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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.
Poddar: I can answer this in a couple ways. One way to answer it is that the work we do is interdisciplinary. Humor isn’t something that only the writers are responsible for. It’s central to the design of the game, and therefore writers are responsible for exploring humor, but also artists and level designers and sound designers. We want our sense of humor to permeate the entire game. And the reason we’re doing that, which is the second answer I can give you, is we want the player to have fun. It sounds simple to say, but that’s our underlying motive. The way we achieve that, the process by which we try to make a humorous game, is we iterate a lot. Our work is very collaborative. We don’t have a writer who goes off in a room and does work on his own and comes back. We’re sharing our ideas. We’re putting together a pitch for a level or a character or a quest. We get input from other designers, from artists. If it seems to hit a good note with a lot of people, if it’s making other people on the team laugh, that’s a signal to me as a writer that I’m going in the right direction. I just try to do more of that. You do that long enough and eventually you get a pretty funny game at the end of it.
GamesBeat: How hard is it to keep that on track while at the same time enjoying the humor? I’ve really enjoyed the humor, but it seems like it would be distracting to make a game like this while you’re laughing a lot.
Boyarsky: It’s such a long process, developing quest lines, implementing quest lines, iterating on quest lines. I always say you lose sight of the humor, because you always know what it’s supposed to be and how you’re trying to hit it to be the most effective. We want it to be subtle in some places, overt in other places, but it should always feel like it comes from the situation and the characters. It shouldn’t feel forced. I think early on we talk about where the humor is going to be and how we’re going to present it. Then it’s a lot of nuts and bolts along the way, just getting that to work.
Poddar: I don’t necessarily think it’s distracting. Here’s the thing. There’s a lot of work that goes into actually realizing these characters, designing these quests, writing the content, writing the dialogue. If at the end of that part of the typical workday, if I was able to make somebody else on the team laugh or make myself laugh or just have a good time, then to me that’s a good indication of a game that’s going in the right direction. Game design is hard, but it should be fun. If we’re having fun and we’re on the player’s side, then there’s a good choice that the player is going to have fun once the game finally gets into their hands.
GamesBeat: Whose idea was it to come up with diet toothpaste?
Poddar: That’d be Leonard.
Boyarsky: No, it wasn’t wholly me. What happened was, that was the first area we made for the game, in the proof of concept. We were tossing around ideas for what they could be researching. Originally some of the designers had come up with something that seemed fairly standard, and Tim and I were like, no, this has to really reflect back on points that are happening in the story, on deeper themes. We started talking about diet suppressant stuff. We were trying to come up with something that seems a little silly on the surface, but could have deeper meaning. We were in a brainstorming meeting with some of the writers and Tim and I. I don’t remember who said it, but somebody threw it out there as a joke, and then all of us were immediately like, of course that’s what it has to be, because it seems really ridiculous, but there’s aspects to it in the game that turn out to be not really all that silly. There seems to be other things going on there. It checks all those boxes. It’s very silly on the surface, but it’s got some deeper things going on.
Poddar: I have a memory of working on that level, and I think Leonard popped in to the writers’ room and said, diet toothpaste, that’s what they’re researching. OK, cool. That actually works. That works pretty well. I think the reaction you had, where it’s funny and weird on the outside, that’s really what we’re going for. We’re trying to make players feel like, okay, this is hilarious, this is bizarre, this is weird, but if you stop and think about it, there’s something dark about what they’re doing and how they’re going about the research and what they could use the research for. We like layering humor on top and then something slightly unsettling just underneath.
Setting the pace
GamesBeat: Early on, you force players to make a pretty big decision when it comes to Edgewater and the deserters. Why give players that decision so early?
Boyarsky: It’s a game about decisions. We’re a game about player choice. I always think of this as a game we’re playing with the players. We’re encouraging them to take agency and make choices, and those choices affect the story. Since Edgewater is a beginner zone — it’s the first zone every player is going to see. We use that zone to establish the tone for the rest of the game. Not just the sense of humor, but also the way the game is intended to be played. We’re teaching you — hey, this is the kind of game you’re getting into. And by ending Edgewater on a very big decision, which can only go one way or another, we’re telling you two things. This is a game about decisions, and maybe you want to play through this game a couple of times to see all of them.
GamesBeat: One of my other writers, who’s also playing right now, he had a question about Edgewater. You quickly learn that you can make things better for the deserters by dealing with Thompson. Did you ever decide to obscure that possibility so that players could discover that themselves? Or did you want it to make it more clear because it was a beginner area?
Boyarsky: I think we tried to layer things in there, but we did want to make it more obvious than it might have otherwise been, so players knew what the choices were. We also wanted to play around with the player’s expectations. A lot of people, when they first get into it, if they’re not really digging into the conversations or thinking it through, it seems like a fairly cut and dried decision. But the more you think about it, the more you dig into the conversations, the more you read from the people’s journals, there’s a whole different aspect to this than you might think.
Poddar: You hit the nail on the head by saying it is a beginner area, so we do want to be more up front about the choices. I personally feel that the choice the player never knows they had, that they can’t find out they had, isn’t really a choice at all. In dealing with Thompson as a way of bringing the deserters back, we make that clear to the player, but we can’t make it clear to the player early on. We make it clear toward the end. What this does is it allows that choice to still feel like discovered content, whereas in reality we’re reasonably sure a lot of players are going to come across that choice just by design.
Boyarsky: Yeah, we don’t want to hide the choices too well.
GamesBeat: Where do you draw the line and how do you draw the line between directing players and letting them discover possibilities?
Boyarsky: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? That’s something we’re constantly playing around with and iterating on. What’s discoverable, but players won’t come across? What needs to be in the player’s path so that everyone is going to see it? One of the great examples of that, I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s in some videos. When you’re going to make the choice in Edgewater, Parvati has a conversation with you laying out what your choices are and giving her opinion. When they implemented that, that really brought everything together. That was an instance where that one thing really brought the whole quest to another level. Emotionally as well as just players understanding exactly what’s at stake and what’s going on. We didn’t consider that the very first time we designed it. That was something that came later as a response to seeing people play it and seeing what they were catching or what they weren’t catching.
Poddar: It’s an iterative process. There’s a lot of finesse involved in walking the line between being too obvious and being so subtle that nobody gets it. The way I like to approach it as a writer is, there is a critical path. There is a path through the game that we want to make as clear as possible because it’s the path that leads from the beginning of the game to the end of the game. Everything that happens on that path, we lead toward clarity. We don’t want players to be lost on that path. Now, when the players go off that path, when they go off and do side quests, if they start exploring a little in Roseway or on the Groundbreaker, then I think we have more freedom to be subtle. We have freedom to hide things. We have freedom to introduce choices that may not be possible, and we do this to reward exploration and encourage players to go off the beaten path a little bit. You never know if something you discover will end up opening an option for you that you didn’t even know was there.
GamesBeat: When it comes to your humor, how difficult was it to make some things subtle and some things not? How difficult is it to balance that?
Boyarsky: Once again, it’s iteration. I think it — when you’re developing the ideas or fleshing out an area, a lot of it kind of suggests itself. And we might say, you know, we might tweak something to be more one way or the other, depending on how we feel it would work better. It’s really a–
Poddar: I think it’s impossible to tell with humor. If somebody ever figured out exactly when to be subtle and when to hit the player over the head, they’re making a lot more money than I am. With humor you can never predict — you can kind of predict, but you never really know what people are going to find funny. For that reason we try to put a lot of it in, and from a lot of different styles. You mentioned it yourself. Some of the humor is very subtle, where you have to piece things together. Some of the humor is a bit of wordplay, and some of the humor is very blunt. We do that to kind of cover our bases. There are some funny things we want every player to see and we’re reasonably sure they’re going to see it. I think the best example of that in Roseway is when you go to the secret lab and there’s a giant glowing sign that says SECRET LAB. That’s our line. That’s about as blunt as you’re ever going to get. Then if you go into Roseway and you read all the terminals and you piece things together, then there’s a lot of very subtle, implicit humor. We don’t always pick between one of the other. We try to give the player everything and let them enjoy whatever it is that they enjoy.
Boyarsky: That’s a really good example, though, because the SECRET LAB sign, we did decide that was the line that we couldn’t go past. But after a while of living with it we tweaked it even more. Originally it just said SECRET LAB, and we said, okay, there’s no reason within the world itself that this ever would have happened. We changed it so it’s SECRET LAB NUMBER — we gave it a serial number, made it feel a little bit more formal. We didn’t say this in the game, but in our brains it suggests more like — somebody got a blueprint, and on the blueprint it said, this is a secret lab. And they just made the sign. At least there’s a little subtlety in the way we’re hitting you over the head. Or at least I like to think so.
Poddar: I do know that every time we bury something, like a little bit of lore, a little snippet of something on a terminal that’s out of the way, 80% of the time our instinct is, we should make this a little bit funny. Or just very dark, or both at the same time. That’s really where the subtle, implicit humor tends to sit.
GamesBeat: Who on the art team came up with the idea for those gorgeous 1950s-style ads and monster drawings that go in the loading screens? That’s actually one of my favorite parts of the game.
Boyarsky: Daniel Alpert is our art director. He was the one who decided to use those as load screens, as far as I know. We have a fantastic team of concept artists who did those. They helped us define the look of the game, what it was going to be. I’m not sure who did what. I don’t want to misattribute some of them. But they really knocked it out of the park. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to really define and lock down what the look and feel of the world was on the artistic side. The decision to use them as loading screens was great, because those were all supposed to be in-world posters and ads you saw. Really bringing them to the forefront like that gives a lot more flavor to the game.
Poddar: I don’t know if you’ve seen these yet, but there are also a couple of loading screen posters which are player-reactive. Based on what you do in Edgewater, you might get one of two different loading screens that put a spin on it. We definitely had a lot of fun with those.
GamesBeat: You know, I wasn’t quite aware that was happening. Is there an example you can share?
Poddar: In Edgewater there’s one that shows a giant stalking tiger marching through Edgewater and destroying their way of life. That’s Board propaganda commenting on the fact that you put the deserters in charge. If you go the other way, you’ll get a different loading screen. It’s all Board propaganda, in a very 1940s and 1950s style.
Boyarsky: I wish we could have done more. There’s a lot for the main story arc, but the theory or the conceit behind them is that it’s all Board propaganda. If you’re doing things the Board would approve of, you’re this heroic figure. If you’re doing things the Board wouldn’t approve of, you’re painted as this evil force in the colony that’s sent there to destroy it.
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