NOTE: I planned on writing and posting this right after I'd watched the trailer for The Outer Worlds but the flu decided to swiftly kick me in the nads for a good while. So, as well as the post, here's a picture of a dog sticking out its tongue.
At the Game Awards this past week Obsidian announced their bright and shiny new IP entitled The Outer Worlds and my, oh my, I could not be more excited, and for a number of reasons. One being that I am all about science fiction in almost all its forms - I like it hard, and I like it soft - so much so that I dabble in it myself and studied it at the great financial scam that was university. But there's another reason I'm excited for The Outer Worlds and its to do with what I hope it will end up being.
Before I get to that, however, let's get into the obligatory preamble that nobody asked for! I'll warn you, this does start off by sounding like my - particularly psychotic - manifesto, but I promise it is actually about a video game.
For some time I've been sort of confused by Amazon's meteoric rise from humble online book seller to the monstrous beast of capitalism run by someone that I can only assume is some kind of mutant. It was a transformation so gradual that most of us didn't even clock our collective dependency on the company until recently - akin to putting a frog into a pan of slowly boiling water.
It's doubtful that Amazon's growth will cease any time soon - if ever - even with increasing reports of utterly deplorable working conditions that most recently involved workers sustaining injuries because of fucking bear repellent. And let's face it, if people being hospitalised because they got bear maced at work isn't enough for Amazon to change their ways, or for us to boycott the site, then we may as well sit back and just await the inevitable. That being Amazon Prime no longer referring to a fast, efficient system of delivery, but a gigantic bipedal war machine and the Prime Community meaning something very, very different and vastly more dystopian than a group of people who subscribe to a video streaming service.
Look, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: "But Johnny, you're just as guilty as the rest of us. You subscribe to Amazon too. You order from Amazon constantly. You haven't had a relationship in two years and are becoming slowly convinced you might actually die alone! So don't get all high and mighty with us!"
To that I'll say two things: 1) That last comment seemed mean and unnecessary. 2) I'm willing to hold my hands up and admit that I'm as guilty as anybody else. I order a ridiculous amount of shit from Amazon and it's for the same reason as everyone else: it's cheap and it's convenient. Amazon boasts the simplest business model ever and it works to a terrifying degree.
After I read about the working condtions in their warehouses (by the way, I am genuinely shocked no horror director has set a film in one of them yet) I promptly went "Screw that." I deleted my account and decided to get all my stuff from physical shops located in that terrifying dimension known as 'outside'. Then I remembered books cost £8.99 from an actual shop...and games are more expensive too...and nowhere in town sells that nice hot sauce with the black garlic I like.
My flip-flopping was an inevitability, of course. It's easy to say that we're selfish and vain and greedy and that's where the appeal of companies such as Amazon lies, and that's certainly a part of it. But a large chunk is down to the bullshit we've had to endure for a while now. The economy sucks, wages suck, the job market sucks, and it's all sucked relatively hard for a pretty long time now. As my boy would say: "It's all in the game." Companies thrive by taking advantage of people during times of financial strife.
The reason for all of this is the system we've been stuck in for...a few thousand years or so. Dollar sign eyes is far too common a problem in any industry, but holy shit has it been a big issue in the gaming industry for a while now. Be it the closure of Telltale Studios, which left people out on the street without severence or health care, seemingly without thought. Or perhaps it's the insane amount of microtransactions currently utilised by, oh, fucking name a game. Or the fact that loot boxes might be considered a form of gambling soon.
The world bends to capitalism, that's the way it is. And it's tough to reinvent the wheel without fucking up the car. But in recent years people have been getting tired, and they're also being presented with more and more reasons to doubt the system. The world - the planet earth - is currently in $247 trillion of debt collectively...to who?! The introduction of cryptocurrency has caused many to question the inherent value of the paper in our pockets. It grows more and more apparent that incredible wealth does not make up for incredible impotence. The most recent episode of South Park directly attacked Amazon, and it was correctly pointed out that this flew in the face of the show's previous opinion of capitalism. And there's been a weird trend in Marxist memes recently. Say what you want about memes, but they do often point towards where a large number of the population's collective heads are at.
And that's why I find it interesting that a game like The Outer Worlds is cropping up up right now, just as this level of social discontent is reaching a peak. Thanks for hanging around guys! We got there eventually. I'm also beyond excited at what it could potentially be.
As I watched the trailer unfold I noticed the obvious things. the Borderlands similarities, and obviously the Fallout ones considering these guys made them. I appreciated the mockery of binary choices in other games that promise, and rarely deliver, big consequences. I also couldn't help but notice a few surface similarities to a novel that I'm awfully fond of: The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth. If you're a fan of bizarre, off the wall, and oddly prophetic science fiction then I recommend you buy a copy.
The Space Merchants deals with concepts such as the appropriation of governmental agencies - and pretty much everything else - by corporations and the havoc that overpopulation will wreak upon the earth. Themes that look as though they'll most likely be present in The Outer Worlds - I know I'm reaching a bit with the overpopulation assumption, but just roll with it.
It's been confirmed that the universe of The Outer Worlds will be ran by ten corporations. It's also confirmed that there will be no microtransactions in the game whatsoever. These two elements support both gameplay and thematic elements that I think will be present in The Outer Worlds. Oh, it also won't have any romance options, so that means no alien boning - even though some have theorised that that's the only reason for consumerism's existence in the first place.
I've always said that there are two ways to know you're successful as an individual: 1) to have a Wikipedia page about you that neither you nor your friends made and 2) being able to have a coke habit and have it only be a health issue and not a financial one. Now, on a corporate level, I've always held on tight to the assertion that a company can measure its success as soon as it becomes a verb. Let me ask you this: do you 'search' for something on the internet? No, you don't, and you certainly don't fucking 'Yahoo' it do you? Or ask that prick Jeeves. You 'Google' it. It's in the same way that you can go get a burger, or you can go get McDonald's. For some reason, it's an entirely seperate entity to the food it sells.
Sounds awfully similar to the universe of The Outer Worlds. It also sounds like we could be living in a similar universe sooner than we think.
Video games are power fantasies, this is no secret. They're also pure wish fulfillment. Escapism. Just like any other entertainment medium out there. Power fantasies in video games have often leaned on capitalism for fuel. It's part of the reason why Grand Theft Auto is so successful, particularly its online iteration. When you have zero money yourself, or you're drowning in debt, then it feels pretty cool to pretend you're a millionaire/nightclub owner/CEO/Biker Gang President/drug dealer/general criminal. As people's frustrations at capitalism mount, it only makes sense that we get a bit of wish fulfillment that sees us take down the man, or seize the means of control if you will.
That brings me to the gameplay of The Outer Worlds. I think, and I hope I'm right, that the economy in The Outer Worlds will be utilised in such a way that it will incentivise players to complete missions for more than money and I believe it will be actively utilised as a player controlled mechanic throughout the game - in vastly different ways depending on how you play.
It's no secret that The Outer Worlds will feature branching storylines and plot related choices, Leonard Boyarsky made this clear:
“You can betray [the scientist] the first chance you get to the government, and work on their side. You can effectively play the game any way you choose. You can be the hero. You can be anti-hero. You can be a full-on mercenary. You can be psychopathic killer."
Now, my theory is this: along with the usual combat perks and what not, you'll also have economic perks. If you choose to side with the government and be a capitalistic knob goblin - don't be that guy - then as a result you'll gain certain economic advantages. This could range from insider info regarding when the prices of certain items and gear are going to rise or fall, all the way to being able to actually manipulate the economy in your favour so that your character can get kitted out in the best stuff.
The next would be the communist approach. Communism is almost entirely dependent on trade as an ideology. People are rewarded for their labour. So going down this route would open up exclusive missions that offer gear and perks and items that you're unable to buy if you play any other way (and unable to buy full stop). Meaning that your character would never be holding cash at any point in the game and, assumedly, this would mean the eventual collapse of the game's monetary system by the end.
We've had games in the past that have focussed on a gigantic, evil corporation that's eventually overthrown by the hero. Borderlands 2 is a prime example of this, but despite this the game was still very much centred on making a ton of money at all times.
Economy is a hard thing to nail down in a video game. If it's poorly done it can end up feeling entirely redundant. Grand Theft Auto IV is a prime example of this. By the end of the game I had a million dollars, but there wasn't anything to spend it on other than hot dogs and suits. If the economy is too harsh and unforgiving then it can turn players off the game entirely, Red Dead Online being the latest offender. The one game that had a beautifully structured economy - strict but not unfair and truly grounded - was The Witcher 3. Every purchase in that game felt like it had to be entirely necessary and really thought out.
But we've never had a game - not that I've experienced anyway, prove me wrong please - wherein the economy has been an active part of how your character plays. And we might get a real, true, pure communist piece of escapism...that we'll have to pay for. Huh. I didn't think that part through. This is kind of how I felt when I saw that guy wearing a communist party hoodie. I mean, didn't he have to buy it from somewhere? Well...maybe Obsidian will let people pay with Bitcoin. Yeah, fuck it, that would be...sort of cool, I guess?