Outer Worlds, New Vegas and The Power of Being a Nobody

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Okay, before I move on to the bulk of this essay, let me make something abundantly clear: I am a Fallout: New Vegas super fan. It’s one of my favourite games of all time and if Steam didn’t have a handy little feature that showed how many hours I’d logged in New Vegas, I’d probably have to calculate that metric of time with a calculator. Not one of those simple calculators either, the kind of calculator you have to turn your phone on its side to use.

I’m clarifying this upfront because at the heart of this, is that there’s a direct comparison between New Vegas and The Outer Worlds, beyond both being first-person shooter role-playing games developed by Obsidian Entertainment. Maybe it’s not fair to hold them up as directly comparable, but I feel comfortable enough saying that because at this point enough people around the Internet have made similar observations to such an extent that I think it’s become somewhat of a pseudo-tagline for The Outer Worlds: “New Vegas in space”. To a large extent, it’s a fair analogy to make. They employ so many of same systems, RPG mechanics and themes that in many ways The Outer Worlds feels like it could slot comfortably into the Fallout canon.

The Outer Worlds Roseway Interior Screenshot

To some extent, I agree with the close comparisons that have been drawn between the two. I’ll admit right now that it was something I experienced first hand when I started playing The Outer Worlds. The crash-and-zoom camera during dialogue, the dynamic conversations that change based on your states, the factions scattered around Halcyon – it was the sequel I’d always wanted.

Yet even in the beginning, something felt off. I wasn’t sure what it was, but something wasn’t sitting right with me. I brushed it off, focused on the experience at hand and tried to remind myself that The Outer Worlds is its own unique thing. By the end of that game, that feeling of “offness” had grown, manifesting itself throughout my whole playtime. What started out as a really engaging, enrapturing experience just…slowly lost its steam over time. I ended up feeling…okay, this is tricky to describe. Not disappointed, but unsatisfied. Which is one of those silly semantic differences I find myself getting caught up on all too often.

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At first, I couldn’t put into words where that lack of satisfaction came from so I did what I thought any Obsidian fan would do and started up a new game of New Vegas…again. It didn’t take me long to figure out where The Outer Worlds felt wrong for me from the get-go and it’s not an issue with gameplay or mechanics or combat or anything that many people could obviously point at and say, “It’s broken and unfun”.

For me it came down to…myself. Or more specifically, the character I was embodying. See, The Outer Worlds differs from Fallout: New Vegas in that you’re chosen by the game to be the main character. Which is weird, I know, but I liken it to films that employ that age-old storytelling device of making the protagonist “The Chosen One”. It’s a tired plot point that basically just serves as an excuse for the main character to go on their quest or overcome whatever evil they’re opposed; it’s separate from the character’s internal struggles and challenges because it’s something they were always destined to do. Look, it’s become a trope for a reason because it can be used to tell effective stories of self-acceptance and growth but many writers fall into the trap of using the “Chosen One” narrative as an inciting incident, the thing that pushes the hero to start their journey and, quite frankly, it’s more often than not just an excuse to get the plot moving forward.

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So bearing that in mind, let’s looks at how The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas start. Bear in mind, I’m going all-in on spoilers here, so if you’re sensitive to those go leave an angry comment at the bottom of this article now and be on your way. The Outer Worlds starts with a mad scientist selecting you as one out of a thousand different colonists in the abandoned transport ship The Hope as the person that will save the colony. Phineas V. Welles, the scientist in question, selects you because you’re the most talented, well-rounded member of the whole colony; the only one that can save The Hope and help him save Halcyon. In contrast, Fallout: New Vegas has you start as a courier who gets shot in the head. That’s it. You’re a random courier. You’re just like everyone else, only had an unlucky delivery.

You’re nobody. Which makes Fallout: New Vegas feel that much more powerful.

I think that’s what I’m getting at. What’s the big difference, on a textual, thematic level between The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas. Well, I would say that The Outer Worlds wants you to be the saviour of the galaxy; it wants you to be important. While Fallout: New Vegas couldn’t give a shit who you are. You got shot in the head, go find that dude and ask him why. Which I think is a fairly important distinction to make between the two. The Outer Worlds wants you to role-play as the ultimate hero or villain, but Fallout: New Vegas just wants you to play a person.

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There’s nothing special about The Courier in New Vegas. You’re a person who got messed up in an exchange you shouldn’t have, because of decisions made by those above you, and thus become embroiled in the battle for New Vegas. You’re not the hero that liberates The Strip or sacrifices New Vegas to The Legion because you were chosen to fulfil such a role; For most of the game you’re really just stumbling between the power struggle trying to figure out how to get through it all. You’re nothing special, which is what makes Obsidian’s take on the Fallout universe feel like such an authentic role-playing experience.

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While The Outer Worlds certainly plays like that kind of authentic role-playing game, I was never able to really transfer myself into my character because I knew, from the very beginning, I was special. I was the one that would fundamentally change Halcyon, for better or worse, no matter what decisions I made. Put it this way, from the very beginning of The Outer Worlds, it’s fairly simple to plot out how the story unfolds because you’re the figurative “Chosen One”, everything you do is powerful and important. Whereas in New Vegas, you really have no idea what’s going to happen because, well, you’re nobody special.

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There’s a certain kind of freedom one earns when one is aware that destiny doesn’t apply to them. The freedom to not follow a certain path, not treading the path that something omniscient has prescribed for you. I suppose it’s a tradeoff of what kind of effect you want players to experience within a role-playing game, but I think using the angle of “Your character is special, destined for great things” you instantly put a box of expectations around them.

Which is great for that feeling of empowerment that video games do so well, but when you want someone to project themselves into a character, to really create an experience that’s unique and special to their playstyle, I don’t think making them unique is the option. Making them just like everyone else, the one that rises above and proves their special, that’s powerful.

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I think that’s why The Outer Worlds left me a little cold. I don’t want a game to tell me how powerful I am, how important my actions are. I want to show the game that I’m worthy of that power, that my decisions matter because I can prove how influential they are. In The Outer Worlds, I saved Halcyon because it was what the game expected of me, but it New Vegas I claimed The Strip for myself because I earned the right to stake my claim on the city.

To players, power is important. But a lack of power is meaningful.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: November 4, 2019

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