Behavioral Economics: The Outer Worlds (Incomplete) Review
Even one-quarter of the way through, The Outer Worlds’ critique of capitalism runs deeper than its satirical surface level.
A couple weekends ago, I played through the first five hours of The Outer Worlds, and although I was hoping to write a full review of it, thirty five-plus hours of Death Stranding are now staring me in the face, and I’m beginning to realize that I might not be coming back to this game anytime soon. So, with that said, I figured I’d record the impression the game gave me from its early stages.
The Outer Worlds is, as many have discussed, a spiritual successor to Fallout: New Vegas that sharply critiques capitalism. You play a custom character rescued from a transport spacecraft that was abandoned by the company that owned it. Your rescuer sends you to a nearby planet where you’re supposed to rendezvous with one of his associates; unfortunately your escape pod was a little too good at finding his location as it landed directly on him, leaving you to fend for yourself. You quickly come across his ship, comedically named The Unreliable, and learn that it needs a power generator to get going and get you off this planet. You find the nearby town of Edgewater and discover that everyone on this planet works in deplorable conditions for Spacer’s Choice, a mega-corporation that makes everything from food to weapons. (This planet is tasked with producing an unappetizing foodstuff called saltuna.) Eventually you find Edgewater’s mayor/boss who tells you that he does indeed have a power generator that you’re welcome to take for free — the catch is that you’ll need to lift it from a band of defectors who are using it to siphon off the town’s energy. Taking the generator will cut off the camp’s ability to survive, thus forcing them to return to work in the town. Once you reach this camp, the group’s leader explains that you could also just, you know, take the town’s power generator and let them keep living their lives.
Naturally, this dynamic culminates in a moment where you must decide whether you’re going to screw over the main town or the dissidents’ camp.
And, in that moment, the game proves that it’s more than just a simple critique of capitalism.
Because just as you’re about to make your decision, your companion, Parvati, reminds you that cutting off power to the town won’t just screw over the company, it will also starve the many innocent people who live in the town. Even though one of the choices seemed like the easy answer — punishing an evil corporation to help a band of rebels — there’s no good choice here. Somebody has to suffer.
Or do they? After cutting off power to the dissident’s camp (my rationale was pure utilitarianism), I went back to the dissidents and had a tough conversation with their leader. I pleaded with her to bring her followers back to the town. She seemed reluctant but argued that it might be possible if her followers agreed to return and and the boss/mayor was somehow removed from power. The first task was easy — two key members just needed me to complete a few favors for them — but the second was fraught with risk. The boss/mayor was fairly entrenched in his position and the only way to remove him from his post might be to kill him. Luckily, however, after a lengthy discussion, I was able to convince him to surrender his post. The leader of the dissidents took over the position and everyone lived, although maybe not happily, ever after.
(This moment appears again and again in conversations about the game, seemingly both because it happens early and because it it’s the perfect example of the game’s modus operandi.)
Although critics seem to have been focused on the obvious, satirical stabs Outer Worlds takes at capitalism, the deeper story features a much more nuanced and satisfying approach. It would’ve been easy to make a game where you simply wreak havoc on an evil corporation, but by creating an experience that requires you to reckon with the competing, idiosyncratic needs of different individuals and groups, Obsidian has created a much more human story, and, thereby, a much more authentic critique. It’s one thing to lambast a concept in the abstract, it’s quite another to show how that concept actually affects people and their decisions. Outer Worlds nails the latter, making it an unforgettable experience, even after only a few hours.