Right up there in the list of life's greatest pleasures, next to meeting your infant child for the first time and winning an Olympic medal, is clearing out a zone in an RPG. I mean filling out that map with every point of interest, emptying that quest log, making every tough decision, just wringing an entire fictional region out for every last drop. Once you do, you can look back and say "I have done it all" and then journey onward to the next zone full of new places to see and tasks to check off with a clear mind. The Outer Worlds does this better than any RPG I've played for a long time, and it makes me way more likely to finish it.
When I first dropped out of the little tutorial ridge and into the proper map of Emerald Vale, The Outer Worlds' first region, I grappled with an unfamiliar feeling. I took a tentative stroll around the exterior of my new starship, and I could see I was actually covering a decent stretch of the map in the process – I could probably walk across the whole thing in a minute or two. That's what the feeling was! I wasn't overwhelmed! I wasn't underwhelmed either, in fact I was whelmed just the right amount. I know huge maps in games are often pushed as selling points, but they've become something of a liability for me.
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See, I've been playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons in the last few months, and it's made me realize that I want a video game RPG to treat me like a good Dungeon Master. Set up a story, thread it through interesting places, and give me just enough room to explore and experiment without losing sight of the larger goal. Granted, some of the best tabletop RPGs are built to work with no pre-made story whatsoever, but if that's what you're after there are stronger choices than – sorry, I'm digressing about the comparative strengths of tabletop RPG design again.
I need a video game to act as that kind of Dungeon Master, because I know exactly what will happen if it isn't. I'll follow the main story to a new area, try to do all the quests and see all of the things it has to offer, then in the process I'll get a little too close to a new area and discover another set of new quests and things, which I'll feel obligated to start on now for fear of forgetting them later or missing out on easy synergy.
Eventually, I'll realize that I'm halfway through completing 20 different things and I won't feel motivated to finish any of them – all the while being invested enough that the thought of abandoning them all to return to the main story will make me feel a little sick to my stomach. Especially with games like The Witcher 3, that odd breed of RPG that has the absolute gall to sneak some of its best stories into side quests! I mean, it's great, but God! How am I supposed to deal with not finishing them?!
It's become worse as I've grown older and developed more interests and obligations outside of playing video games (no, it's not all just D&D, but also yes a lot of it is D&D). I have a harder time justifying the time I'd need to spend to bring myself back to the quest journal equivalent of inbox zero. I respect and commend people who can look at a huge RPG world and savor the hundred or more hours they foresee in exploring every last corner, but that ain't me any more.
The good news is that I've discovered a dark secret about myself: past a certain point, I feel roughly the same sense of pride and freedom whenever I finish off any zone in an RPG, regardless of how big it is or how much time I spend there. Thus, The Outer Worlds' mercifully manageable zones become little puzzle boxes of satisfaction as I work out how best to see every sight, meet every person, and check every box before I fire my ship back up and take off for the next one. It lights up all those neuron pathways and shoots out all those happy brain chemicals that clearing Desolace in World of Warcraft did back in 2005, with far less danger of being sent to an entirely new zone that, gosh, I'd better fully investigate now that I'm here.
I'm still making my way through The Outer Worlds, but with everything I've heard from my colleagues, it won't ever get too much sprawling than what I've already experienced. There will be cool new worlds to explore and interesting new people to meet, but never too much at once. I am pretty excited about that.
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