There's dramatic irony, and then there's the The Outer Worlds and the way it is relentlessly satirising corporatism when its makers have just been acquired by one of the largest corporations in the world. Given their penchant for seeing the funny side of things, though, it wouldn’t be surprising if the developers at Obsidian haven’t already cracked that joke with each other several times since Microsoft picked them up last year, howling at the absurdity of it all. It's no easy feat to make a video game that's both funny and compelling, after all, but The Outer Worlds hands-on preview at E3 2019 suggests that this esteemed studio is still more than capable of repeating the successes of its cult classic Fallout: New Vegas.
From seducing robots in binary code to discovering a pen full of "cystypigs" (genetically engineered sow bred to grow bacon flavoured tumors for public consumption, obviously), The Outer Worlds is already tickling rib cages as potentially one of, if not the funniest game of the year. As aforementioned, much of that humor derives from the game's pointed jabs at the excesses of capitalism, via its setting of a faraway space colony owned and run completely by private industry. Dan McPhee, The Outer Worlds' Narrative Designer, explains why Obsidian decided to point the spotlight on consumer culture for this particular space western adventure.
"It gives us some fun stories to play with that we can't really tell in other settings," he explains. "The general theme of this very corporatised rule-based society is that everyone wants to have a job and work their way up the ladder, and that gives us a lot of room to work with player freedom in a way that other games don't." Thus, as part of Obsidian's world building for this heavily commercialised new frontier, the player will come across all manner of weird and wonderful advertisements for its fictitious marketplace of sci-fi products. Think Fallout's Nuka-Cola, then imagine entering a galactic superstore where that's just one item on the shelf, and you get the idea.
When I asked which of these fake commercials were the most fun to create, McPhee starts rattling off several at once, which gives you a good idea of the level of imagination that goes into even the smallest details of Obsidian's latest universe. "There are so many! I like Spacer's Choice because their slogan is 'It's not the best choice. It's Spacer's Choice.' There's also a product in the game called Saltuna which is technically salmon and tuna genetically mixed, but everyone just thinks it's salty tuna!"
That scrappy, absurdist aura of comedy bleeds into The Outer Worlds' gameplay, too, especially with regards to its character progression system, made up primarily by Obsidian’s familiar system of perks and flaws. Fight too many robots, for instance, and your completely customisable hero can find themselves plagued with Robophobia, which awards you with an extra perk point, but makes you weaker in combat during any future encounters with robots.
"A lot of perks are systems-based depending on your build,” McPhee tells me. "We've put in a lot of perks to suit a variety of different playstyles. Depending on your stats, for example, your character can be of below average intelligence, which unlocks dumb dialogue when speaking with other NPCs. That's a super fun thing to play with, and a fun call back to New Vegas, too, which hopefully a lot of fans can appreciate."
Alternatively, invest enough points into your character's powers of persuasion, and they can charm their way out of several situations, with other potential dialogue options including the ability to lie, intimidate, and even potentially romance. During the demo, which sees you infiltrate a factory farm harbouring those aforementioned cystypigs, we encountered several suspicious guards who approached with accusatory questioning, but each tailored dialogue response from our wiley spacefarer provided an impressively convincing set of answers.
That level of player freedom extends to everything in The Outer Worlds, which frequently presents narrative splintering decisions for players to carve out their own stories, but never punishes you with the kind of binary morality systems that role-playing veterans are used to. In that sense, The Outer Worlds is shaping up to be a distinctly Obsidian RPG in all the right ways, with all the character depth, emergent freedom, and narrative complexity that Bethesda fans in particular have been dying to see more of since 2015's Fallout 4.
In the absence of a game of that nature from Bethesda itself anytime soon, The Outer Worlds might just look like the next best thing by default, but don't be fooled. This has every chance of becoming your favourite new reason to avoid all social gatherings, lose countless hours of sleep, and never leave the house again.
The Outer Worlds release date is set for October 25, 2019, when it launches on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.