After playing The Outer Worlds for just a few hours, it’s remarkable how often the game seems to be saying “yes” to the choices that I make for my character. It’s not trying to railroad me, or push the dialogue of a given conversation into any one direction. The end result is an RPG that feels incredibly wide, with lots of options for how I choose to play out a scene.
As a result, my character already feels genuinely unique. Her name is Kate, and with extremely low intelligence and high charisma, she’s a pistol-packing scoundrel who fakes it until she makes it. That means revealing to no one that she’s assumed the role of one Captain Alex Hawthorne, stealing their identity and their starship with a plan to ride both for all that they’re worth.
That means Kate did a few murders early on to cement her alibis.
And, so far at least, the game isn’t stopping me. All of my dialogue choices give me an opportunity to reveal my actual name, and one that keeps it a secret. I was even able to confound the ship’s artificial intelligence. Add to that a perk — called “dumb” — that allows me to derail even the simplest conversations with the most ridiculous replies imaginable, and this is already shaping up to be a memorable role-playing experience.
Game directors Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky tell me it’s all part of the plan, with a concise campaign featuring many different potential paths to take along the way. The Outer Worlds has effectively been built from the ground up for replayability.
“We want to allow players to make whatever character they want,” Boyarsky tells me during an interview last week. “It’s the [game master’s] job to make it work.”
“This is an old-school idea,” Cain adds, telling me that it’s similar to his original vision for Fallout as well. He and Boyarsky helped create the franchise at Interplay back in the mid-1990s.
“We’ve always wanted players to be able to play their characters any way they want,” Cain says, “and have the game feel like it’s completely supporting them and not looking down on them or trying to force them into a different path. ‘Sure, you can play this kind of character! But, really, we’re going to kind of move you in this direction and the rest is just flavor.’ We really want the game to feel like it’s reacting to the character you chose to play, and rewarding you for choosing to play that way.”
One of the first things players will need to do in The Outer Worlds is roll up a set of attributes. Unlike in modern 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, for example, there’s no “standard” set of numbers to work from. It’s a straight dice roll, with a point-buy system layered on for good measure. That means you can create a musclebound meathead or a hyper-intelligent weakling, and everything in between. It’s more than just window dressing; the narrative itself has myriad hooks to genuinely support those options, and accommodates many different styles of play.
That includes negative perks as well as positive ones.
“That’s what I love about the low attributes,” Boyarsky tells me. “They’re kind of like flaws you can take right at the beginning. You can be dumb or weak or clumsy or not very perceptive or not very likable.
“If you play a low-charisma character,” he continues, “that’s interesting because you will do some things in the game that you get away with normally and people will call you on it. People are really quick to become angry with you, and it actually surprised me, halfway through the game, when I had a whole town angry at me.”
“I recently did a low-temperament build and played through and forgot that I was not getting passive health regeneration,” Cain says. “I kept dying. I’m like, ‘What the hell? I’m playing on easy. Why is this so hard?’” Before long, his character ended up addicted to adreno, an in-game health buff. Feeding that addiction turned him into a kleptomaniac by necessity, since he was constantly in need of stolen goods to fund his habit. “It totally changes how you play the game,” Cain says.
Along with that depth of customization, developers at Obsidian Entertainment also added a ton to player agency. Thievery has consequences, and so too does murder. The team had to build in multiple redundant, resilient paths through the narrative, and that required planning.
“A designer will come to us with a great idea for a quest, and we’re like, ‘OK. What if the player kills that NPC before ever talking to them? What are you going to do then?’” Boyarsky says. “It almost becomes a habit when you’re designing this stuff. You start thinking along those lines.”
In every RPG, however, the storyline eventually narrows down to several decision points: Do you kill the kitten or do you save the kitten? Cain and Boyarsky admit their design has similar limitations, but with The Outer Worlds, their team actually built in a few different ways to go about dealing with those kittens.
“We have to have all the players go through certain points in the game, as much as we want to keep it as wide open as possible,” Boyarsky tells me. “When you get to those points [...] a lot of games will be like, ‘Well, we want you to get through this point this way. You can play her any way you want any other time, but when you get to this pinch point, it’s got to play out this way.’
“We look at those dramatic points and say, ‘You have to be able to play those any way your character wants,’” Boyarsky continues. “So therefore, we have to design that way. [...] We’re really trying to find new ways of supporting that gameplay and actually making, once again, you feel like you’re playing the game the ‘right way’ for your character.”
Despite these constant accommodations, the narrative has a clear point of view. It’s riddled with anti-capitalist messaging, portraying a colonial world that’s come entirely unmoored from modern-day ethical constraints. Both men agree that was a conscious choice.
“We’re not saying all capitalism is bad,” Boyarsky says. “Obviously, we live in a capitalistic culture. We’re here talking to you to try to convince you and other people to buy our game. But it’s really about [...] power. Who controls power, and who controls the narrative. If you give your self-determination over to other people and let them kind of write your narrative for you, they don’t have to hold a gun to your head. They can get you to do whatever they want. We could have easily set this in a communist society and had the same kind of thing.”
“Our goal is to entertain,” Cain said. “But, maybe make you think.”
The Outer Worlds comes out Oct. 25 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC via the Epic Games Store, and Xbox One.