Meaningful Politics in The Outer Worlds?
(This essay openly discusses the story of the game; if you plan to play it or have not completed it yet, be aware that it may reveal plot points you may enjoy discovering on your own)
The Outer Worlds is a popular role-playing game published by Obsidian entertainment in 2019, which received mostly positive reviews.1 One of the most salient features of the game is the fact that it was marketed and received as “political”. In the review published on Polygon, Cass Marshal called attention to the “capitalist hellscape” in which the game takes place, while Wired (in a negative review) flatly described it as “anti-capitalist game”2, to use but two examples. Reddit and Twitter contain abundant examples of the subsequent discussions among players, celebrating the game’s political stance, deploring its lack of subtlety, and in some cases blindly asserting that games should not be politicized.
This text seeks to examine – though not necessarily to disprove – the basic assumption that The Outer Worlds is political, in the sense of conveying a specific ideology. If what follows sounds critical, I should probably state that I played the game, completed it and mostly enjoyed it.
The story of The Outer Worlds places the player’s avatar in a distant space colony, stretching a solar system, which appears to be entirely run by an array of ten corporations, ruling the lives of their employees entirely. However, the general decay of the system has led to the creation of independent splinter groups, which seek to function outside the corporate umbrella. In fact, the player is awakened by a lone – and frankly unstable – scientist against the will of the corporations. In the course of the narrative, the player is given a number of local choices, which ask them to side either with the corporations and the people living under its rules or with the splinter groups, which are rarely portrayed are blameless. Whatever their choices, the player gradually discovers the extent of the problems running through the colony, including a severe shortage of food, with no help to be expected from Earth.
The Outer Worlds carefully avoids railroading the player: most non-playable characters can be killed or ignored, and making morally problematic choices (such as turning in the scientist who woke you up) does not prevent you from progressing in the game. It is common for games like Dishonored or The Witcher 3 to offer branching options in the course of the narrative but these options remain within a very narrow range (kill the bad guy/neutralize the bad guy), but in The Outer Worlds, it is quite possible to take one side or the other and still “win”, victory being understood as finishing a unabridged version of the game. This being said, the moral distinction remains stark: the missions the player has to complete with the corporations are darker and generally less savory than the ones offered by the rebels. In addition to the obvious intertextual imperative to side with said rebels in post-Star Wars popular fiction, the game thus makes it clear that while both sides are functionally equivalent, they are morally distinct. And the right choice is to side against the corporations. Hence, the anti-capitalist message.
That’s a bit too simple.
The first objection to that reading stems from the apparent paradox of inserting a potentially anti-capitalist message in such an expensive commodity as a PC/console videogame. Though frequently discounted, The Outer Worlds retails for the standard 60€, in addition to the dedicated hardware it requires. I actually played it as part of my subscription to the Microsoft Game Pass, which can hardly be described as a non-profit undertaking. It is of course usual for progressives and radicals to make compromises in order to spread their messages, which leave them open to accusations of hypocrisy – see the controversy over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Vanity Fair shoot for instance – but the extent of these compromises matter. While all videogames, even the most independent ones, rely on the tools of capitalism to a certain extent, The Outer Worlds embraces the model far more than, for instance, Capital: Sin and Money, a 5-people game published on itch.io((https://beastarman.itch.io/capital))
A second objection stems from the structure of the game, and the occupations offered to the player during their quest. Part of the game, and arguably the most successful one, involves interacting with non-playable characters, some of whom may decide to join you. Some are especially well-rounded, and the writing does manage to convey some moral complexity (reading reviews suggests that some players disagreed with my “right” choices, even as they shared my general view of the game, for instance). However, most of the game-time is actually devoted to a different and frankly familiar gameplay loop: traveling to a specified spot, shooting enemies along the way and gathering resources (loot), which can be used or resold.
Why, oh, why, then, does playing The Outer Worlds, a game that revels in its anticapitalism, feel so goddamn much like work?
In effect, the game rewards accumulation and downright stealing, in addition to the casual slaughter of fauna and various population groups. Because this is a very conventional type of gameplay, its potential political charge is somewhat lessened – adherence to generic conventions should be equated with a deliberate advocacy of mass-slaughter – but it remains strongly at odd with the ostensible anti-capitalist message.
More broadly, that anti-capitalist message is undermined to a large extent by the absolute authority of the player. The storyworld revolves around the player’s decision, with minimal push-back from existing social structures. The player is constantly tasked, but the underlying message suggests that hard individual work – along with a liberal use of the “save” function – can produce changes on just about any scale. Again, this is a very familiar structure in fantasy in science-fiction, but one made especially prominent in videogames by the fact that pleasure is strongly tied to agency. It would be understandably frustrating to be reduced to the role of a mere observer, but in The Outer Worlds, absolutely nothing happens or changes unless the player decides to do so. To take one example: one of the companions you can recruit expresses a keen desire to pay her respect to fallen friends. Though she is presented a strong-headed, she never deserts the player group, nor does she mention her desire again after offering that optional quest. Steven Harvie, at First Person Scholar has recently conducted a convincing exploration of the ideological bent of this narrative scheme, which he identifies with the « neoliberal individualism ».
In other words, the potential anti-capitalism of The Outer Worlds is perceptible only in a specific part of the experience offered by the game. Again, it should be said that dialogues and “entertaining moral choices” are by far the most remarkable aspect of the game, those which differ most strongly from superficially similar offerings. Even though they may be at odd with some of the conventional game mechanisms and player-positioning, they offer a witty satire of a form of decaying capitalism, collapsing under some of its contradictions.
The applicability of that satire remains limited, however, by the fact that the capitalism on display is in line with the form of retro-futurism which suffuses the game. Much like Fallout, The Outer Worlds displays an overt fascination for Americana and for a sarcastic version of the early 20th century (Fallout mostly works on the post-war consumer society while The Outer Worlds often feels closer to the early 20th century). The paternalistic corporations which inhabit this world follow this mode, building entire cities for their employees, relying on abundant bureaucracy and trading in material goods.
On Polygon again, Jacob Corbin makes a fine argument for the systemic view of the game, beyond the individual jokes:
Near the end of the game, you arrive in Byzantium; the richest settlement in the Halcyon system, the exclusive gated colony for the investor class and a few hand-picked managers. It’s the brass ring, the ritzy penthouse suite, the place that every other character you’ve met has fantasized about and maybe committed terrible deeds in hopes of reaching. […]
A lesser story wouldn’t have thought to make Byzantium so rundown and tawdry. They’d have make it sumptuous, a paradise. They would operate on the assumption that there’s all this good shit lying around and the villainous capitalists are simply hoarding it and you, the hero, just need to take it back.
The Outer Worlds denies us that simple consolation. It shows us how these problems are systemic, and it illustrates, through world building details, where and why the system is breaking down.
However, the target of the satire and the designated responsible for the systemic collapse remain outdated form of capitalism. The lesson is purports to teach was already apparent in 1930, for instance, even for non economists. Here is Kenneth Burke, tongue-in-cheek and eloquent in The New Republic:
Due to Mr. Ford’s discovery, we have come to see that culture resides, not in leisure, but in work. […] We realize now that culture resides in prosperity, that prosperity is the outgrowth of production, that production can only follow consumption, that the maximum consumption if made possible by the maximum possible waste, and therefore that culture depends on the maximum of waste. (At least until there is nothing more to waste.)
Kenneth Burke, « Waste – The Future of Prosperity », TNR, July 16, 1930
This retro-capitalism is intermittently brought into the present (through the general mood of eco-catastrophe, and occasional jokes on branding and DRMs), but the social structures are clearly antiquated. The anti-capitalist message is made easily palatable by being directed at nostalgic caricatures: this is a world of twisted General Motors, AT&T and Coca-Cola, not of Google, Facebook and Bank of America. The companies The Outer Worlds laugh at are already designated as the losers of neo-liberalism. One of the jokes in the game relies on the fact that some of the products are made by all the corporations, with varying pitches:
While these humorous lines try to draw contrasts between one company’s product and another’s, at the end of the day, most of the items are exactly the same aside from the packaging. And though seeing a variety of different products to pick from might make it appear that there are significant variations and advancements between them, that’s not actually the case.
However, that joke seems to function as an answer to Theodor Adorno’s scathing view of mid-20th century capitalism than to Thomas Piketty.
All of this should not be read at denying the presence of a somewhat unusual engagement with politics in the game. The Outer Worlds is indeed more overtly concerned with politics than most AAA games, though it is not clear that it is more political. Much like modern superhero movies, it plays at being political but “seem to be less about meaningful engagement than creating a semblance of sociopolitical relevance” (Burke, 37). Some of the jokes do land and can certainly be used in other conversations, but in the game, they are carefully removed from any radical potential.
- All versions except the technically-limited Switch one stand above 80% on Metacritic