In The Outer Worlds, the first interaction you have with a colonist on Halcyon tells you just about everything you need to know about the world. You stumble upon an injured guard, hiding in a cave near where your escape pod touched down on Terra 2. This wounded survivor explains that he’s a part of the Spacer’s Choice family, an employee of a corporation whose entire gimmick is being Space Wal-Mart. You can help to stabilize him, and he’ll tell you that technically it’s not legal for him to accept medical aid from a freelancer, but if he were to die, that would be considered irreparable damage to company property. This is the state of things in The Outer Worlds: A world where workers are completely stripped of any right to their labor, or even to their bodies.
With all of this in mind you venture towards Edgewater. You need a new power converter for your ship and you know that it’s not going to be easy to find. Sure enough, you find out that this town has one of the only ones still in operation. The workers in Edgewater are sick, they are poor, they are starving, and have been denied access to medical treatment by Spacer’s Choice. When you talk to Reed Tobson, middle management mayor of the settlement, he tells you about another group of settlers who have deserted them and taken the spare power converter from Edgewater with them. They’re characterized as people who have done harm to the settlement, those who have dared to leave the abuse they’ve endured every day of their lives in search of something better. You’re asked to turn off their power by diverting the plant’s entire output to Edgewater. Your new companion Parvati makes sure to tell you that she knows some of the people who are among the group of deserters: They’re good people, she tells you.
Sure enough, they are good people. They’re under constant threat from the wildlife and ‘marauders’ that roam all over the system. But here at this greenhouse, there is life. Adelaide, the leader of these deserters, immediately offers you food and medicine when you walk in. She lets you know that they’ve had enough of being oppressed and subjugated, and that here they’re learning how to grow their own crops and make their own medicine. They work together, they live together, and while they might not be thriving, they’re finally making a life for themselves that doesn’t involve all of their work being stolen from them.
I personally knew who I was going to be fighting for in this game before I even started playing it. The Outer Worlds has always been sold as a game about capitalism run amok. With that in mind, there was no way I was going to be siding with any given corporation on a planet. Even that mindset didn’t quite prepare me for the kinds of horrors that the game immediately throws at you: suicide described as ‘irreparable damage to company property,’ a man who is forced to steal the golden dental fillings of a dead man simply to pay the rent on his future grave site, the half dozen memos describing the state of the town’s plague-ridden people begging for medicine and being denied. These are all things that are happening because these corporations were allowed this much power, because they were allowed to grow unchecked until workers rights were completely eradicated.
With all of this in mind, I was really surprised at how much the game insisted I try and make peace between these two groups. There is a constant push from the narrative no matter which side you take, as long as you truly pick a side. When you go to divert the power, Parvati will remind you that there are good people in Edgewater, the same as she did when you talked about the deserters. If you turn off the power at the gardens, the game will beg you to try and get Adelaide to take over the town of Edgewater, to find the compromise in the middle where you replace Tobson. I’ve personally had people tweet at me telling me to think about this choice, to realize that there’s some room in the middle for these two sides to come together.
The problem with all of this is that even if you install Adelaide as the leader of Edgewater and have all of her people move back in to take over, you still haven’t displaced Spacer’s Choice. Are we supposed to believe they’re just going to let a group of what are effectively rebel forces take over their settlement without consequences? The game wants you to believe so; doing this gets you the ‘good’ ending for Edgewater and everyone goes home happy. In reality, there is always another stooge in middle management waiting to take over for the shitty boss you have. There is no stopping the corporate machine without destroying it completely. Tobson sees people just as parts, Parvati tells you. Cogs and gears, and when they whine they need to be replaced. He’s the same.
The situation is frustrating all across the game. When you head over to a new planet, you discover the Iconoclasts, a group of people who have separated from another corporation, MSI. They believe that they should be able to live on their own as well, and to spread their message that corporate life isn’t the answer. If you help the Iconoclasts, your reward at the end of the game is a where are they now frame telling you that while they had great ideals, that doesn’t feed a family. The Iconoclasts message never leaves Monarch. You are scolded for ever thinking that this could work.
There are achievements for brokering peace, but there’s no reward for attempting revolution. Every movement will die before it truly begins. The Outer Worlds wants you to believe it’s a game about hope, about a colony coming together to try and save themselves from crisis. In reality, it’s a cold reminder that anyone who rises up against the status quo will be silenced again and again.