The co-creators of Fallout are teaming up to make a new first person role-player that aims to put the fun, and the funniness, back into the genre.
The Outer Worlds is so dripping in irony they should probably get Alanis Morissette to do the theme tune. It’s a video game about the evils of capitalism by a developer that’s just been bought out by one of the biggest companies on the planet. It’s also a game which celebrates what can be done on a very modest budget, even though, suddenly, that’s not a problem at all. And then, finally, there’s the fact that it’s full of comic irony, an action role-player by the original creators of Fallout that remembers that one of the main appeals of the series used to be that it was purposefully funny.
Although there’s no post-apocalyptic setting (thank goodness, we think we’ve had enough of those for now) The Outer Worlds is not ashamed of the debt it owes to Fallout. But then it’s being made by two of the original creators, Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, who, unlike Bethesda, were with the franchise from the beginning and partly responsible for creating the original setting and concept.
Cain was the producer on the first Fallout and co-director on the second, while Boyarsky, who we got to interview, started as an artist on the first two games before going on to become co-director of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and senior world designer on Diablo III. So between the two of them they’ve been involved in some of the most acclaimed Western role-playing games of all time.
The idea in The Outer Worlds is that you’re on an alien world that was originally meant to be terraformed into a paradise but things went wrong and the process ended up turning the wildlife into aggressive monsters, leaving behind only the less principled corporations and a colony ship that’s only there by accident – and with most of its passengers still in hibernation. As one of those that has been woken up your goal is to make a life for yourself and, if possible, find a better planet.
The basic set-up seems closer to Borderlands than Fallout but the gameplay clearly has a lot in common with Bethesda’s first person titles, as well as the original isometric entries. The graphics though are unlikely to be winning any awards, at E3 or elsewhere, and it’s a testament to The Outer Worlds’ other qualities that the low budget visuals don’t get in the way at all.
‘We never really had much choice!’ says Boyarsky, when we ask him whether he got frustrated having to working with a relatively small budget. ‘Even when we were pitching this three years ago, when we first started working on it, Private Division [2K’s new indie label] were interested but we didn’t have a lot of other people that were. So we had to pitch this as a smaller game. It’s less risk, but it also means we get more freedom in what we do.’
The hands-off demo starts with you picking up a mission in a Wild West style town, where one of the local gang/business leaders wants you to take out a rival who’s making a killing selling a bacon-esque product that is actually a disgusting-looking tumour that has to be harvested from creatures called cystypigs.
That’s not the sort of mission you’d ever get in Fallout and while Boyarsky is reticent to comment on why Bethesda took the black comedy out of the series he does know why it was added back in for The Outer Worlds. ‘That’s really a result of the people who are making it’, he says.
‘You get a snapshot of our personalities in that game [the original Fallout] and that was when we were sitting around talking about the game we wanted to make. So my darkness and Tim’s silliness, and a couple of other people’s personalities, all wedged together and that’s what we came up with. There was no one around telling us we couldn’t do it and it’s kind of the same this time as well.’
Despite the irony provided by Obsidian’s new owners the game does have a serious side to it, in that it pokes fun at corporate logic that, while exaggerated for The Outer World’s sci-fi world, is not as far removed from reality as it first seems. We suggest to Boyarsky that that works because the more you poke fun at seemingly serious institutions the more absurd you realise they really are.
‘That’s a fantastic way to put it’, he says. ‘And I think one of rules, when we’re talking to our writers and level designers, when they were trying to make something that would fit with the humour of the game, is that if you’re going to do something that’s very dark it has to have a silly, humorous edge to it and vice versa.
‘Because, even beyond just making a point, if you want to do something that has an impact on the player… if you just have it so dark and miserable it’s not fun to play it turns people off because it’s too heavy. We knew we wanted to do this world that was kind of on the verge of collapse and it could have been very depressing if we played it straight, so we wanted to be a fun game.’
‘And to me, the way I like to make points, is through humour. I feel like it’s more effective, I feel like people don’t think you’re lecturing at them so much. And even then I’m way more about raising questions than trying to tell you what the answer is’, adds Boyarsky. ‘Because even with the corporate side of this game we try to make it that when you go and talk to them they have logical reasons for doing what they’re doing. They think they’re in the right.’
‘‘They’re not sitting there thinking, ‘How are we going to make people’s lives horrible?’ They think they’re creating this perfect society that works for the best of everybody. So I always try to approach things that way, where it feels like they’re characters with believable motivations even if it’s coming from an absurd situation.’
The demo mission involves a quick trip into the wastelands, where the more dangerous creatures are avoided and the smaller ones dealt with for a quick bit of loot. That’s almost the only action we see in the demo though as the guy playing opts to instead talk things out with the various guards he meets. Although rather than the po-faced dialogue of Fallout that involves bullying, charming, and even romancing other characters – from bluffing your way past lazy, dim-witted guards to whispering binary poetry into robots’ metal ears.
Even with a non-player character in tow you have a special disguise which is convincing enough that you can talk to most people and have a chance of convincing them you should be there, rather than them just shooting you on sight. That even works with the robots, which you’re able to reprogram to shoot the guards, allowing you to sneak into the main office and confront the big boss.
‘Charlie and Tim looked at a lot of different shooter action games to see what kind of things they wanted but our main game was always about an in-depth story with a lot of reactivity’, says Boyarsky of the core mechanics.
‘I’m really happy that we were able to get the disguise system in there, because I think it’s a wonderful way for talking characters to be able to get through restricted areas. It’s like your sneak path for a talking person, because I can talk my way past guards.’
Once you reach your target you’re given the option to simply shoot him, as per your contract, to take more money from him to do the opposite, or convince him that he should team up with the other gang leader and find a peaceful solution. The Outer Worlds has all the role-playing depth you’d expect of a Fallout style game but it’s the ability to talk your way out of trouble that really sets it aside from the crowd. That and the fact that the dialogue is interesting, and funny, enough that you actually want to sit through it all.
The obvious parting question for Boyarsky is whether he knows what he’ll work on after The Outer Worlds and whether it will take advantage of the larger budgets offered by the Microsoft acquisition. ‘I think I know’, he says. ‘But hopefully the budget will be within reason. I don’t wanna fall into that trap.’
‘Obviously a bigger budget is better, but only within reason. Because I feel like some of the best ideas that me and Tim have come up with, in our careers, were forced onto us by having to have creative solutions to things like not enough time or not enough money.
‘I feel like if you are not given any restrictions or things you have to overcome, I feel like people can end up spinning their wheels or trying to put too much into it. It’s a great way to focus your thinking when you have to figure out, ‘How are we going to do this with this amount of money and this amount of time?
‘I think it just gives you a lot more freedom in a lot of ways. It doesn’t give you as much freedom on the technological flashiness end, but it gives you more freedom on content.’
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Private Division
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: 25th October 2019
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