In the film Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors is stuck in a time loop, living out the same day over and over again. Maybe forever. And he’s super bummed about it at first, until someone points out that a person in his position could literally do whatever they want. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Learn to play the piano. Eat forty cakes and wash it down with ten bottles of whisky. Armed with this knowledge, Phil goes on a hedonistic rampage, living out the dream of a life with no consequences. After an unspecified period of time, however, the novelty wears off; being an unkillable god-like being untethered from the petty concerns of biology and polite society means no relationships, no lasting developments, no impact on the world at large. Phil, unable to move forward, becomes suicidal, depressed and nihilistic. Nothing matters.
Video games always cast us as Phil Connors, in some way. No matter the game, every time we boot up an interactive experience we consent to being placed inside one time loop or another, slowly finding our way towards whatever point this particular universe wants to show us. That means the way the main character is positioned in the story is pretty important, and how they interact with the game world is very different to other mediums.
This is all my very roundabout way of trying to figure out a puzzling question: why don’t I enjoy playing The Outer Worlds? Obsidian’s newest RPG is a fine example of the genre, a worthy follow-up to their other work, and a valid, unsanctioned response to an unspoken request for a Fallout game that isn’t full of bugs. The combat is fun, with time-dilation powers, laser-powered swords and guns that make all the correct boom noises. It has a wonderfully endearing cast of support characters and an interesting, topical story about the dangers of corporations holding power. The artwork is beautiful, casting off all notions of muted colour palettes in favour of the true psychedelia of alien worlds. The music, acting, mechanics, setting, enemy design all range from good to excellent. And yet, it’s a struggle to get from point A to point B; each moment spent with the game feels like an enjoyable slice of something but fails to compel me to move forward. A quirky space adventure with a dry sense of humour and the freedom to do mostly whatever I choose should be a slam dunk.
Part of the problem comes down to me. The ‘me’ inside the game, that is, not the real me. The version of me that I lovingly crafted in the prologue, the one making all those big decisions and riding in the spaceship. The most important person in the universe. At first, I named my hero Jervan Cudgel; the plan was to make him the sort of melee-focused pugilist I had so much fun roleplaying in Fallout: New Vegas many years ago. He would be honest (to his own detriment, if necessary) kind of dumb, and look like the bronzed, curly-haired star of a 1970s pulp sci-fi film. This was the plan, anyway.
None of that matters. The Outer Worlds opens with some remarkably efficient storytelling which lays out a few salient facts: there’s a colony called Halcyon where corporations run everything, it sucks, a ship full of colonists got lost, and a wanted terrorist is going to break one of them out to help him with his plan to overthrow the status quo. Like much of the game, this is actually pretty interesting and engaging, but it also puts the main character in a very distant position from the outset. You, the player, are one of said lost colonists. Because you’ve been in cryogenic stasis for a few decades, you have no idea how anything works on Halcyon, you don’t know anyone, you have no contacts and you can barely conceptualise the societal norms that perpetuate this twisted version of our own civilisation. Unfortunately, the overall effect of this framing device is a trending towards apathy. Since none of these people are important to me, and I don’t even live here, there’s no reason for me to engage with their plight on a personal level. There’s a beautiful synergy that happens in games at times, where the player and their avatar have motivations, goals or emotions that sync perfectly with each other. The result of this is usually a more cohesive and natural-feeling game experience, since you can more easily empathise. Unfortunately, The Outer Worlds hops onto this train too early, giving us a character that syncs with the player’s state of mind, rather than convincing the audience to synergise with the hero. You currently don’t care about Halcyon colony and you have no idea what’s going on? Good news, here’s some dope who also thinks like that.
When you experience the world a little further, you may find yourself actually caring about what happens there; it is, after all, a well-realised science fiction world, full of likeable characters. But once you do, your avatar is still that dope, with no connection to the world beyond the dialogue trees available, no context for his or her actions, and no reason to pick one decision over another. As I decide to shut down the Saltuna factory on Terra 2, saving the deserters and dooming the loyal factory workers, it’s me making the decision I would make as myself; Jervan Cudgel might as well not exist, he has no opinion on the subject.
The main character in Prey (the one from Arkane Studios) enters the world in a similar, baby-like state, unmolested by the complexities of the universe and carrying a big box of Convenient Amnesia. But the very different methods of building the protagonist and the role they need to play in their world make for an interesting contrast. Morgan Yu wakes up to a laboratory in turmoil, with the bodies of people they don’t know strewn all over and an infestation of aliens they don’t understand. Much like The Outer Worlds, Prey provides its hero with access to various computer terminals, many of which contain bits of world-building or character flavour. However, many of these pieces of correspondence refer to Morgan by name, or are actually addressed to them. Those that aren’t can usually be traced to someone on the station who this email version of Morgan Yu interacted with, allowing you to trace their significance back through the chain and connect some dots about who they were to you. Recordings and AI companions speak directly to you, as Morgan, and tell you in no uncertain terms why player and avatar alike should give a lot of damns about everything happening. Family members, angry work colleagues and possible lovers drop in either live or posthumously to offer their opinions and emotions to the main character, cementing the idea that you are very real and vital to whatever happens next.
You could argue, of course, that there are successful stories which lean into the idea of a featureless protagonist shaped only by the player’s own choices. All the recent Fallout games do this, birthing you from the door of one vault or another into a wasteland you never knew, or simply giving you a job to do. But Fallout 3 motivates you with the mystery of a missing father, New Vegas has someone try to murder you and bury you in the desert, and someone in Fallout 4 steals your actual baby. Regardless of how well each of these was handled, they all stick some simple, primal idea in the player’s head that they can agree with the protagonist on. Revenge, mystery, loss. The Outer Worlds has some very grand ideas about the corrupting influence of money and the value of repairing a broken society, but it makes no attempt to earn the hero’s attention on those fronts. If you want me to engage with your universe, I need to be in the shoes of someone worth guiding to that goal, and I have to understand how they work.
The way various mechanics function in the game do it no favours in regard to building a main character with some meat. Everything in Halcyon bends just a little too easily to the will of the player; from persuasion checks to combat encounters, there’s an overall sense that The Outer Worlds really wants you to succeed. It is almost cartoonishly easy to lie and steal your way through the game. The overall effect of this freedom is to make the player feel as though they’re in a sort of inflatable playground where nobody can get hurt and everything will be the safest kind of fun. You can die, like in most games, but you’re psychologically prepared for the inevitable truth: the hero is important and powerful, and they’ll be fine. Plus, they don’t matter, so it’s okay if they do happen to die.
By presenting players with a protagonist without context, The Outer Worlds inadvertently creates a stunted version of Groundhog Day’s Phil. Without the motivation to improve themselves, they never have any desire to move out of the consequence-free simulation full of cake and shrink rays. Lacking the self-awareness that eventually crushes Phil Connors, they are unable to see the value of limitations and complicated relationships. They stay in the loop forever, completing meaningless, hedonistic tasks. Nothing ever matters.
So, is this why I can’t see myself playing The Outer Worlds to completion? Is the lack of a compelling main character enough to soil a game that is otherwise very accomplished? Maybe. Games are defined by their interactivity, and that interaction is primarily delivered through the player character’s perspective. Even if a story isn’t literally told by the protagonist, we’re invited to frame everything as part of their personal journey. So that journey has to matter, it has to be meaningful even while it allows for the spectrum of player choice. Much like picking a narrator for a novel, choosing a game protagonist has the potential to drastically alter the reading of the story developers want to tell. Dragon Age II is the strange, personal RPG it is because it’s about Hawke; Alien: Isolation feels so immediately connected to the Alien mythos because Amanda Ripley is the daughter of Ellen; Oddworld feels desperate and oppressive because we’re cast as a slave who could be turned into a popsicle at any moment.
Oddly enough, the one time I felt really in-sync with The Outer Worlds was in a third attempted playthrough as an unrepentantly duplicitous bastard, lying my way from conversation to conversation without a single care for the consequences. Finally, the Stranger and I were on the same page. Nothing mattered.