Everything in The Outer Worlds, Obsidian’s upcoming Fallout-style adventure set in a far-flung interplanetary frontier, has a brand name. Guns, clothes, food, people, towns—it’s all owned by one of nine or so mega-corps that colonized the planets you explore in the game. People live in company towns, eat company food, get healed by company medicine, and spout off their company slogans like pained religious expressions. It's a world ruled by awful CEOs and streaked with grimly hilarious branding, from the crappy Walmart-of-space Spacer's Choice ("It's not the best choice, it's Spacer's Choice!") products to an unbearable candy-colored corp that makes loud, neon "stealth" armor.
Everything here is lining up and taking shots at capitalism run amok.
Later on, in the funky Western-style town of Fallbrook, I encountered an insurance broker who greets me in peppy, practiced tones, with a pitch for dismemberment policies: “buy one, get one half off!” She then goes on a screed about how her company has cleverly avoided all the liabilities of the office location by “legally” being situated on another planet.
It’s snarky, funny, and effective.
I’ve only played a couple of hours, at a recent preview event, but in that time, I got the distinct sense Obsidian is making a modern Fallout game for me. I’ve never been able to get fully into the series, despite it having, on paper, plenty of appeal. The Outer Worlds has a sharp worldview and wears its politics on its sleeve perhaps more than the most recent Fallouts. It’s steeped in a smirking, grinning layer of anti-corporate antics, taking shots at bosses and bad labor conditions all the way from the distinct plot points to the flavor text on items.
Nonetheless, The Outer Worlds is very much, gameplay-wise, still a modern Fallout. The team has wisely chosen not to reinvent the wheel much. At first, you allot skill points across the usual spectrum of attributes, then you dive into towns brimming with quests and NPCs to banter with, enemy-laden wastelands, and plenty of branching paths to explore, physically and narratively.
“We’re not running away from the fact that we have Fallout in our bones,” senior designer Brian Heins said to me at the event.
From what I saw, they’re taking shots at exactly the right places. For example, the game has a surprisingly earnest exchanges about workers’ rights I’ve seen in a game at this scale. One of my companions, Nyoka, asked the other, Parvati, how bad the conditions were in Edgewater, her company town. “I hear you workers were on the clock at every available moment,” she asked.
“We always got eight hours a day for sleeping,” replied Parvati. “Just not always consecutive.”
“My condolences,” said Nyoka. “I appreciate consistent wages like any other sane person, but that still sounds awful. At least Sanjar gives his folks weekends.”
“Weekends?” Parvati exclaimed, incredulous.
Friends, if that isn’t a bunch of seasoned game developers subtweeting their own industry, I don’t know what is.
I mentioned this exchange to Heins during our interview, and asked him about his own views on labor in the game industry, given that it’s been an ongoing conversation point. Here's how he responded:
I think it’s definitely a tough industry. Obsidian’s nice. I’ve worked at a lot of different companies in my career, including ones where, if you were leaving less than 60-70 hours a week, you were on your way out the door, essentially.
Working for Obsidian has been great, because they want people to have a life! [laughs.] They don’t want people to burn themselves out. Most of the time, when a project needs additional time, it’s a request. They ask people if they can come in and do extra hours. It’s never mandatory. And there are people who can’t, if they have families or other obligations, and that never affects their work life or their reviews or any of that kind of stuff.
You don’t get the passive-aggressive guilt trip that you do at some other companies. The Outer Worlds has been fantastic for a lot of us, there really hasn’t been a big crunch period or anything along those lines.
That said, I have a lot of friends in the industry who talk about ‘oh, I’ve got scheduled crunch from now for the next nine months, I’m not going to do anything or see anybody,’ so, it’s better that there’s more awareness and talk about it, but I don’t think the problems have been resolved.
With that context, The Outer Worlds feels like a game made by… well, workers. That sounds like a silly thing to say—everything is made by workers—but the tone feels pointed and personal to a degree that feels refreshing for this scale of game. I want this in an RPG/action/shooter of the Fallout Variety. I want the big-budget game that lets me shoot or stealth around nasty factories, simultaneously tackling branding and marketing bullshit. I’m down for dialogue that never stops skewering the insanity of modern medical insurance.
If the team can deliver on the promise I saw here, then I’ll be thrilled to say they did it: they made a Fallout that I’m ready to throw dozens of hours into.