Murder on Eridanos starts off with a bang. Aetherwave serial star Halcyon Helen is murdered at the Grand Colonial Hotel, just before she was due to unveil Rizzo’s new drink, Spectrum Brown. Naturally, the player character is hired to investigate the murder.
The gameplay is familiar to anyone who has played vanilla Outer Worlds, although there is the wonderful addition of the Discrepancy Amplifier–an AI magnifying glass that picks up on unusual items, footprints etc. to aid the player in finding clues.
Also, one of my few gripes about the first DLC, Peril on Gorgon, has been addressed here: the new weapons are better and more distinctive. The player even gets a chance to wield Helen’s iconic pistol, the Needler, which I’d been dying to do since seeing it in this in-game poster:
Speaking of Halycon Helen, she’s a great character, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed that the game starts with her being killed off, before we even have a chance to meet her. No spoilers, but in the end it made sense.
Ah, well, okay–I am going to give a little bit of a spoiler. It’s not giving everything away, but you might want to skip it if you like to be surprised. My only criticism of this DLC is that its formula is about the same as Peril on Gorgon‘s: player is hired to investigate something, then the party which hired the player is revealed to have hidden ulterior motives.
However, the overall story was different enough that it worked. I liked Murder on Eridanos much better than Peril on Gorgon. (And to be clear, I liked Peril on Gorgon a lot!) This is saying something, because there are few faster ways to turn me off a work of fiction than by having it start off with a woman being murdered. It’s such an old trope, but Obsidian has built up enough goodwill over the years that I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.
Murder on Eridanos does what all DLC should do: reinforces the overarching theme of the main game. In keeping with the rest of The Outer Worlds, it centers around a plot by a corporation to sell harmful products disguised with saccharine marketing. The corporate propaganda art, always an amusing element of the game, reaches new heights in Murder on Eridanos.
Misleading advertising is one of the core themes of Outer Worlds, right down to the loading screens that report the players’ actions from the perspective of the corporations. The whole game is a satire on the dehumanizing effect large organizations have on the individuals they control.
Halcyon Helen is a perfect example of this–as more than one character observes, she is not a person, but a brand. Most characters speak of “Halcyon Helen,” not the actress who plays her, Ruth Bellamy. Helen is a symbol, and the corporations know it.
Murder on Eridanos is a fitting capstone to The Outer Worlds in another respect: it’s a very deliberate homage to the tropes of pulp detective stories. Pulpiness is at the heart of the game’s aesthetic, and a detective investigating the death of a serial star is about as pulp-y as it gets.
I say “capstone” because apparently this will be the last DLC for Outer Worlds. That’s a pity; the game’s potential seems endless. But as this is the end of the line, I’ll use this review to provide a retrospective on the game as a whole.
A while back, I used the term “techno-decadence” to describe a particular type of science fiction. I have to say, it was playing The Outer Worlds that made it crystallize in my mind. The game strives for a retro-futuristic aesthetic in everything, from the Art Deco architecture and graphic design to the state of the in-game entertainment industry, with its deliberate parody of Old Hollywood, right down to the many references to classic sci-fi.
This is, I think, more than just a stylistic choice. The Outer Worlds’ retro vibe speaks to nostalgia, a longing for bygone… dare I say it? Yes, I think so… halcyon days. Even the in-game sport of tossball, with its devoted fans, colorful players and collectible cards is a throwback to the Golden Age of baseball.
That the game happened to be released just after Obsidian Entertainment was acquired by Microsoft makes its themes all the more interesting. While Obsidian was joining the ranks of the consolidated corporate behemoths, it was also producing a sharp critique of modern oligopolies. A rebellion against the modern formulas of gaming, with their endless sequels and multiplayer modes and pay-to-win content models and other general malevolence practiced by the industry’s largest companies.
And the aesthetic is part of the rebellion, I’m convinced of that. Compare the soulless graphics of Call of Duty to the inspired art of Outer Worlds and you’ll see what I mean. The reason The Outer Worlds is beautiful and Call of Duty isn’t is the same reason Call of Duty has an online death-match mode and The Outer Worlds doesn’t: because The Outer Worlds is for aesthetes who want immersion in a new world.
My friends, the central question of gaming is also the question at the heart of modern civilization: do we rule the tech, or does it rule us? More precisely, are these games nothing but elaborate demonstrations of the latest machines, or are they vehicles for telling stories, with which the machines are needed to assist?
After all, a corporation is a kind of machine–a system, in which the individuals it comprises are meant to carry out the purpose of the whole unit. And so we see at the resort on Eridanos a system that is meant to deliver happiness, and therefore mandates happiness to all its employees.
Of course, mandated happiness is not happiness at all. To experience joy, people must also be able to feel sorrow, fear, etc. The human experience is a gestalt of all these things. But that’s not exactly a message that makes people want to go shopping, which is why Rizzo’s goes to some extreme lengths to deliver “happiness.”
I promised not to spoil Murder on Eridanos, and I’ll keep that promise. Just know that these ideas are present if you look for them, and the difference between being human and being a symbol for a corporate initiative are explored in-depth–and all in the context of a terrific game.
The power of games is the power to transport us to simulated worlds. The best of them let us return from these ventures with something new, like the protagonist of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey–a new perspective on reality, achieved by contrasting it with the in-game universe. The Outer Worlds allows the player to do just that, and so I say again what I said back in 2019–not really that long ago, and yet in some ways it feels even further away than the Halcyon cluster–The Outer Worlds is an all-time classic.
I’ve been binge-watching Cyberpunk 2077 reviews and playthroughs. The game looks amazing, and also amazingly glitchy. I have an older generation console, which means I’d either be getting a buggy mess or have to install massive updates, which with my internet connection would take forever. But what can one make of a game that gives us this:
And also this:
I’m sure I wouldn’t mind the bugs, though. My favorite game of all time is KotOR II. Fallout: New Vegas and Mass Effect: Andromeda are not far behind. Kids these days are spoiled; expecting their immersive sandbox RPGs to work perfectly. Why, in my day, we played KotOR on a backwards compatible Xbox 360 and the frame rate would slow down to, like, three frames per second during combat and the sound would randomly cut out. And we were grateful!
No, my real issue with this game is the same thing that makes me so interested in it: it’s too big. The time that I could spend in the neon dystopia of Night City, fighting street gangs and cyborgs, driving futuristic cars and customizing my avatar’s weaponry, abilities and appearance, is daunting.
But of course, that’s the whole selling point of the thing! We want to distract ourselves from daily life by escaping into an anarchic world polluted by drugs and depravity, and where the only law is made by ruthless mega-corporations. [Editor’s note: something about that sentence seems off–consider revising.]Who wouldn’t want that? But then I look at these skill trees and shake my head. There’s no way I’d have time for all this.
An aesthetic, at least to someone who appreciates it, is like a drug. The more of it you get, the more you need to get that same feeling it gave you on the first hit. The thrill of a bizarre techno-city that filmgoers of 1927 could get from Metropolis now requires 100GB of a high saturation battlefield with police chases and cyborgs. And Keanu Reeves–although somehow I feel if he were transported to 1927, he could have fit in to Fritz Lang’s world, too. Maybe he’s a time-traveling cyber-wizard.
There are a couple ways this trend of accelerating aesthetic experience can go: one is total immersion in VR worlds. The technology is almost there. I wouldn’t be one myself, but I can believe there are people who are so obsessed with aesthetic experiences, they would submerge their physical bodies in some type of suspended animation and don the headgear to live 24/7 in a simulation. If this sounds creepy–and/or reminds you of another film starring Mr. Reeves–it should. But not surprising. The hallmark of the classic decadent is, frankly, a weird obsession with aesthetic authenticity. As the crazed protagonist of Lovecraft’s 1922 short story The Hound put it:
Wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world; where even the joys of romance and adventure soon grow stale, St John and I had followed enthusiastically every aesthetic and intellectual movement which promised respite from our devastating ennui. The enigmas of the symbolists and the ecstasies of the pre-Raphaelites all were ours in their time, but each new mood was drained too soon, of its diverting novelty and appeal.
Only the somber philosophy of the decadents could help us, and this we found potent only by increasing gradually the depth and diabolism… till finally there remained for us only the more direct stimuli of unnatural personal experiences and adventures.
If you’re a horror fan who has never read The Hound, do yourself a favor and check it out–it’s one of HPL’s best. If, on the other hand, just reading that has skeeved you out so much you don’t even want to know what the narrator and St John got up to next, well, I can’t blame you. Let’s just say it ends badly for them.
While researching this post–yes, believe it or not, I actually do research on these things before I vomit them forth into the blogosphere–I found this fascinating US ad for Metropolis:
This looks like a poster for a musical comedy. Maybe even a parody of a musical comedy, as written by P.G. Wodehouse: “What ho! It seems young Freder has fallen into the soup once more…”
Can you imagine going to see the movie you think you’re getting based on that ad and actually seeing Metropolis? I’m not sure I can, although I’d sure like to. The dissonance is so strong that it’s actually beautiful. I don’t care if you’re running it on the best gaming PC with the best monitor in existence, I’ll bet you anything that Cyberpunk 2077 can’t hold a candle to the pure, unexpected, unadulterated shock of techno-decadentism you would get from that experience.
Which brings me to the other path I could see this aesthetic going: a future where cyber-aesthetes learn discipline, focus, and restraint. Values which are, admittedly, fundamentally not the values of a decadent… but hear me out on this.
I’ve used this analogy before, but think of entertainment media as a sort of expansion pack for your imagination. A book gives you raw words that you have to imagine. A black-and-white silent film like Metropolis gives you some images to work with, but it’s still not a whole visual world. A color film gives you more, a video game still more, and VR games are basically taking the place of your imagination.
The more you’re relying on media, the less you’re using your imagination. Which I totally understand, by the way. Using your imagination is hard. It’s awfully tempting to just sit back and let the computer do the work. And we’re right back to option one, where we lose ourselves in VR world.
Except, as we have seen, we’re already at the limits of how much of this we can take. At least, I am. I admit that your mileage may vary. But for me, the prospect is overwhelming. Immersion is supposed to be a feature, not a bug, and yet it’s also my principle reason for not buying this game.
But all that is really needed to experience an aesthetic–whether techno-decadentism or anything else–is imagination. Like Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective said, “From a drop of water… a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.” Likewise, a cyberpunk future can be inferred simply from reading a single sentence describing it. All that’s left is the imagining. The hard part is sharing it. But since the entire thesis of decadents is that art is personal, does that even matter that much? Surely anyone like-minded enough to care will be able to understand it well enough to share it.
Either we will learn enough self-discipline and mental concentration that we can satisfy our desire to create whole worlds made purely of imagination, without the need to manifest them through technology, or we will create simulation technology so powerful that our own most human qualities become obsolete.
As Paul Graham once wrote, “we’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.” Aesthetics, which are really just the crystallization of moods that we imagine, are wonderful and strange. But saying “no” to the ability to have such things created for us in simulations is increasingly our only hope of retaining the ability to imagine at all. And after all, saying “no” to what is normal and routine is the essence of counter-culture, punk, and decadence.
The Outer Worlds is one of my favorite games in recent years. I’ve played through it twice and a bit. I didn’t finish my third run as a melee fighter, but I was delighted to fire it up again with my original character to play the DLC.
Peril on Gorgon begins with the captain of the Unreliable receiving a package containing a severed arm and a datapad. The datapad instructs the recipient to meet with Minnie Ambrose in her manor on Gorgon.
Minnie is trying to track down the journal of her mother, Olivia, who was a scientist working in a lab on Gorgon where things went very, very wrong. (As often occurs in video game labs.) Minnie wants to restart her mother’s experiments on Adrena-Time, and needs some to comb through the marauder-infested labs of Gorgon to piece together what happened with Olivia’s experiments.
On Gorgon, we find a ravaged, lawless world that makes Edgewater look civilized. There is one small outpost, the Sprat Shack, that serves as a hub of sorts, but otherwise it’s a largely hostile and barren world with lots high-level enemies to fight. There are a few interesting vignettes in keeping with the game’s signature offbeat humor, but it’s largely fighting, with much of the plot delivered from audio logs scattered around the planet.
Which is fine. The combat in Outer Worlds is smooth and fun. There is one thing I found a little disappointing, and this is pure gamer nit-picking, so readers not interested in a discussion of equipment crafting may skip the following three paragraphs.
One of the things the DLC promises is new weapons and armor. And indeed, there are plenty of new armor sets and unique weapons. The armor was fine, but I have two issues with the weapons. First, with the exception of three new science weapons, they look identical to the weapons in the base game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s a little bit of a letdown when you get a new revolver that belonged to one of the major characters in the DLC that looks like any other revolver.
Second, and more importantly, the unique weapons aren’t that great. Pretty much all of my weapons were modified to Tartarus and back before I ever set foot on Gorgon, and whenever I would try a new weapon from the DLC, I’d inevitably put it aside after a few minutes and go back to my heavily-customized arsenal.
Now, I know: not every player is into crafting, and for those who aren’t, the unique weapons could be a lot more exciting. I admit, I was hoping for additional equipment on a level similar to that found in the DLCs for Outer Worlds‘ spiritual ancestor, Fallout: New Vegas. Every New Vegas add-on delivered new and interesting weaponry, from Dead Money‘s holorifle to Honest Hearts‘ Thompson gun to Old World Blues‘ K9000 to Lonesome Road‘s Red Glare.
But that’s really only a small quibble. The game itself is highly enjoyable–it’s more Outer Worlds, after all, so how can that not be good? Minnie’s quest to restart her mother’s work has a variety of possible outcomes, and the one I got was very satisfying. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say I did a quick re-spec of my character and put 150 points in the Persuade skill in order to get it.)
The Outer Worlds is a game perfectly suited to DLC. It’s logical to add a new planet to explore with each add-on. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.
Lastly, one word for anyone who already played Peril on Gorgon and is just reading this to see what I thought:
There’s a moment, maybe a bit more than halfway through the main story arc of The Outer Worlds, that really sums up what the game is all about. On the planet Monarch, there are two rival factions who are fighting for control of the planet. I was acting as intermediary.
I was trying to decide which side to support, which was difficult because there were people I liked on both. In fact, there was really just one hardliner who seemed to be causing the problem. I wished I could get him out of the picture and bring the two sides together.
And as it turned out, because I’d done a lot of legwork beforehand, and built a good reputation with both sides, I could. The game let me oust him, and put his more practical second-in-command in charge. It was incredibly satisfying, after hours of combat and long, dangerous treks across Monarch, to see two characters who I really liked hammering out their differences at the bargaining table.
There are many moments like this in The Outer Worlds, but this one best illustrates two of the game’s defining qualities. First, there’s the ability to make creative choices to solve problems in unexpected ways, rather than the simple Good/Evil binary we see in many games. And second, there’s the fact that, with a few exceptions, most characters in the game are really likable.
The Outer Worlds begins with your character being roused from cryo sleep aboard a spaceship called the Hope, by an eccentric scientist named Phineas Welles. Welles is recruiting you to fight against the mysterious “Board”—the controlling entity that governs the various corporations in the Halcyon colony.
Shortly after Welles’s rescue, you find yourself stranded on the world of Terra 2, where you have to make your way to the starship Unreliable. At least, that’s what the game pushes you to do. But, not being one to follow directions, I had my character instead make her way to the nearby settlement of Edgewater—a struggling company town. And the game, to its credit, let me do that.
The Spacer’s Choice corporation runs the show in Edgewater, and we soon see a glimpse of how dehumanizing the corporate policies are: before even entering the town, I met a grave-digger asking for help collecting gravesite fees from the populace. This is a good introduction to the politics of the Halcyon colony—the status quo that the outlaw Welles seeks to destroy by reawakening colonists on the Hope.
The advanced promotion for the game had pushed the theme of corporate dystopia pretty hard, so I was expecting that much. What I wasn’t expecting was how skillfully the portrayal is done—nobody, even the town boss in Edgewater, is a caricature. In the beginning, I thought it would be an easy choice between him and the refugees hiding deeper inland, but when it came down to it, both sides are presented as earnest people, struggling to eke out a living on a remote frontier.
The Outer Worlds has been touted as the spiritual sequel to Fallout:New Vegas, and rightly so. The nuance and well-meaning nature of many of the characters put me in mind of J.E. Sawyer’s New Vegas add-on Honest Hearts—another story about basically good people trapped in a harsh and desolate land that forces them into making hard choices.
The hallmark of Outer Worlds, like New Vegas, is giving the player freedom to do as they wish, and letting the consequences play out accordingly. You can, as the marketing materials say, play it as a psychopath if you want to. But why would you, when it’s infinitely more satisfying to do things like help the struggling colonists, or spend time aiding your companions in overcoming their own personal challenges?
Whether it’s helping the sweet, shy Parvati overcome her nerves and ask out the woman she loves, fighting side-by-side with the hard-drinking huntress Nyoka to honor the memory of her fallen comrades, or talking the spiritually-troubled Vicar Max out of revenge and into finally finding the inner peace that has eluded him all his life, The Outer Worlds has some of the best companion quests I’ve seen since Knights of the Old Republic II. You can’t romance companions, which initially was a little disappointing—but in a way, that just made their quests that much more satisfying. They weren’t just notches on a virtual bedpost for experience points; they’re well-rounded characters with fully-developed personalities.
Personality is something that The Outer Worlds is brimming with. The graphics have a splendid visual style, from the towns to the corporate advertising plastered everywhere, right down to the loading screens, which even out of the context of the game are retro-futuristic masterpieces:
Even minor details like quest and weapon names (e.g. the first quest is “Stranger in a Strange Land” and there’s a unique flamethrower named “Montag”) have a sense of science-fiction fun about them.Everything in this game screams that this is a work of craftsmanship, made by people who cared deeply about it.
Speaking of craftsmanship, the crafting system in this game is wonderful. If you remember my Mass Effect: Andromeda review, you may remember that I said I don’t normally get into crafting, but the mechanics in that game made it fun. The Outer Worlds is like that, too—I would check every shop and vending machine in every town for new weapon mods that I could use to give myself a better arsenal.
Actually, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a pretty good comparison for Outer Worlds generally. Andromeda was also about building interstellar colonies and forging new homes for humanity in the cosmos. The spirit of optimism and adventure that I noted in my Andromeda review is also present here. The thing Andromeda was unfortunately (and in my opinion, somewhat unfairly) denigrated for was its bugs and technical glitches. I’m pleased to report that there are almost no such issues in Outer Worlds. A couple times, I got stuck between rocks on particularly treacherous terrain, but that could be solved with fast-traveling. The game auto-saves frequently, so even if it had been a problem, there seems little chance of losing much progress.
I have really only two complaints about TheOuter Worlds. The first is about one minor quest on Monarch where you have to find someone who disappeared. He was delivering a package to a group of people in the wilderness, and when you track them down, they seem extremely—even excessively—polite, and ask you to stay for dinner.
Now if this is your first time playing an RPG, you might be surprised by what happens next. If, however, you remember the Andale quest from Fallout 3, or the White Glove Society from Fallout: New Vegas, or the inn from Jade Empire, you will not be shocked to learn that the people are, in fact, cannibals, and that the upcoming dinner and the fate that befell the unfortunate delivery person are related.
I’m sorry, but polite people who are secretly cannibals has been done to death in RPGs. I saw it coming a mile away. Now, it’s such a minor thing that I suppose you could say it was a nod to the great RPGs of yesteryear (as those three I listed undoubtedly are) but it felt too rote and by-the-numbers. But perhaps it only seemed so because all the other quests are so original and fun.
The second complaint isn’t even really a complaint; even though it strikes at one of the thematic pillars of the game. It’s more like a philosophical quibble.
As I mentioned above, one of the key parts of the game’s identity is that it’s supposed to be a satire of corporations. The corporations run Halcyon and that’s precisely, the game implies, why it has become such a mess, driven to the very brink of extinction by corporate drones who care more about filling forms, spouting ad copy, and following inane, inhuman policies rather than actually serving the needs of people.
The thing is, none of these flaws are unique to corporations. Any sufficiently large, complicated organization run by human beings will inevitably devolve into a bumbling bureaucracy. Things like governments, universities, and non-profit organizations, after all, are hardly innocent of the flaws that The Outer Worlds mocks in corporations.
In fact, the game seems to almost tacitly admit this by the later stages, when you reach the decadent city of Byzantium, where the wealthiest members of Halcyon society live, gossiping about aetherwave serials and fashion, in a bubble insulated from the horrors of frontier life, like Prince Prospero’s court in The Masque of the Red Death. There are a couple quests where you have to visit the Parcel Delivery service, and in each instance, are given a classic “That’s Not My Department”-style bureaucratic runaround. It’s a hilarious parody of red tape run amok, and one of the greatest examples of satire I’ve ever seen in a game.
But think about what they’re making fun of here: the post office, a government-run organization. It’s not just capitalism that’s being mocked.
In fact, all the talk about it being a satire of corporations actually understates just how ambitious The Outer Worlds is: they’re not making fun of corporations only, but all big organizations. That’s why it resonates so much—because it pokes fun at the flaws of dysfunctional entities in general, whether they are mega-corporations, late-stage communist governments, or federally-mandated services.
That’s why I can’t call this a complaint, exactly, because as a satire, it’s extremely good. It’s like the original Deus Ex in how it makes you think about the structures of society itself, and leads you into questioning just how the world around you really works.
I do have a theory about why the game seems so superficially focused on corporations however; although it involves a digression about the inner workings of Obsidian and a lot of speculation on my part. Feel free to skip the following five paragraphs if you don’t care about game industry inside baseball. (Or I should say “tossball,” the main pastime of the Halcyon colony.)
There have been a lot of rumors about Obsidian Entertainment, many of which involve the departure of founding member Chris Avellone. Avellone is a legend in the gaming industry, as the genius behind titles like Planescape: Torment, Knights of the Old Republic II and the Fallout: New Vegas add-ons Dead Money, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest storytellers alive, and his work is a big reason I fell in love with role-playing games.
I bring all this up because, if I didn’t know better—that is, if he hadn’t personally confirmed his non-involvement with Outer Worlds many times—I’d have thought it was an Avellone game. It bears so many elements of his signature design style: player choice, reactivity, an irreverent sense of humor… it’s basically the greatest game Chris Avellone never made.
This is purely speculation on my part, but I think it’s an interesting series of events: Avellone has a far-from-amicable departure from Obsidian, after which he vocally expresses his views on management practices in the game industry generally and at Obsidian in particular. Then, a few years later, his fellow game designers make a game about corporate (mis-)management destroying people’s lives. And it’s not just any game, but a game that is clearly the descendant of some of Obsidian (and Avellone’s) greatest triumphs.
Does it mean anything? I don’t know. It may all be just a weird coincidence. In any event, though, this much is known: Avellone remains friendly with Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, the co-designers of The Outer Worlds, and while it may be a pipe dream, I would love to see him work on DLC for it. The universe of this game is a big one, and it feels like it has room for more stories, especially ones written by MCA himself. Like Phineas Welles, I’ll cling to any hope, however slim.
You may have noticed I’ve made comparisons to lots of other games throughout this review. That’s quite deliberate: The Outer Worlds feels like a culmination. I don’t play games much anymore because they require such a big time investment. But when I saw this game billed as the successor to some of my all-time favorites, I had to give it a shot. And as I played it, I felt like I was experiencing an epic symphony composed of all my most beloved games.
The smooth, easily-flowing gameplay and careful world design of New Vegas, coupled with a rich art style at times reminiscent of Borderlands, Dishonored, and BioShock, but with its own, unique flavor; the mounting tension of rallying the crew for the attack on the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, combined with the hopeful, pioneering spirit of Mass Effect: Andromeda; the cyberpunk rage against the elite machine of Deus Ex, along with the personal tale of introspection and self-discovery that was Planescape: Torment—all these happy gaming memories came to mind as I journeyed through Halcyon.
And yes: there are echoes of Knights of the Old Republic II; the epic that got me hooked on RPGs in the first place, with its story of the lone exile returning to a galaxy on the brink of collapse, with the choice to let it die or fight to save it—it too came to mind as I played The Outer Worlds. Both games are ultimately about something very simple and very important; something that everybody knows but too few really understand: the fact that our decisions matter; that whether the world we live in thrives or perishes depends on the consequences of people’s choices.
It seems so obvious, and yet so many people seem to forget it. But it’s a point that games as an art form are uniquely equipped to make, because they allow for audience participation to such a profound degree. All the great games demonstrate this truth, and that is why, as it stands on the shoulders of these giants, The Outer Worlds is an all-time classic.
I don’t typically read romances. But this short story is a romance between videogamers. There aren’t enough books about the world of gaming, and as a veteran gamer, the unique concept attracted me.
It’s a short, light read. As is always the case with romantic comedies, the central dramatic challenge is how to keep two characters who are meant for each other emotionally separated for a while. And the solution Norse finds is a creative one. It might seem strange to non-gamers, but I would guess most people familiar with narrative-driven games are also familiar with the concept of having a crush on a video game character. Justahunch, though.
Also, the two main characters have the surnames “Link” and “Shepard”—which I think have to be Zelda and Mass Effect references. I suspect there are even more game references I may not have noticed on the first read.
Virtually Yoursis a fun read if you like light romance or if, like me, you enjoy stories about gamer culture. Plus, I am a big fan of short fiction. I appreciate that Norse didn’t feel pressured, as authors sometimes do, to pad this story out with filler. It’s a fun, quick tale that lasts just as long as it needs to.
Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.
This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.
This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1
Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.
What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.
Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:
“1984” by George Orwell
“Knights of the Old Republic II” (2004)
“Jane Got A Gun” (2016)
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
Nineteen Eighty-Fourby George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
Eating Bullby Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)
KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.
Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.
I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.
Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3
But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.
To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.
I had low expectations for this game. After the fiasco of the Mass Effect 3 ending, coupled with EA’s general business practice of filling out their games with overpriced DLC and tacked-on multiplayer, I wasn’t expecting them to do much with a new entry in the series.
Besides, the original Mass Effect trilogy was a lot of fun, but also wildly uneven. The first game had a brilliant story and atmosphere, but clunky controls and emotionless characters. The second game, as re-imagined by EA, had great characters and terrific voice-acting, but an incoherent mess of a plot that was only tangentially related to the story set up by the first game. And the third game had tighter controls, better combat, and a surprisingly good crafting system—but it compounded the story errors of its predecessor tenfold, while also doing major disservices to the characters. And that was before the infamous disaster that was the game’s finale.
All in all, while I had a lot of fun with the Mass Effect trilogy, there was no avoiding the fact that it was a decidedly mixed bag—some brilliant elements; some rather shockingly bad ones. For years, I’ve said that if someone made a game that had the story and atmosphere of Mass Effect 1, the characters and voice-acting of Mass Effect 2, and the gameplay mechanics and crafting systems of Mass Effect 3, it would be a true masterpiece.
And now I know I was right. Because Mass Effect Andromeda is that game.
I don’t think I have ever been as pleasantly surprised by a game as I was by this one. I was expecting a Gears of War clone with a Mass Effect coat of paint. Instead I got an epic adventure in a sprawling galaxy, complete with likable characters, clever writing, and what just might be the best-designed combat and exploration mechanics I’ve ever seen.
You play as Ryder, a special operative who, in the early stages of the game, assumes the mantle of Pathfinder—the person tasked with setting up colonies in the Andromeda galaxy on behalf of an organization called “The Initiative”. Like Shepard in the first three Mass Effects, Ryder can be either male or female. The official canon has male Ryder’s name as “Scott”, and female Ryder’s as “Sara”, but the game allows you to choose your own first name. So, as I have traditionally done in RPGs at least since Fallout: New Vegas, I’m playing as a woman named Jane.
I have never felt such a connection with a player character before. Not with Shepard, not with the Courier, not with J.C. Denton—not even with the Jedi Exile. Something made me feel attached to my Ryder. Fryda Wolff’s terrific voice-acting is part of it, I’m sure, as she manages to at least match the great Jennifer Hale’s Commander Shepard, and perhaps even raise the bar a little higher. Tom Taylorson also does a good job in the brief but important scenes Scott has in a female Ryder playthrough. (I haven’t played the full game as Scott. I’m not sure if I ever will–to me, there can only be one Ryder.)
I can’t give a full plot summary, or this review would be longer than War and Peace. Ryder leads her team across the various worlds of Andromeda, battling the hostile species known as the Kett, making alliances with the native Angara species, setting up outposts, uncovering the remains of a bygone species known as the Remnant and in the process making the worlds of Andromeda livable for the Milky Way species—humans, turians, asari and krogan.
The first planet Ryder explores, Eos, was where I really started to grasp that Andromeda was something far more epic than I had expected. As I drove around the gorgeous, sprawling deserts, listening to Cora and Peebee banter while we fought the Kett and secured our outpost, I realized I was 10 hours in, and the save screen informed me I was only 10% of the way done with the game. For comparison, a typical playthrough of KotOR II or New Vegas (two of my all-time favorite games) takes me between 20-30 hours.
Wow, I thought. I’m sure I’ll pick up the pace soon, but I’m looking at a 40-hour game here.
Try 73 hours. And counting. The game goes on after you beat the final boss.
I have trouble being a completionist my first time through an RPG. I usually start off vowing to do all the sidequests and explore every nook and cranny, but then I get impatient and want to see what happens in the main story and wind up rushing to finish it. That didn’t happen with Andromeda—the game made me feel like I really was exploring new worlds and discovering new wonders, not just mowing down wave after wave of bad guys en route to the end.
Now, it’s true, there are tons of bad guys to be mowed down, and what a system BioWare has designed to do so. As with the other games, there are combat powers, biotic (telekinetic) powers and tech powers. All of these lead to remarkably different playstyles. As if that weren’t enough, Ryder’s weapons are highly customizable. You not only can build new ones from scratch, but you can add augmentations and mods that drastically alter their behavior. (I made all my weapons super rapid-fire laser guns, for example.)
I almost never bother with crafting systems in RPGs, but I was hooked on this one early on. After every mission, I was always rushing back to the modding table to see what new armor and weaponry I could put together.
The way you acquire new equipment is also ingenious. Throughout the game, you can scan various objects for research points that you can spend on building new items. This again reinforces the need to explore every inch of the galaxy in order to build new equipment that leads to better combat. It’s all a very nice feedback loop.
Now, again, good game mechanics don’t count for much without a good story and characters. After all, Mass Effect 3 had a good crafting system too, but nobody walked away from it thinking “I was really satisfied with that shotgun I built!”
Andromeda’s overall story, while not terribly innovative, avoids descending into utter nonsense like Mass Effect 2 and 3 so often did. And its character interactions are every bit as good as those in ME 2. There are even a few scenes that do something very rare for a video game (or even most Hollywood films, for that matter): scenes where the characters don’t say anything in response, but instead convey what they are thinking solely with the facial expressions. There was one scene where two crew members are arguing over something silly and Ryder silently facepalms in the background. This was a level of nuance that I was not expecting. For all the complaints about animation glitches (I’ll get to that), it was nice to see that degree of realism.
Each member of Ryder’s crew has a backstory, as does Ryder herself. The Ryder family history is quite interesting, and gradually piecing it together makes for a very satisfying subplot, with a great payoff during the endgame sequence.
All the backstories are slowly revealed over the course of the game, and the development of relationships works much better than in past Mass Effects because of Andromeda’s slower pace. It seems more plausible that a crew member would fall in love with you over the course of many conversations and missions together, rather than the old model of “three conversations and then bed”.
Now, as you are likely aware, the knock on Andromeda is that it’s glitchy. The animations are awkward and there are weird bugs and incomplete quests.
Yes, all of this is true. The game crashes abruptly sometimes. There are some sidequests that are broken. (One was a simple “scan three things” mission, and the game never gave me the option to scan the third.) The facial animations, while sophisticated and nuanced in concept as I described, do sometimes look a little bizarre. When talking to her AI assistant, SAM, Ryder sometimes turns her head around 180 degrees on her neck, like she’s possessed. In one cutscene, one party member was placed directly over top of another, causing them to meld together—I hadn’t seen anything so weird since the sex scene in Blade Runner 2049. And the krogan party member makes the game’s framerate slow down to a crawl if you enter combat with him. (On the flip side, this glitch also makes Ryder immortal.)
All of these are indeed annoying bugs, and if you came to Andromeda as someone used to polished AAA games, I can see it would be pretty appalling.
Let me explain why I can forgive it: my introduction to RPGs was BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, which I first played on the Xbox 360 in 2006. Because it was an original Xbox game that had to be made compatible with the new console, it had all kinds of slowdown issues in combat, random crashes during loading, and a host of other issues. But I enjoyed the thrill of a grand adventure across the galaxy with my rag-tag band of party members so much that I could forgive all. I’d never played anything like it before, and a few bugs here and there couldn’t interfere with the ambitious scope of the game.
Then I played Knights of the Old Republic II, by Obsidian, and again had to deal with broken quests (fuel for Telos, anyone?), glitches, and an ending that seemed (on the first playthrough) confusing and abrupt. But I loved it even more than KotOR I for the brilliance of the writing, the complexity of the characters, the brooding, ominous atmosphere, and the deep, philosophical questions at the core of the story. To this day, it remains my favorite game—perhaps even my favorite work of fiction, regardless of medium.
Since then, I’ve loved lots of games that had their technical flaws, be they bad graphics, (Deus Ex) frequent crashes (Fallout: New Vegas) bizarre texture glitches and entire rooms that didn’t load (Alpha Protocol) or just being so utterly broken they couldn’t be played without cheats. (Mask of the Betrayer) I loved them all, in spite of their technical shortcomings, because they more than made up for it with the sheer ambitiousness of their stories, the scope of their settings, and the depth of their themes.
Mass Effect Andromeda is another in that class. Its flaws are the flaws of a work so daring that it pushes the limits of the possible. Unlike the original Mass Effect trilogy, which always felt oddly constrained despite its space-faring setting, Andromeda really does shoot for the stars. It gives you a sense of freedom, of exploration and of adventure. Whereas Mass Effects 1 -3 boiled down to the story of Commander Shepard vs. the Reapers, Andromeda feels like a universe of countless stories, in which Ryder’s is but one—an important one, with significance to all the others, but still, just one. As I discussed in my KotOR II video, the interplay of galaxy-spanning concerns with deeply personal ones gives the game a truly epic feeling.
That’s another difference with the original series: unlike the Lovecraftian bleakness of the Reaper threat at the heart of Shepard’s story, Andromeda belongs to a different strain of science fiction—the optimistic sort, about life surviving in alien settings and using technology to overcome adversity. A fittingly pioneer spirit underlies all of Ryder’s adventures, and when, after long fights and lengthy treks across strange worlds, Ryder establishes a new outpost, you feel a sense of accomplishment—like you really did use your powers to help out humanity. It’s an inspiring theme; a throwback to the “space cowboys” epics of the past, when space was viewed as another frontier to be tamed and made habitable.
While the writing is not as deep, and the themes are lighter and less complex, Mass EffectAndromeda is the first game I’ve played since KotOR II that really made me feel like I was part of a universe, and even more importantly, made me think about what that really means. Like Obsidian’s epic, it makes the player ponder the meaning and the scale of their decisions, and reflect on, ultimately, humanity’s place in the cosmos. There is no higher compliment that I can pay a work of fiction.
So, this is the project I’ve been hinting about on Twitter these last few weeks. I decided to do it on a lark, and ultimately it turned into way more work than I expected. Yet for some reason I kept going. I’m not even sure why; I had more or less accepted the fact that some technical glitch was eventually going to scuttle it, but I just kept plugging away at it, and here we are.
I’m not happy about the reduced size of the video and all the black space on the screen. I’m a total newbie when it comes to making videos, so there’s probably an easy fix that I just failed to figure out. It might have something to do with the resolution (The original was saved at 720p. At 480p the footage is in an even smaller box.) If I figure out how to solve it, I might do a re-upload. But that probably won’t happen for a while; I’ve got other stuff I want to work on first.
Consider this video a supplement to the KotOR II retrospective I wrote a few years ago. The essay is more thorough—and more eloquent—than my remarks here, but I hope having some footage from the game helps make my points a little more clear, especially for people who haven’t played it. The reason I keep talking about this game so much is that I think it contains lots of useful examples for writing fiction generally, not just games.
One of the best things you can say about a work of fiction is that it changes how you think about life. To my mind, what makes something truly great Art is if it gives you a new perspective on everyday life.
This might be why a some people don’t think video games are Art. Nobody does anything different after playing, say, Pac-Man.
To summarize briefly: “reactivity” means that the game world reacts to the player character’s choices. Rather than just being a set series of tasks the player performs to advance the story, a reactive game environment means the player can influence what happens in the game world. This means a game has multiple endings at a minimum, and usually different ways to complete tasks or different story arcs to follow as well.
Reactivity makes for a satisfying game experience. You feel like you are really participating in the game-world, rather than just pressing buttons to turn the pages in someone else’s story.
This is where the “applicable in real life” part comes in: people like reactivity in the real world, too. We don’t typically think of it in those terms, but it’s true. People like to feel like their actions mean something.
Usually, people are at their most unhappy when they feel powerless. We want to feel like we have some measure of control in our lives, and some input in what happens in the world. We never have total control, of course, just as the player of a game doesn’t either–there is always the possibility of losing.
For example, people like it when other people listen to them. If somebody presents an idea, they like other people to engage with it, rather than just dismiss it. At a basic level, listening to people’s ideas is a kind of a reactivity–it sends the message that their input matters.
The fact that people like it when you listen to them isn’t a revelation. A guy named Dale Carnegie wrote at length about it in the 1930s. So did Stephen Covey in the 1980s. But reactivity is a handy way of understanding the concept. If you think of everyone as a player character in their own video game, you know that what they are looking for is the opportunity to influence the world.
I’ve heard lots of criticisms of video games over the years, but Jeff Vogel’s critique that they have too many words is a new one. He makes a strong case against one particular game–Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity. After reading his article, it’s hard to argue against the claim that Pillars is too verbose. The character creation and menu screens are packed with tons of text for the player to wade through.
I’m less sure about whether this is really a trend in gaming generally. After all, Pillars was explicitly designed as a throwback to the beloved text- and lore-heavy Black Isle RPGs. For example, Planescape: Tormenthas over a million words. Even I tended to ignore some of the esoteric descriptions in Planescape, and I love that game.
Some players really do seem to enjoy the atmosphere of a game rich with background material. It may be true that much of the information is irrelevant to the game’s mechanics, but this is High Fantasy, and one of the things High Fantasy fans look for is a sprawling world filled with many interesting details that don’t all fit into the main narrative.
Using lots of words is indeed a problem, as Vogel says, but not just in games. The High Fantasy trope of giving tons of background information can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien. The Pillars of Eternity intro is nothing next to the dense opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. In general, when writing in a genre, you will try to emulate the most successful authors in that genre, so it’s hard to blame Obsidian for looking to the work of Tolkien and his successors for ideas.
I myself have never been a fan of this style. And that’s despite the fact that some of my influences favored verbosity. Take H.P. Lovecraft for example–he was a pioneer in writing horror, but he tended to go overboard with some of his descriptions. I think some of that crept into my own early attempts at writing horror.
It’s much easier to use too many words than to use just the right number. The old line about “writing a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one” applies. It’s easy to waste words, and that dilutes their intended effect.
Think of it this way: whenever you write something, eventually you will have to stop. You only have so many words before you have to hit send, or mail it to the publisher, or whatever. While the supply of words is theoretically infinite, in practice it’s severely limited–by the reader’s attention span if nothing else.
So, you want to maximize the value you get per word. What do I mean by “value”? Well, it’s whatever idea or feeling you are trying to communicate in your writing. If it’s an informational document or a bit of technical description, then you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you are writing a character who prefers to communicate non-verbally or who is just mysterious, you use few words, and you make them vague and open to interpretation.
Sometimes there is value in deliberately using too many words. The dramatist W.S. Gilbert (another of my favorites) would often have characters say things in as complicated and lengthy a way as possible for comic effect. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” as they say in big organizations.
Vogel is right that the Pillars opening screens are bad at conveying information. They could have communicated the same points more succinctly. But the problem is that in addition to giving the player some information, they are also supposed to be atmospheric. And you usually need more–or at least different–words to create an atmosphere than to just convey information.
It’s a difficult balancing act–the writer(s) must both communicate technical detail about how to actually play the game while also keeping the player immersed in the virtual world in which the story is set. (For an example of a character creation intro that is more integrated with the game and doesn’t bore the player, I recommend Fallout: New Vegas–-also by Obsidian.)
The “optimal” number of words is dependent on what the writer is trying to convey, as well as on the medium they are using. Obviously, a screenwriter is going to use fewer words than a novelist to describe the exact same scene, because the screenwriter knows they will have actors and sets that will communicate certain things visually.
To summarize, all writers, regardless of their subject, style or genre, should follow Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be as simple as possible–but no simpler.”