The Outer Worlds surpassed my expectations, and considering that I’ve long had a high opinion of Obsidian Entertainment’s role-playing game design chops, it’s an impressive feat.
Obsidian Entertainment had been one of gaming’s best independent RPG studios. Microsoft acquired the company in August 2018 as it was coming off the release of my favorite game of the year, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. But a handful of months later, the studio announced The Outer Worlds, with Private Division serving as the publisher. It’s Obsidian’s final indie release.
And what a release it’s been. Take-Two (Private Division is one of its subsidiaries) said that The Outer Worlds had exceeded internal expectations and that it should have a noticeable impact on its Q3 results. It has a Metacritic score ranging from 82 on PC to 86 on PlayStation 4. It received a Game of the Year nomination for The Game Awards, and it’s appeared on a number best-of-the-year lists.
I interviewed co-game director Leonard Boyarsky (the producer for the original Fallout) and Nitai Poddar, Obsidian’s narrative director for the Outer Worlds. I asked about many of its influences and what went into creating this fun, sarcastic world.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What’s the history of these colonies and this sector of space? How long have people been here? Who is in charge?
Leonard Boyarsky: This specific colony that you play in The Outer Worlds, Halcyon, they first began terraforming it about 100 years ago. Humanity in this universe has been colonizing for about 120 years. In Halcyon, the first colonists arrived 80 years ago. Your ship was supposed to arrive 70 years ago, but it did not. It was late. They finally found it drifting, but they decided not to unfreeze you or any of the rest of the hundreds of thousands of colonists on the ship, because it would be a strain on their system. They just left you guys all out there drifting for eternity, I guess, frozen. The corporation, a group of 10 corporations banded together to create a kind of megacorporation, the Halcyon Holding Corporation. The board of directors, colloquially in the game known as the Board, are the ones who are in charge of the colony.
Nitai Poddar: As you play through the game, we present them as the dominant force that pretty much runs the entire colony from top to bottom. They’re known as the Board.
GamesBeat: How did this area of space become dominated by corporations, as opposed to a government force?
Boyarsky: What happened was, when they started, they discovered skip drive, or the principles of the skip drive, which allows you to skip past the speed of light. Once they did that they started auctioning off colonies. What happened with this colony is that the 10 corporations got together and pooled their resources to buy the colony. That’s why they’re in charge. There’s supposed to be a representative of Earth on all the colonies, and there is on this one as well, but in this colony specifically, corporations have gotten the upper hand, or they’ve always had the upper hand, because they bought it.
GamesBeat: It reminds me of how in Alien, corporations and not the government seem to be the ones who have the upper hand. Was that part of your thinking?
Boyarsky: All kinds of things inform our thinking. There’s a lot of classic sci-fi with big bad corporations. Alien, of course, is one of them. We like things like Brazil. But the way we came around to this kind of setting was that Tim started really playing around with corporations in a future setting, coming up with funny taglines for them, funny products, very much inspired by Futurama. Then I kind of started toying around with it from more of the sociological side, what that would mean if a corporation ran people’s lives, like they did around the turn of the 20th century, the robber barons and the Gilded Age, things like mining towns. We went from there. It was kind of a weird coming together, just us coming up with these ideas on our own, and saying, oh, that feels a bit more like this, this is more like Brazil, we should bring in more things from those different sources.
Poddar: Because we wanted to make this game set in a kind of corporate dystopia, it was very important to have corporations as a unilateral power. There’s no sense of them being separate from the government. As you play through The Outer Worlds, the Halcyon board, they are a megacorporation, yes, but they also run the colony. The role of government has been subsumed by the Board. We’re using that in order to express this idea of corporate dystopia, where the central premise in the science fiction of the story is, what if corporations were powerful enough to run an entire world? That’s essentially what’s happening here.
GamesBeat: But it’s happening through a lens of humor though?
Boyarsky: Yes. We love dark humor. I like dark humor. Tim Cain, the other co-game director, loves silly humor, so we kind of meet in the middle. Every time we’ve made a game together, it’s always had that dark sense of humor. It’s what we like exploring in these types of games. We feel that we can explore deeper themes when we have that kind of dark humor up front, so it doesn’t get too oppressive or too depressing to play. Games should be fun, but we also like talking about some deeper themes within them.
GamesBeat: Why are these corporations that you came up with, and the idea of a corporate dystopia, why is that such a ripe place for dark humor?
Boyarsky: It’s kind of a reflection of our society, the consumer-based values. It just seemed like the way I’ve always phrased it, and the way I’ve approached it, is a much more general thing. This could apply to government. It could apply to economic theories. It could apply to corporations. It could apply to religion. Whoever has the power to control what people tell themselves or their narrative of their lives, and then they internalize that, that’s where you have real power. That’s more powerful than someone with a gun telling you what you have to do. If they can get you to believe something — and again, this doesn’t have to be a corporation, but anybody who has the power to get people to believe things — they really control people’s lives. That’s one of the reasons we brought the player from outside the colony, the player character. The player and the player character both are seeing this from an outsider’s point of view, seeing how absurdist this whole thing actually is. But the people inside the colony, it just seems natural to them. It seems like this is how everything works.
Poddar: I think absurdity is a good way to look at it. Absurdity is really where our humor sits. I personally think that the storytelling device of megacorporations running everything about the world is rife with opportunities for absurdist storytelling, whether that’s coming up with hilarious and bizarre taglines and slogans for every corporation, or coming up with weird things that they make — the whole idea of a diet toothpaste is somehow grotesque and horrible and hilarious. It’s being packaged and sold as a lunch item. Something like that is so weird, and yet it’s treated as such a part of everyday life that you can’t help but find it funny.
GamesBeat: Going back to corporations, the first one you really get a taste of is Spacers Choice. That’s obviously a play on coffee?
Boyarsky: I thought it was? Tim came up with the name, but I don’t know if he verified that or not. I assumed it was. That’s what it reminded me of. I don’t even know if that’s a thing anymore.
GamesBeat: When it comes to talking about megacorporations and conglomerates, did you talk about how we need more media that questions the role of giant companies?
Boyarsky: I don’t know how much we considered that. I think that’s always a good thing, to hold up a mirror to different things that are going on in society. Once again, it’s back to control of people’s lives and power. I love writing about the human condition. I love having games that deal with the human condition. Corporations are the current thing that’s doing that. I feel like at different times in history it could have been the baron, the prince, who’s controlling people’s lives. It really boils down to power and who has it. I think it’s interesting to talk about things in a humorous, allegorical way, as opposed to tackling them head-on, which is why we do things in different universes with a whole different tone than you would have if you set a game in the modern day.
GamesBeat: What was your process like as a writing team when you’re coming up with the humor, the stories and the plotlines and the gags?
Boyarsky: It’s interesting, because Tim and I have always approached it the same in all of our games. We both love humor. We both love things like the Simpsons and Futurama. I love the Coen Brothers, those darker things. Tim gravitates toward more silly things. We like to call it the secret sauce. The tone of our games is really the combination of those two worlds. We’ve started out with some very overarching themes, overarching story points, that we then discuss with the writers and work with them to create these storylines. We’re always trying to refer — to find ways to inform the player about characters or the world in a way that’s engaging, and hopefully humorous. It could be a bit disarming if you’re laughing at something. It doesn’t feel as depressing as it could be, or hitting you over the head — here’s how things should be, that kind of attitude.