thing the leader of the community does when you arrive in the Botanical Gardens is offer you food and medicine if you need it. The argument is briefly raised that without walls, the community is vulnerable to the marauders and local wildlife, but the truth is that the only reason the marauders are so dangerous is that they were written to be ruthless, chaotic killers with no desire or character beyond causing mayhem in the world around them, so I simply can’t take that argument at face value.
This is where the argument for the middle comes into play. If you route power away from the town, you ensure the survival of the Botanical Gardens community. Refugees from Edgewater will arrive of course, and they will be accepted as possible (corporate loyalists excluded). But this is an RPG, and you gain XP from completing quests. If you redirect the power away from the community and back toward Edgewater, you get a longer quest, as you have the option of running the leader of town and replacing him with the woman who leads the Botanical Gardens community.
This reformist attitude is also present on the next planet, Monarch. It’s surrounded by a Board blockade (the Board being the council of megacorporations that controls the Halcyon colony). The conflict on Monarch has two major players: Monarch Stellar Industries, a disgraced corporation, and the Iconoclasts, a faction of “Philosophists” who threaten to bring an ideology-fueled revolution to bear against the MSI and (eventually) the Board.
The Iconoclasts are split between two leaders. Graham wants to invest the faction’s resources in outreach and spreading their message to the system, while Zora is much more pragmatic and concerned with improving the material conditions of the people in their community. Meanwhile Sanjar, the leader of the MSI, places his faith in grand, ten-year plans to incrementally change the world.
There are three ways the conflict on Monarch can shake out. You can help Graham fight the MSI, you can side with the MSI to help them use blackmail to get a position on the Board, or you can depose Graham and place Zora in charge, and then convince her to form an alliance with the MSI. If Graham is in charge, the movement is largely aimless because there are few concrete plans to move forward after taking control of Monarch. If Zora is in charge, she mentions worrying about how people will react when they aren’t being paid anymore, because many of the people in the city of Stellar Bay weren’t converted to the Iconoclasts; they were MSI employees.
Only by convincing both sides to work together does anything resembling peace come about on Monarch. If you mediate for both parties, everything works out and the people go back to their jobs and keep their heads down while Sanjar (ostensibly) uses his position on the Board to bring aid to the planet.
To bring this all home, I want to talk about the ending. The goal of the main storyline is to find the chemicals needed to revive a ship full of colonists that were lost for 70 years, described as “the best and brightest of humanity” and “experts in their field”. Together with these paragons, the goal is to bring the Halcyon colony back from the brink of complete collapse. To take the structures in place and turn them, change them to do good in the world.
The game holds this myth of the Hope colonists that isn’t even substantiated in the text; the player character is also from the Hope, revived and sent into the world without consent. But the backgrounds available for your character paint a very different picture of the people onboard the Hope than the other characters do: your options are such prestigious roles as “assistant chef” and “cashier”. Today’s mundane is tomorrow’s spectacular, thanks to decades of corporate brainwashing among the masses of the Halcyon colony.
The game doesn’t acknowledge this; in the ending crawl I got, the plan to save the colony with the help of the Hope colonists just…works. The key to saving the world, of course, is to put smart people in charge, regardless of personal character. It even glosses over the immense sacrifices needed for the plan to work, represented with one of the game’s many trolley problems.
At the end of the game, you are shown a slideshow, where the narrator tells you what happened to everyone you met along the way. In this slideshow, The Outer Worlds puts forward the position that ideology and competence are mutually exclusive. The leader of the Botanical Gardens community doesn’t live to see her ideals carried out; she dies the next winter after leaving the safety of Edgewater. If they don’t assimilate into the culture they are revolting against, the Iconoclasts dissolve because they are unwilling to confront the material conditions of the world around them. In the end, the path that gets you the most XP is not to aid the corporations or fight against them, but to always believe wholeheartedly in reforming oppressive structures rather than dismantling them.
The Outer Worlds has a reverence for aimless, apolitical “science” and “progress” as the tools that will bring humanity to greatness, while ideology and revolution are always doomed to fail. It’s more concerned with bringing you to the middle as a place to make decisions from than it is in examining the realities of the choices actually being presented to you. It is centrism in its most concentrated (and most toxic) form, and this medium deserves better.