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

I was so sure of the choice I was going to make, until my companion character made a last minute pitch.

by Patrick Klepek
Oct 29 2019, 4:28pm

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?

It turns out that person, the same person who was so sure about what choice they would make, is me. I, The Woke Gamer, ended up diverting the power back to the corporation, depriving the dissenters, and believing it was the least worst decision for everyone involved. It wasn’t a decision that left me feeling great about its implications, but thanks to a last second intervention by the game’s first companion character, a delightful engineer named Parvati, I was given reason to reframe the choice in front of me and who it could hurt.

The Outer Worlds is a messy game, but the reason I’m drawn to experiences like it isn’t the shooting or the looting, it’s because I want to feel morally compromised and expose my own ideological contradictions while working through the bad-to-terrible options the game presents me. It’s a chance to reflect upon arrival at a virtual choice and how it might impact real-life ones.

But let’s back up a second, and walk towards how I ended up swerving at the last second.

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Warning: There are spoilers for the first few hours of The Other Worlds to follow.

The Outer Worlds opens up on Edgewater, a craphole of a town whose claim to fame is the Saltuna Cannery, the main source of employment in a town run by the corporation Spacer’s Choice, one of a handful of mega corps that generally run things in The Outer Worlds. Edgewater is nothing without the Saltuna Cannery—at least, that’s what Spacer’s Choice would have you believe. It’s a philosophy instilled in Edgewater over generations of successful propaganda that’s left most muttering marketing slogans and drinking at the bar, a group of people who begrudgingly accept suffering as part of daily life, like the sun rising.

Running Edgewater is Reed Tobson, a low-level Spacer’s Choice bureaucrat who’s angry at not being able to meet his quotas. Spacer’s Choice doesn’t care how quotas are met, only that they are, costs be damned. Edgewater has been headed towards disaster for years now, haunted by a mysterious plague and without enough medicine to combat it. The soil is cursed, so everyone eats saltuna for every meal. There’s a reason one of the busiest employees in Edgewater is the local gravedigger. People are dying, and they’re hungry.

The people of Edgewater have been treated like disposable trash for a while now, but instead of this leading to a revolutionary spirit, it’s just destroyed their spirit. A group of folks led by a woman named Adelaide McDevitt, rather than trying to overthrow Reed and Spacer’s Choice, left Edgewater behind to start their own commune. The rebellion was, at first, tolerated, but now it’s siphoning power from the geothermal plant and the cannery is without enough workers. Reed, arguing there's no other choice, asks the player to head to the plant and cut off power to the commune. Adelaide, seeing an opportunity to upend the unending status quo, asks the player to instead deprive Edgewater of its power, essentially dooming it.

The Outer Worlds’ politics, especially in the opening hours, aren’t clear. Its premise posits a capitalist critique, and capitalism’s excesses are the primary source of the game’s hit-or-miss humor. But unlike a game like Disco Elysium, whose ideological leanings are made bare and form the game’s structural foundation, The Outer Worlds is much fuzzier, partially because 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.

And so when I headed to the geothermal plant and found myself at the computer that’d let me divert the power to Edgewater or the commune, everything seemed simple—which should have been my first hint the game was going to throw a curveball eventually. It did.

As I approached the computer, my companion Parvati, who at this point in the game is largely deferential and carefully chooses when to speak up, pulled me aside for a quick talk.

“Do you understand what you’re about to do?” she asks.

You don’t have to listen to her, it’s possible to dismiss her interjection outright. But because Parvati is so picky about her moments, there was a sense of importance. (Also, this is a game where you want to read as much dialogue as possible. That’s part of the enjoyment.)

“I don’t think you should cut off Edgewater’s power,” she said. “I think it would be cruel. I’m—I’m sorry. That just sort of came out all at once. Edgewater’s hurting. We’ve been losing workers year after year, and corporate hardly ever sends replacements. There’s barely enough saltuna to fill our bellies anymore. But the town’s got some good people in it. Decent, hard-working folk just living their lives the only way they know how. They don’t deserve to be punished.”

When I told Parvati that Reed claimed Edgewater has no future without this, she demurred, rolling her eyes but acknowledging Edgewater may need those people. And while Adelaide had “made the Vale [a region outside Edgewater] a better place,” she “wants to hurt the town.”

(Side note for anyone who’s wondering why I’m not bringing up the death of Adelaide’s son to the plague: at this point, I did not know about Adelaide’s specific and personal history with Reed. I didn’t learn about their connection until after this part of the story played itself out.)

You can watch the entire exchange here, courtesy of YouTube channel Gaming with Abyss:

The way games like The Outer Worlds, maybe even part of their appeal, is the way the player gets to be the center of attention. In a world of chaos, you are an agent of action. You are the one who knows the most about what’s going on, you’re the one with the answers. It doesn’t mean you’re playing a hero, necessarily, but it imbues you with maximum agency, while everyone else, like actors in a play, are left to wonder what you’ll choose to do next and respond accordingly.

I found myself struck by Parvati, to the point that I put the controller down for a while.

What was my goal here? To help people, right? But in what form? I’m not from Edgewater or the Vale. I know nothing about a town I’ve spent but a few hours in. I crash landed, after being stuck in cryofreeze for lord knows how many years. I, keeper of the dialogue options, am going to waltz in and decide destroying everything is the path to freedom? This is not my home, and these are not my people. Parvati, on the other hand, has been here her whole life. Granted, she’s been psychologically eaten up and spit out by Spacer’s Choice and its desire for profit margins. She was orphaned from a young age because of Spacer’s Choice, and her potential capped because "potential" is another way of disrupting the standard way of things. But her appeal gave me pause because it sounded genuine and empathetic, a point no doubt underscored by the excellent voice acting from Ashly Burch.

"What was my goal here? To help people, right? But in what form? I’m not from Edgewater or the Vale. I know nothing about a town I’ve spent but a few hours in."

It’s not that I don’t understand the other side of the equation. Telling Spacer’s Choice to fuck off is tremendously appealing. Edgewater and its people might suffer in the short term, but perhaps an unknown future, however precarious, is better than getting back on the treadmill. We know what life is like under Spacer’s Choice. Siding with Edgewater, and by extension Spacer’s Choice, is frustratingly pragmatic, and it’s not what I would have gone with had Parvati not stepped in to say something. But Parvati is Edgewater, and I listened to her.

So, biting my lip and wishing the game had offered an opportunity to examine this situation with something more than an arbitrarily and binary choice, I diverted power to Edgewater. There’s a calmness in the moment after making choices like this in these games, a relief that, at least, a choice has been made, a blissful moment untainted by any consequences.

I visited Adelaide and her camp. Several of the deserters seemed relieved, in a way. Life in the wilderness was tough, and there were fears the camp might be overrun by marauders.

(Another side note: How strange is it that The Outer Worlds goes out of the way to provide context and substance to everyone but the marauders? This is a small, contained area, so presumably there must be a reason these folks chose to reject society. Instead, the game treats them as a default evil, bundles of flesh to be shot for easy XP. It’s extremely weird!)

Adelaide, of course, was mad. She had every right to be; I’d screwed her over. It’s at this point I learned about how Adelaide’s child died because Reed wouldn’t hand over any medicine. She had every reason to be spiteful over everything Edgewater represented.

As it turns out, this path also opens up a surprising opportunity to bring some resolution for all parties involved, and even, on some contemptible level, a path of redemption for Reed, as you push him out of town. It felt a little too convenient for a style of game that traditionally leaves players in a lurch, and it spent too much time trying to explain away the horrible decisions Reed had made to this point. Reed might have been playing with bad cards, in some ways a victim himself, but he played those bad cards horribly, too. If salvation for Edgewater was ever possible, at the very least, it wouldn’t be realized with him in charge.

I left Edgewater feeling surprisingly good. I don’t know its future, and it’s not the future I expected, but it’s one that feels in the hands of the people who suffered the most. Good luck, Edgewater. Time to leave and make some decisions for a brand-new society I’ve barely met.

On the podcast this week, we talked through this decision as a group. Not everyone made the same choice as me!

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you know whether he made the right decision, his email is patrick.klepek@vice.com. He's also available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:
Politics
Fallout
Obsidian
centrism
the outer worlds