About two weeks ago videogameschronicle.com published an article where they interviewed The Outer World’s creative director, Leonard Boyarsky. The headline reads: Obsidian says it doesn’t want Outer Worlds to be ‘a politically-charged game.’
The sci-fi RPG, which recently won the Game Critics E3 2019 award for Best Original Game, is being co-directed by original Fallout creators Boyarsky and long-time partner Tim Cain.
The game is set in a future world where megacorporations have begun colonizing and terraforming alien planets. As such, its plot heavily references the ‘dark side’ of capitalism.
However, co-director Boyarsky said the studio has been “very careful” not to “lecture” players with the themes featured in the game, telling VGC it’s “the last thing we want to do.”
He said, quote: “I like money: I’m not against capitalism and in a lot of ways I’m happy with our society. But of course there are a lot of ways in which it could be improved.
That is the plight of civilization and society isn’t it? You will always find people who are dissatisfied with one aspect or another of society, and in general, they would be correct. Every civilization has it’s burdens and struggles, and if Kreia has taught us anything, it’s that they should. Life itself is a series of solving problems and if there are none, then your life will grow static and your growth will be stunted.
“We started development in April 2016 and a couple of things happened [in world politics] between then and now that nobody expected. We weren’t expecting that.”
I’ll give you three guesses as to what that was.
Boyarsky said The Outer Worlds’ story is less a critique of modern capitalism and more about “power and how power is used against people who don’t have it.”
He said: “It can be insidious; the way which people control the stories you tell about the world. If you let other people control that narrative, then they can control you to a certain degree. That can be any form of government: if it wasn’t capitalism it could be something else.”
Boyarsky added that he’s tried to balance these themes with the humorous tone his previous games are known for.
“I don’t want people to think this is a really hard, politically-charged game: it’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be humorous,” he said.
Although I think I understand what he means, some might take it as an odd statement. Because it suggests that these things are polar opposites and it’s simply impossible for a game to be politically-charged and have fun gameplay and humorous moments. You might be asking yourself: “What exactly does “politically-charged” mean in this context?” Well, the most accepted definition seems to be: the insertion of personal political beliefs by the developers.
Mr. Boyarsky stated earlier in the interview that the studio has been “very careful” to not “lecture” to the player. That it’s “the last thing they want to do.” So what we’ve gathered is that the Outer Worlds was partly envisioned as a game that did not contain any of the developers own personal beliefs. I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this wasn’t the case simply to avoid controversy and maximize sales. Still, this must have been a challenging task, as many would argue that people’s beliefs almost subconsciously bleeds into their artwork, and that’s why they had to be so careful.
Obviously, given the game’s setting, there are going to be characters that express their point of views as characters. Mr Boyarsky speaks a bit on that later in the article. But it seems that even so, they’re going through great pains to make it so the player doesn’t feel like they’re being lectured to, by the developers at least. Because they could create a character that has a very judgmental personality and tends to lecture everyone.
“Having grown up in America and been through the onslaught of consumer culture, we’re very familiar with that and like to poke fun at it.
“But like how with [2001 RPG] Arcanum when we were dealing with racial issues, the story always comes down to balance of power, how people get power and how they use it. We’ve been very careful, I’ve been very careful.
This is a solid theme to base stories around, since an imbalance of power is perpetual in human society. It is one of those never ending battles, where it’s about the journey and not the destination. Like racial issues that were explored in Arcanum. Alongside the unchecked capitalism in the Outer Worlds, It’s one of the many ways a power imbalance can occur in society, but you will never be able to completely eradicate racism, but it must be combated all the same. Otherwise you end up in an extreme, and we don’t like those.
“There are people in this game who have philosophies that I don’t agree with and I take pains to make those people very likeable, very sensible and very believable. Then there are people in the game who say things I agree with, who are perhaps not very nice to hang out with.
I think it would only make sense that the developers have also created these described characters vice-versa. People Mr Boyarsky agrees with but are decent, and people he doesn’t agree with and are not very nice.
“So we don’t want to set up strawman or anything and say, ‘look how horrible this is!’ It’s really about looking at all aspects of issues. The last thing we want to do is make a game that people feel is lecturing them.”
There were many reactions to this entire ordeal. Some have praised this direction, while others have found it to be naive, or generally not worthy of praise. For me personally, the reasoning behind it is more important. I’m taking them at their word that this was always the vision they had for the game. Mr Boyarsky’s past games provides the necessary track record. But if it was done to avoid controversy and maximize potential profits, then just like making the game an EGS exclusive, as a for-profit business, I understand. However, I wouldn’t exactly approve.
If a game was being developed and it was always envisioned as being used as a vehicle to express a point of view, whether that point of view is political or not, it should be allowed. I believe that artists should have that freedom. Many would be quick to point out the business element that artistic pursuits inevitably attract. Everyone needs to make a living, and even I have the wish to do the same using this artistic outlet. But I didn’t earn my subscribers by producing what they wanted me to produce, I did it by producing what I wanted to produce and it happened to coincide with their interests. But even so, I made what I wanted to make, but I still write in a specific way. Right now I’m trying my best to write this in a way that can hopefully avoid making people emotional.
No developer is entitled to have people buy their game, but no consumer is entitled to have exactly the game they wanted to be made.
With that said: Not listening to your audience at all, is just as foolish as listening to everything they have to say. It doesn’t mean that you can’t hear them out, you can always do that. It’s just that you shouldn’t always listen, but sometimes you should. When that’s appropriate is left up to you and you’re judgement.
There have been many films that have been produced specifically to express one perspective or another. That’s the case with most works of art. The argument being that in the majority of cases, these films were low budget, independently produced products. But when it comes to the production of a AAA movie or game, there’s too much money being invested in it for anything less than maximum profits. So you find publishers like Electronic Arts, Activision, and Take-Two Interactive getting involved in the development process and mandating monetization strategies, or even the removal of certain elements.
The Outer World team’s stance echoes that of Ubisoft, which recently moved to explain why its teams balance apolitical views in games informed by highly politicised real-world events.
Ubisoft wants its games to educate players so they can “formulate their own ideas”, it said.
You know which two games, did that awfully well? Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and oddly enough, Dragon Age 2. If being apolitical is defined as presenting all sides of an issue, as opposed to presenting nothing at all, those two games did it quite well and in a way that you would barely notice. I guess in the ‘lack lectures’ type of way that Mr Boyarsky was talking about.
As for the Outer World’s, the developers have said in the past that the game has a rather heavy focus on replayability. Who knows, the player will probably have the option of siding wholeheartedly with the megacorporations.
Like I mentioned before, there have been films, but also books, and even video games that are well known and have preached, and lectured to the consumer. You could argue that the original Deus Ex did that. But I certainly know of one game that lectured to the player quite a bit, just not about politics. Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords.
I understand the desire to “get away” from something. Many people express the sentiment that they want to play games that don’t tackle any societal issues. I think there always has been, and there always will be a market for that. If the Outer World’s was built with a specific perspective in mind, if you’re one of these individuals I just described, than this particular game just isn’t for you. You might wish that there were more games that cater to your interests. And yeah, I get it. I wish Spec Ops: The Line was more successful. I wish there were more games like KOTOR 2. But we don’t always get what we want.
What really perplexes me are the people who say that if the game does champion some sort of stance, than they would pirate the game. They still want to play the game, they still think it’ll be fun, but they don’t want the developers to be rewarded for their hard work on a game that has something to say. I think that’s the kind of thing that makes people say that they wouldn’t have a problem with it if it was something they agreed with.
Let’s say the game was made with a perspective I disagree with. But the game was received very well. Everyone who’s played it says that it’s great fun. Personally, would I play it? I would like to think that I would. The question is: am I confident and secure enough in my beliefs? Or let’s take it a bit further. Do I have enough of an open mind so that if the game presents an argument that I haven’t considered, could I give it real thought and perhaps even reconsider my position? Am I strong enough to encounter these challenges to my beliefs and face them?
But yeah, sometimes I too want to just play a fun little game and pass the time with some entertainment. Other times I want to be entertained by something more cerebral. Trust me when I say that there’s plenty out there to cater both desires.
Papito Qinn is into the whole YouTube thing, is the winner of the 2016 SpookTAYcular Scary Story Contest, and a twitter incompetent. “The future for my YouTube channel, and my future in general, is looking bleak at the moment.”