Spoiler Warning: The following article assumes that the reader has already played through The Outer Worlds as there are a significant amount of late-game spoilers mentioned.
I didn’t come out as bisexual until I was 22—it wasn’t something that I felt comfortable admitting, and even if I had been, I’ve always been reserved about my personal life. While watching my friends in college emerge from their shells and come to terms with who they were, I stayed back, keeping my secret to myself. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I finally told a few people and felt as though it wasn’t something that I needed to keep to myself. A few months later my husband bought me Life is Strange, and I played it through obsessively. Max’s quiet personality connected with me in a way I had never connected to a video game character before. I felt a rush when I came across options that allowed Max to become romantically interested in her two very different friends, Warren and Chloe. I’d always enjoyed seeing characters in video games that weren’t the traditional middle-aged male hero, but it wasn’t until Life is Strange that I truly connected with a representation of a someone who was, simply, like me.
Life is Strange had its shortfalls. It wasn’t the perfect game, what with two-dimensional NPCs and a predictable storyline. But it illustrated how video games could craft a unique narrative that represented groups of people not traditionally found within video game storylines. GamerGate may have brought the discussion of how gamers view women and minorities in games to the forefront of national news, but the issue has been around for much longer. Whether it’s who speaks and writes about video games or what sort of characters are visible and playable in the games themselves, representation in gaming isn’t a new concept. But throughout the discussions that focus on a game’s content, the fundamental baseline of what diversity is and how it can be achieved is often glossed over. What does a truly diverse game look like? Many indie game developers are creating stories that resonate with groups of people that aren’t seen as the “traditional gamer.” With more widely released games, diverse storylines are still lacking. There is progression here and there, such as the best example of a recent major video game release that truly grasps what representation within narrative looks like: Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds.
Obsidian creative director Leonard Boyarsky stated in an interview with Video Games Chronicle that The Outer Worlds isn’t supposed to be a politically charged game. The interview is frustrating as Boyarsky is unwilling to take a stance beyond the idea that the quest for power and domination is bad. “[T]he studio has been ‘very careful’ not to ‘lecture’ players with the themes featured in the game.” Had I read this interview before I had played the game, I would’ve assumed that The Outer Worlds was a bland and fuzzy copy of the messages found in any of the Bioshock or Fallout games. A fairly reductive point to make—that people in powerful positions that do bad things are bad people—is lukewarm and depoliticized enough for any player to agree with. Yet somehow, The Outer Worlds offers strong representation, both in terms of a diverse cast of characters and a demonstration of the power of personal choice.
How can we know that The Outer Worlds handles representation in its narrative well? What is the answer to our previous question—what does a truly diverse game look like? There are people who are far smarter than I am that have broken down the core concepts of true representation. Amrita Banerjee, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Bombay, explains that there are three essential parts to a “diverse narrative”: visibility, presence and “poise.” After I closed The Outer Worlds, having finished the final mission, the story and its cast of characters weighed on me in a way that was reminiscent of how I felt after Life is Strange. During my sixteen or so hours that I spent traversing the Halcyon colony, I realized that The Outer Worlds had all three essential parts of a diverse narrative and more.
As I accepted yet another side quest in The Outer World’s first area, Edgewater, I wondered how quickly I’d get tired of talking to an NPC, then moving from point A to point B. Surprisingly, I never did, and part of it was due to the well-rounded variety of the NPCs. Adelaide McDevitt, the leader of those who had deserted the factory hellscape of Edgewater, is an old woman that doesn’t fit into the “wise grandparent” trope that senior leaders are often portrayed as. Junlei Tennyson is an Asian woman who was the captain of an entire space station that’s struggling to get by. Sanjar Nandi, the leader of Monarch Stellar Industries, wants to find a compromise between the cutthroat crony capitalism of Halcyon’s leaders and the brimming revolution that many of the downtrodden commoners seem to long for.
Banerjee’s definition of visibility is literally just the existence of a diverse character. This is where most video games (and TV shows and movies, for that matter) manage to meet the mark. In many games, it’s just the ability to portray the player character as any race or gender without it having any impact on the story. Another example would be Lilith in Borderlands. While later games and DLC may flesh out her character further, in the original Borderlands, Lilith is a female character that exists to be played. She exists within the story, but there is little personality to her that her existence as a female character impacts the story in any meaningful way. The Outer Worlds has visibility in spades, in a way that feels natural and expected.
I was hesitant when I met Nyoka and discovered that she was one of the potential companions. The alcoholic “badass” woman that can fight better than anyone else has been done a dozen times over—there’s very little depth to that sort of character. I proceeded forward, wondering when The Outer Worlds would disappoint me and delve into the flatness of “angry woman with a big gun.” But as we moved back to the ship, Nyoka stated that she missed the mercenaries that she used to work with, and that she’s pretty sure most of them are dead. Despite not wanting to ask for help, she does, and we set off hunting for the graves of the people that she had made her found family.
Presence is the second part to Banerjee’s theory of representation. It’s when the existence of the diverse character is important and relevant to the narrative. This is when narratives that move beyond visibility often slip up. In some cases, the “diverse” character is merely background fodder that one long blink from the viewer could result in missing the representation entirely. Other cases are when the diverse character is killed off to move the hero’s story forward. Or, the lack of being able to craft a three-dimensional story surrounding the character can often be used as an excuse to exclude diverse representation from a game in the first place. The Outer Worlds grasps the concept of presence in a way that is done well, particularly with Nyoka. The angry, bitter black woman, often referred to as a “Sapphire,” is a harmful trope that casts women of color’s anger as unreasonable and even laughable. Despite Nyoka’s first impression as a hard-nosed big game hunter that’s angry with the world, she’s never cast into that stereotype, and as I flew her around so that she could discover the fate of her previous crew members, she has moments of tenderness and vulnerability that truly made me pause the game to wipe away tears.
Perhaps the most beloved companion in The Outer Worlds, Parvati Holcomb is a shy engineer who is unhappy with the poor conditions in Edgewater and willingly followed me as I navigated the dingy wilderness around town to locate a power regulator to repair my ship. Once I finally took to the sky and made it to the Groundbreaker, I met the space station’s intrepid captain, the aforementioned Junlei Tennyson. It’s a very meet cute moment between Parvati and Junlei, the latter of whom offers to talk engineering with my new companion. A couple side quests later, I’m back on my ship and Parvati confesses that Junlei is messaging her, and she doesn’t know how to proceed. Parvati likes Junlei, but is unsure of how to tell the captain about her lack of sexual desire. I encourage her to keep moving forward, to talk to her crush, and to believe in herself.
The final aspect to well-done diversity is “poise.” Banerjee spends most of her time focusing on this with a much more academic nuance than this article needs but it boils down to this: Diverse characters and narratives must become integrated into a community so that they are seen as “normal.” This does not mean changing the narrative to make it more palatable for the “majority.” It means that the narrative stays the same but it isn’t viewed as novel or unique or “different.” Out of the many characters that this applies to, I think Parvati’s storyline represents this best. Her existence as an asexual woman who loves women is an accepted fact that is natural, and nothing new. Her side quests were lengthy—at a certain point I realized I flew across the solar system all so that she could find a particular food for her upcoming date with Junlei. I kept going though because Parvati was important, both to the story and to me as the player. Her quest for date foods and a new dress made me explore areas a little more fully than I would have, which led me to discover more side quests and NPCs. Her personal narrative helps drive the larger narrative further along in a way that is not preachy or performative.
Personal, Political Choices
My personal favorite companion was Ellie, the roguish pirate doctor. She evaded most questions about her personal life, but joined my ship without hesitation. As the overarching story led me toward Byzantium, the area on the planet Terra 2 that’s exclusively for the uber-wealthy, Ellie finally admits her personal history. She was born to wealthy parents and left because she couldn’t stand the society that she was raised into. I am asked to go with her to visit her parents and act as “shocking” as I can. I chose the option to spit on her parents’ marble floors, which leads to the discovery that Ellie’s parents have faked her death to claim the insurance money. Soon after, we’re flying to a different planet to reroute the insurance benefit to Ellie, who slowly begins to come to terms with the idea that it is important to care about the people around you. It’s not nearly as impactful as Parvati or Nyoka’s stories, but it illustrated one final piece of representation that The Outer Worlds decided to portray: The politics of personal choice and the impact that a single person has on changing the course of a narrative. This, in its own way, is another way to display diversity, as you, the player, get a chance to create your narrative in the unique way that you would react to a set of situations. While I helped Ellie through her fairly low-stakes family trouble, I was also infiltrating the offices of top Board officials within Byzantium and discovering that the colony’s government planned to cryo-freeze most of the population to keep food shortages from impacting society. It’s a utilitarian approach to crisis that’s almost certainly based in an impossible to achieve objectivist utopia. The evils of the Board are no better illustrated, though, than when we visit Ellie’s parents, whose vast richness would most certainly protect them from any forced sedation. Personal narratives are shown as interlacing into a larger, overarching narrative that has the same political implications, just with heavier stakes.
The main storyline in Byzantium focuses on finding the chemical that Phineas—the mad scientist who rescued my player character from her cryo-freeze—needs to unfreeze the rest of the people aboard the ship I was found on. I find the chemical being used on human experiments in the basements of a Board-run laboratory. In a split second, I chose to remove all of the chemical from the tanks, rather than just a little bit. I watched the humans suspended in blue liquid thrash to death in their tanks, and the implication of my decision hit me harder than most video game choices do. Fighting my way out of the lab with Ellie and Felix, yet another companion I adopted, I made it back to the ship. Felix asks to talk to me and says he wishes to see Harlow, the man who helped him while he was a Stowaway on the Groundbreaker. As I was nearing the end of the game, I started the mission immediately, still a little bothered by my choice in the basement of the lab. Throughout his side quest, Felix admitted that he looked up to my character and knew that I’d always make the right decision and never harm innocents. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut; sure, his quest and the main storyline had no interaction in the way that other companions’ quests did, but his idolatry of my very flawed and human ship captain illustrated my role in this narrative and how the choices that I made impacted the space colony surrounding me.
Boyarsky portrayed The Outer Worlds as a game that didn’t have a heavy political message, which is true. Due to the plethora of choices when completing quests, I never felt as though I was railroaded into doing a specific action. However, “no heavy political message” shouldn’t be equated to “no politics at all.” The Outer Worlds demonstrates that it is possible to have a popular title within the video game landscape with a diverse cast of NPCs that have complex motivations driving them forward. While the end goal of Banerjee’s theory is an acceptance of alternative narratives, the overall impact goes beyond that. One hopes that a variety of unique perspectives allows us to learn new things, to respond differently to problems around us. The perspectives and stories of my companions and other NPCs influenced my actions throughout the game—I’m not sure I would have made the same choices if I had been left to my own devices. I may have not experienced the same happiness of seeing a character just like me in Life is Strange, but everyone in Halcyon resonated just as much and weighed on me long after I finished and closed The Outer Worlds.