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Blending comedy with capitalism in The Outer Worlds

Obsidian's senior designer Brian Heins also discusses why tougher moral choices are more interesting

Giant corporations steer the course of human history, prioritising profits over people and expanding their business into any area that will deliver more of the former.

Sound familiar? It's how many people view the Googles and Facebooks of our world, but it's also the premise of The Outer Worlds, the upcoming action RPG from Obsidian Entertainment.

While it can be argued that the game is a comment on capitalism, senior designer Brian Heins tells us the early inspirations actually stretch back much further than the last ten years. The team looked at early 1900s America, and the industrialists and robber barons that were grabbing for power at the time. The US Government introduced regulations that broke up some of this power, but Obsidian pondered: what if that never happened?

The result is the sci-fi setting of The Outer Worlds, where human colonies in the far reaches of space are run by vast corporations, each with their own agenda. This already sounds like quite a dark premise -- and there's certainly a sinister undertone to it -- but Obsidian was determined to maximise the appeal by making it fun and entertaining at the same time.

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Brian Heins, Obsidian Entertainment

Heins tells GamesIndustry.biz the premise itself injects a little humour: " Obviously, this world has a certain level of absurdity just because of the complete control corporations have over everyone's lives, which doesn't exist in our own.

"But still there are echoes in our lives that we're used to -- everyone's had a crappy customer service call with a corporation at some point, so everyone can understand that level of bureaucracy invading even the smallest aspects of your life.

"So it was more like the idea that how we can we take a serious thing in our world and add a humourous spin to it as well."

It arrives at an interesting time where there are anti-corporate sentiments from some pockets of the gaming community. There's the long-running perception that EA is evil, a distrust of Google and its plans for Stadia, and conspiracy theories that Tencent's stake in Epic Games means the company is spying on Fortnite players and its store users for the Chinese government.

Even Obsidian is perhaps in a precarious position now that it has been purchased by Microsoft, one of the 'big faceless corporations' that have been decried by gamers over the years.

Heins says the fictional firms in The Outer Worlds "don't necessarily reflect on games industry corporations specifically", and reflects on his own experiences with such organisations.

"I've worked for the 'big faceless evil corporations' and on the inside they're not faceless or evil. There's always reasons for why decisions are made"

"I've worked for EA, I've worked for Take-Two, Rockstar, now I work for Microsoft," he says. "I've worked for the 'big faceless evil corporations' and on the inside they're not faceless or evil. There's always reasons for why decisions are made. Not always ones that individual people agree with or understand because a lot of the times when a company makes a decision, they don't always communicate 'Here's all the reasons behind how we got to this point.'"

In The Outer Worlds, this is all personified by the Board, the group that oversees the corporations running each colony. Rather than setting this entity up as an obvious villain, Obsidian ensures players see events from the Board's perspective as well and in a relatable way.

"We wanted to put a human face on it, so you're actually working with specific people," Heins explains. "Each person has their own personality, their own human moments that help you relate to them. We wanted to give a personal touch to the faceless corporations. If you can't sympathise with the corporate board, you can sympathise with the person you are dealing with in the game."

He continues: "Whether you end up agreeing with them or not, they have reasons for doing what they do and the way they are doing it. There's a logic to it, although you might disagree with their methods. We try wherever we can to not just have one point of view we force on the player. Because ultimately we want them to be able to see multiple different points of view and then make the decision.

"Choices are interesting when they're hard, when both sides have equal weight to their argument and you have to decide which one to go with. That's much more interesting than if one side is clearly right, the other is clearly wrong and you don't have to think about the choice at all."

Obsidian has tried to ensure each corporation has a human face in the form of characters that players interact with, making them more relatable

Obsidian has tried to ensure each corporation has a human face in the form of characters that players interact with, making them more relatable

Heins comments echo those of co-director Leonard Boyarsky, who said the game wouldn't deliver one point of view and won't be "politically charged" (part of the ongoing 'Are games political?' debate). The senior designer says the goal of the game is to "create interesting situations, not tell the player how to feel about those situations."

As a result, Heins emphasises that there will be no good or bad choices, once again pointing to the efforts made in presenting both sides of each argument. He compares it to morality systems in past games where the bad option in any given choice might be to just slaughter everybody.

"Choices are interesting when they're hard, when both sides have equal weight to their argument and you have to decide which one to go with"

"It's hard to come up with a logic there that makes it sound like the right decision," he says. "We do have quests that are kill quests, but we try to give the reason why that character wants these people eliminated. It may be dark, but if you buy into their world view you'll understand why that's what they want to achieve.

"That's our goal -- to give the player enough grey. The good side isn't purely good, the dark side isn't purely dark. It's all different shades of the individual motivations of the characters."

The lack of binary good and evil is complemented by the humourous tone of the game, which also dissuades any reading of The Outer Worlds as a serious, anti-capitalist piece. The humour, Heins tells us, is the direct result of the pairing in charge: Boyarsky and his fellow co-director Tim Cain. While the former has a "dark, cynical look on life", the latter is "very goofy" so any title he works on is "never going to be a totally serious game."

"Our job as the team was working out where the line was on the humour," Heins says. "That's something every person on the team had to understand -- what's too far, and what's not far enough? Once we had that level of humour, we could do things like the cystypigs, which are an example of something that's both dark and also absurdly humourous."

For anyone not aware, cystipigs are genetically modified animals that grow meat-flavoured tumours around their neck, which shed naturally and are sold as "sustainable meat products." It's elements like this littered throughout the game that provide "moments of light-hearted whimsy to contrast against the more dark and serious tone of the overall story that's being told."

Finding the right balance, however, has taken a lot of iteration.

"One of the things we've done is as we play through the game, we look at where we can add jokes," says Heins. "And sometimes we've added jokes and been like, 'No, that's kinda ruining what we're trying to say' so we'll just pull it out. Or conversely, there are bits where it's like 'Wow, this conversation is super serious, we need to lighten it up a little.'

Heins says Obsidian would eagerly take the opportunity to grow The Outer Worlds into a new franchise

Heins says Obsidian would eagerly take the opportunity to grow The Outer Worlds into a new franchise

"One of the nice things about The Outer Worlds' development is we've been able to play through the entire game early enough to start finding those moments where we need to pull back or push forward on the humour a bit more. We luckily have some very talented writers who are good at writing comedy as well as writing the serious stuff. That's been invaluable."

Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn between The Outer Worlds and Fallout -- including by Obsidian itself in the announcement trailer. Heins attributes this to having Cain and Boyarsky at the helm, both key designers on the original Fallout, and says the words many a franchise fan has been waiting to hear: "It's the spiritual successor to Fallout: New Vegas."

There's a slight caveat here: by 'spiritual successor', Heins admits he means it's a "Obsidian-style RPG", with branching narratives, deep character progression systems, and player skills and attributes that play into both. These core aspects are also found in Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny and even (to an extent) South Park: The Stick of Truth, he says.

"In that sense, any game we make is a spiritual successor to New Vegas. The fact that there are direct parallels between the two is just down to the fact that this is part of our DNA as a studio, this is the type of game we want to make and how we want to make them."

The Outer Worlds arrives on October 25th for PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox One, but Obsidian's new corporate overlord Microsoft recently said it sees potential for the IP to continue life as an exclusive franchise on its own devices. Heins is certainly open to the idea.

"The team would love to take it as far as we can," he concludes. "It's really great to hear Microsoft sees this as a potential franchise. We would love to turn it into one... Just give us the opportunity to do it, and we'll take it."

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