video games

The Outer Worlds Breaks the Fallout Formula in Important Ways

The Outer Worlds. Photo: Obsidian Entertainment

With few exceptions, I almost never replay games. I think about it a lot, but I never do it. With Bethesda’s RPG series, like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, I always think about replaying an RPG over, making different choices than I made the first time, and seeing how things play out. But I never do. These games are hundreds of hours long, and who has the time?

The Outer Worlds is another RPG in the Bethesda mold. The most exciting part for me, however, is that I think I’m finally going to do it: I’m going to play the same RPG a second time.

For close to a decade, fans of the roleplaying game series Fallout have been embroiled in a constant debate over what, exactly, constitutes a Fallout game. Set in the nuclear postapocalypse, tinged with a hokey ’50s picket-fence aesthetic and a morbid sense of humor, the series has been helmed by two main groups over the years. The first two games, released in the late ’90s, were made by developers at Black Isle Studios, and were played from a top-down isometric perspective.

In 2007, Black Isle’s parent company, Interplay, sold the Fallout rights to Bethesda Softworks, the company behind The Elder Scrolls, an open-world fantasy RPG series. A year later, Bethesda released Fallout 3, which is played from a first-person perspective, and shares a structure similar to The Elder Scrolls. It was effectively The Elder Scrolls, but with guns and set in a grungy postapocalypse. Fallout 4, released in 2015, stuck mostly to the same formula (and the famously glitchy code that powered the games). Fallout 76, released last year, tried to turn the single-player series into an online multiplayer game, and was generally not well-received.

Some fans of the first two games assert that Bethesda’s installments are pale imitations (or in 76’s case, perversions) of the originals. This debate is exacerbated by the existence of 2011’s Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas is a game in the general Bethesda mold and commissioned by them, but was written and designed by former Black Isle employees who formed a new studio called Obsidian. Longtime series fans hold it up as the gold standard for many reasons, but chiefly its writing. It is a game that often accounts for the player’s unique stats in surprising ways, while still taking advantage of the modern technical trappings that Bethesda brought to the table. If a player’s intelligence stat is high enough, they might be able to skip an entire leg of a quest. If they’re strong enough, they might find a different solution or shortcuts. If they bring the right companion, maybe there’s yet another option. Seemingly insignificant choices open up new narrative routes and close off others. Fallout 3 and 4 often had binary solutions to quests: One side benefits, and one side loses out. New Vegas often accounted for more variables. It feels more reactive, complex, and mindful of the player’s actions than similar games in its genre, including Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, and fans have been waiting for Obsidian to make another Fallout title ever since. (Others have argued that New Vegas is overrated and romanticized.)

Obsidian’s newest game, The Outer Worlds, adds a new wrinkle to this debate. It’s not a Fallout game — it’s a spacefaring RPG set in a galaxy controlled by private corporations that are also the government — but it owes a great debt to the Bethesda framework of game design. It’s played in first-person, it cribs Fallout’s time-slowing VATS system (known as Tactical Time Dilation, or TTD, in this case), and it does that thing where when you talk to an NPC it zooms in on their uncanny-valley face.

But Outer Worlds also tacks away from the Bethesda models in important ways. It’s not incredibly glitchy, for one thing. And rather than take place on a single, enormous land mass, the game’s handful of outer-space locales are smaller, discreet areas with their own flavor and charm — an elitist urban stronghold, an isolated farming colony, a space-freighter shopping mall. On a narrative scale, the story is smaller as well, and tighter and more resonant as a result.

What struck me the most as I played through The Outer Worlds was how many different conversational options I was given. Every time I talked to an NPC, I was given maybe half a dozen different lines to choose from, and far more often than not, I was caught between all of them. Many RPG conversations, including Bethesda’s, are simplistic: You have a nice option, a mean option, and maybe a middle-of-the-road option, and it’s pretty clear what effect each one will have on your relationship with other characters. Outer Worlds is a lot more flexible. Sometimes, lying is the nice thing to do. Sometimes, intimidation tactics backfire. Depending on what teammates you bring with you, you’ll unlock new beats and quips. At almost every major inflection point, I thought to myself, Actually, both sides are right, even if I never agonized over which side to choose for very long.

Even simple interactions get options. At one point, a security guard asked me to check my weapons before going through a checkpoint and fill out a form for each one — an overly tedious task that the game would never actually ask me to perform. Even still, I could complain, call his bluff and ask for the forms, or respond sarcastically. All of these options eventually got me to the same result and through the checkpoint. Still, the amount of effort placed on even these small interactions is indicative of the larger overlapping systems intricacies throughout the game. Details that seem like throwaways might factor in later on.

It’s at these points, when Outer Worlds strays from the previous formula, when you really see how limiting Bethesda’s intentionally huge game-design style — with its sprawling environments, lengthy quest lines spanning hundreds of hours of game time, and frequently glitchy technology — actually are. Because it operates on a smaller, less unwieldy scale, The Outer Worlds blends all of the player’s abilities and choices seamlessly to make it feel more like the player is driving the story, rather than simply reacting to binary decisions at prescribed story beats. There is a soulfulness to it that similar Bethesda titles lack by compensating for lower quality with higher quantity. It’s a game that feels like it is constantly adapting to the choices you make.

Outer Worlds Breaks the Fallout Formula in Important Ways