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The Universe Of The Outer Worlds

by Matt Miller on Feb 18, 2019 at 01:45 PM

One of the most exciting aspects of The Outer Worlds is the opportunity to see the role-playing experts at Obsidian try their hand at a brand-new setting. While the gameplay of this new franchise draws comparisons to other first-person RPGs, the universe that players explore is entirely new. Set in a distant corner of the galaxy, The Outer Worlds is a fascinating mix of classic sci-fi pulp and an irreverent send-up of corporate culture and capitalism. The character you play is, in many ways, as much an outsider as you are as the player – a recently unfrozen colonist forced to contend with a bizarre culture and alien solar system – and that backdrop promises to be especially memorable.

Not As You Remember

“This is an alternate history,” says co-director Leonard Boyarsky. “There was a point where the timeline split off. It was at a certain point, around the time of Einstein. There was a first World War, but it was for different reasons. And maybe there wasn’t a second World War.” One of the defining features that set Earth apart in this new timeline is the nature of companies, classism, and the central importance of money-making. Imagine the already absurd power of corporations, banks, and billionaires in the real world, and ratchet it up several more degrees. “What if the trusts hadn’t been broken up?,” Boyarsky muses. “You have these robber barons at the turn of the 20th century. A couple of hundred years later, what if we still have that culture?”

In this twist on history, Earth is already the domain of massive and powerful companies as humanity begins to spread out across the stars. Rather than the intrepid explorers and diplomats of some other science fiction properties, it’s the reaching arm of capitalism that sends humanity hurtling into the void, and habitable planets across the galaxy are being carved up like parcels of land in the American Old West. This first installment of The Outer Worlds focuses on one particular solar system called Halcyon, and the ten companies that banded together to purchase it. “The corporations have pretty much taken over everything,” Boyarsky says. “But they want to go that last little bit and make it the perfect society for corporations. When Earth was colonizing the furthest reaches of the galaxy, they bought one of the furthest colonies and set up what they thought would be a corporate utopia, where they can control every aspect of people’s lives.”

When speaking to the developers at Obsidian, it’s especially exciting to learn how expansive this new universe really is. While Halcyon has received the bulk of the attention and fleshing out, the team isn’t shy about highlighting this one solar system as just one part of a larger network of humans across the stars. “We made a list of the other colonies,” says co-director Tim Cain. “They have names and what their major products are. There are some companies and governments that were big enough that they just bought a colony on their own. Ours is unusual in that there are ten different corporations, but it’s because it was so far away and took so much money. We also have said that there is one guy who is pretty much like the Bill Gates of the universe. He was so wealthy that he bought a colony by himself. And the first thing he did was seal it off. No one’s been there for a hundred years.”

It’s not just the path of corporate greed that has taken a different direction in The Outer Worlds. Obsidian has also spent time establishing different rules around physics and natural law; it’s all internally consistent, but it’s meant to flex to the needs of a central guiding mantra: Fun trumps realism.

The alternate nature of science is perhaps best represented by the nature of space travel, and how it feeds into the main story of the game. “In this universe they found a way of increasing your velocity discontinuously,” Cain explains. “If you can go from one velocity to another and not occupy the ones in between, you can really get really close up to the speed of light, and then jump over the light speed barrier. They found a way to do it. What’s weird is that when you do skip over light speed, you’re in some other weird space, everything’s gray, you can’t see anything, and you can’t turn.” As a result, mistakes are possible, and that’s exactly what happens with the game’s main character and the thousands of other colonists onboard The Hope, the second colony ship that had been heading to Halcyon. After coming out of skip space early, The Hope took many more years to reach its destination. And by then, this new corporate colony no longer knew what to do with them.

Home Away From Home

The Halcyon system and its colonies didn’t turn out the way the corporate board had hoped. Things looked promising in the beginning, with two seemingly habitable planets and an initial group of colonists aboard a first ship. But even before The Hope went missing, problems arose.

One of the habitable worlds, Terra 1 was a moon orbiting a massive gas giant called Olympus. Human terraforming didn’t work on the planet, and among other problems, much of the local fauna was dramatically altered, sizing it up into mega versions that pose tremendous threats to human life. In-game, Terra 1 has been renamed as Monarch, and it’s a dangerous place to live. It’s also where the board’s outsized influence has begun to fray, as many groups and individuals are rebelling against the companies.

For players, Monarch will replicate some of the expectations of an open-world space, but on a smaller scale. “Monarch has a bigger wide-open playspace,” Boyarsky says. “There’s three or four different little towns on Monarch. Because it has a big, wide-open area, you can walk between them, or just fly to the different ones in your ship once you unlock the landing pads.”

The other comfortably habitable planet orbiting the Halcyon star is called Terra 2, and it remains much more under the sway of the board. Here, the colonists have largely accepted and even embraced their roles as corporate workers, but the façade is slowly breaking down, as towns slowly fall into disarray. Marauding thugs who have abandoned the company life wander around outside the towns. And even inside, the appearance of homey comfort has begun to fray as prefab structures have begun to fall apart and jobs remain unfilled, even as the various companies try to keep up good appearances.

It’s here that players will visit one of several contained locales, including the smaller settlements of Edgewater (inside the Emerald Vale), and Roseway, the town first shown in early videos for The Outer Worlds. Terra 2 is also home to Byzantium, the gilded city of the well-to-do, where every Halcyon colonist wishes they could live. Byzantium is closed off to those without the means to be appropriate residents; it’s a literal gated community with secrets that lesser company workers will simply never learn.

While Terra 2 and Monarch are the two largest and most involved environments that players will encounter, they are not the only places that players will visit. Several other smaller destinations play important roles in the unfolding game, especially the ship that brought that first group of colonists to the system. “The Groundbreaker is the original colony ship, parked in the Lagrange point of Terra 2,” Cain explains. This station acts as a main port for the system, as ships come and go. “Freighters that come from out of the colony unload their stuff there, and go from there to be delivered around the colony,” Boyarsky says. “There’s some people there who live a bit outside the law.”

In addition to rubbing elbows with the criminal element aboard the station, players will also rocket off to some of the other less-friendly planetary bodies around the system. There’s an asteroid called Scylla, which contains some laboratories and transmitting stations. “There’s a lot of abandoned stuff there; there’s no town on Scylla,” Boyarsky says.

“We also have Tartarus, which is kind Venusian, but it’s even worse,” Cain says. “It’s just a nasty planet. It’s where the maximum security prison is, run by United Defense Logistics; Spacer’s Choice is a wholly owned subsidiary.” We don’t know much about Tartarus, or what business the players might have on a prison planet, but one of its chief exports does make for an amusing aside. “There’s a product sold called Tartarus Sauce, for dipping Saltuna fish sticks,” Cain says with a smile. “What they do is they take mayonnaise and they expose it the caustic environment of Tartarus for just a few seconds, and then put the lid back on, and they sell it. It makes the mayo really tangy, because it introduces a lot of very low-level toxins. There’s not a lot of restrictions on corporate food products.”

Some of the other “outer worlds” of Halcyon are less likely to be on-foot destinations in the game, but may play a role in an understanding of the full setting. There’ the ice-planet of Typhon, around which The Hope has been parked until the company’s governing board can figure out what to do with it. Obsidian also shared that Eridanos is a gas giant currently being mined for resources, and another celestial body is named Hephaestus, a small mineral-rich planet near the sun.

The idea is to create a believable space for players to explore as they adventure across space, and that means that not every site can be visited. But even the places you do visit aren’t likely to offer the standard space opera fantasy that the plasma rifles and rocket ships of this universe might at first suggest.

Subverting Expectation

The Outer Worlds is first and foremost a rollicking outer space adventure, but like the original Fallout that Cain and Boyarsky helped create, one of the magic ingredients is a healthy dose of social commentary (often couched in absurdist humor). Any understanding of the game’s setting is incomplete without grasping the ways in which this alternate history attempts to drive home some uncomfortable truths about capitalism, bureaucracy, and the people who blissfully buy the company line without question.

“It adds something interesting, with the juxtaposition of this grand space adventure, even as we are going from corporate town to corporate town,” Boyarsky says. “There’s hopefully enough space adventure and heroics in there to satisfy people, and we don’t want people to think this a trip through bureaucracy, but there is that aspect to it.”

Everywhere a player visits, they’re reminded not just of a company culture that is governing the entirety of this society, but equally important, the people who buy into that system. The colonists are terrified of unemployed people as much as they are of monsters – what could be worse than not having a job with the company? They blithely quote company slogans like they’re maxims for good living. Even the religion (The Order of Scientific Inquiry) instills the mindset that everyone is right where they’re meant to be, and straying from your job or place in life is tantamount to heresy. “What’s good for the corporation is good for the workers, and even good for humanity,” Boyarsky says. “There’s no greater good than serving the corporation.”

“If you go into Obsidian’s kitchen there’s this thing listing employee rights,” Cain notes. “In our fictional world, you go into the kitchen and there’s a list of employer rights.” Individuals are trained from birth to put the company first, and recognize that they are more replaceable than the machines on which they work. People love their company like it’s the local sports team. The player is forced to contend with that mindset and its seeming insanity, and then accept the ways in which it echoes elements of corporate loyalty and tribalism in our own very real society.

The result is a setting that makes us uncomfortable, even while it offers an escape into world of ray guns and spaceships. Behind the adventure, The Outer Worlds pokes fun at the absurdity of such a society, while making it just believable enough to make you think. “We like to subvert people’s expectations,” Boyarsky says. “We’re drawn to deeper social commentary, even though we’re not pretending we’re profound or anything. We like to play around in that arena.”

“We’re not making colony simulator,” Cain adds. “We’re just trying to make this a really fun environment. And if we can do some social commentary along the way, so be it.”

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