The Outer Worlds: What Role-Playing Means to Obsidian

The Outer Worlds co-directors Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky talk about Fallout, tabletop gaming memories, The Witcher, and more.

This article is part of our History of PC Gaming series.

In Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds, corporations have colonized and branded the furthest reaches of space. It’s a terrifying look at a dystopian future that may come to pass. For some, though, The Outer Worlds is also about the past. Many fans have waited a long time to play another Obsidian RPG with the same impressive 3D world, bleak humor, and emphasis on freedom of choice as 2010’s beloved Fallout: New Vegas.

Nobody has waited longer for The Outer Worlds, though, than co-directors Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky. Over 20 years ago, they were key figures in the development of the original Fallout, one of the most important PC RPGs ever made. Eventually, they split and forged their own paths in the industry. As it turns out, it didn’t take much convincing to get the band back together.

“I got [Leonard] to come over here [from Activision-Blizzard] by saying, ‘Hey, you know when we made Fallout? Let’s do that again but with more money and more people,’” Cain says.

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Fallout was Cain, Boyarsky, and the rest of the team’s attempt to bring tabletop gaming concepts to video games.

“I saw Tim running different people through a tabletop scenario and it felt like a totally different experience every time,” Boyarsky says. “That was one of our earliest conversations about what a role-playing game on a computer could be.”

With Fallout, Cain and Boyarsky helped bring tabletop RPG ideas to PCs, but even at that time, a debate emerged regarding what, exactly, an RPG is. After all, you play a role in many games. So what distinguishes the RPG from its counterparts?

“I always thought role-playing meant you, the player, defined who the character was, what his motivations were, as much as possible,” says Cain. “There’s always a fantasy of ‘I’m in this fantastic role, playing a character and doing whatever I want, and seeing how the world reacts.’”

This emphasis on creation and choice often forces players to confront themselves. In a recent playthrough of The Outer Worlds, Boyarsky decided to play an evil character. However, his plans were derailed when he faced an evil choice that he just couldn’t commit to.

Read More: How The Outer Worlds Channels Fallout, Classic Sci-fi, and the Real World

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“In that instance, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to do it,” Boyarsky says. “I just had to keep reminding myself that I had to pick those lines and I’d pick [one and think], ‘Oh I should have picked the other one.’ Because that wasn’t really the character I wanted to play.”

RPGs like Fallout and The Outer Worlds force you to come to terms with who you choose to be in their worlds, but Boyarsky and Cain are careful not to put players in a position where they feel there is a right choice.

“We don’t want you to feel like you’re doing something wrong by playing the character the way you want to play them,” Boyarsky says. “You have to deal with the consequences of your actions, but it’s your story. You should feel like the game is, in its own way, rewarding you for playing your character.”

In The Outer Worlds though, playing your character isn’t just about telling the game who you think you are. More often than not, you define yourself through your actions.

“In our game you wouldn’t say you were an alcoholic,” Cain says. “You’d play the game for a while and if you drink a lot of alcohol, we’d say, ‘Hey, you seem to use a lot of alcohol, you want to be a drug addict?’ We offer it to you. So a lot of our character building stuff doesn’t just happen during character creation.”

The idea of forcing players to deal with the consequences of their actions in a potentially negative way isn’t something we see in a lot of RPGs and other games which want to send players on a power trip. In games like Fallout and The Outer Worlds, though, part of the joy of the experience comes from watching how the world reacts to your sometimes bad decisions. In fact, there are times when those bad decisions end up being more memorable than the good ones. 

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To illustrate that concept, Cain recalls a time when a friend who played GURPS (an old tabletop RPG) decided to play as a “one-armed alcoholic fighter.” Why? Well, he was trying to take advantage of the fact that the game let you build a character with inherent disadvantages in order to gain bonus points that can be assigned to other aspects. He was trying to game the system, but his plans were derailed when his group encountered a ladder in a sewer. 

“There were these rungs leading up to a manhole, and so he got to it and I asked ‘Oh, by the way, have you drunk anything today? You need to make a dexterity check,'” Cain says. “It turns out he had, and so he fell, and the rest of them didn’t want to stop and help him, so they all climbed the ladder and ran away while he died…The rungs didn’t mean anything to them, but to a one-armed drunk fighter, it was life or death.”

Memorable incidents such as that helped inspire Cain and Boyarsky to assign a different (sometimes slightly twisted) internal logic to their RPG adventures. Arguably the most impressive implementation of that logic involves how the pair justify allowing a created character like a one-armed alcoholic fighter assume the “hero of destiny” role that was common in so many fantasy stories and pre-Fallout video game RPGs. 

“When we made the original Fallout, one of the other designers once told me, it’s like ‘If you pick a character that’s really stupid why would the Vault send that person out as their savior?'” Cain recalls. “I said, ‘Well remember it’s that they drew straws. So they drew straws because you had to go out in the radioactive wasteland, and the really dumb guy got it.’ Well, they sent him out, but they were probably like, ‘Okay, let’s wait a week and then send up the next person.'”

Character creation may be an essential part of Cain and Boyarsky’s approach to RPG design, but it’s not the rule. The ever-expanding definition of role-playing accommodates games like The Witcher 3, which see you play as a preset protagonist and make comparatively minor character decisions.

The Witcher 3 may regularly land high atop best RPG lists, but it can’t recreate the experience of tabletop RPGs or games like Fallout. That’s part of the reason why The Outer Worlds has captured the imagination of old-school RPG fans. It was designed to recreate the spirit of those classic experiences.

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“I love The Witcher, but it’s not a game I would make,” Cain says. “I don’t want people to stop making Witcher-like games. I just want people to realize, for all these games where there’s a predefined character and a very strong storyline, there are other games that can be made differently that still fall under the moniker of RPG.”

It’s possible that part of the reason why RPGs like The Outer Worlds are comparatively rarer is that they’re also exceptionally difficult to produce.

“Making a game is not an easy process by any stretch of the imagination,” Boyarsky says. “However, having a preset character like [The Witcher’s] Geralt, who you can always show during the cinematics and who has a specific personality, it’s easier to create some drama and cinematic moments. It’s much more of a challenge to do it the way we’re doing it.”

The modern definition of an RPG has been further complicated by the incorporation of RPG elements in action games. Even the Call of Duty franchise utilizes progression elements that let you grow your character as you play. Such games have helped expand the reach of the comparatively niche RPG genre, but have they also diluted its spirit?

“Yes,” says Cain. “I think more and more games are saying that they have RPG elements, but they give you a predefined character and a predefined story. Sometimes I play those games and I feel like they have a story to tell, and gosh darn it, they’re going to tell it. So just sit down and enjoy the ride.”

Read More: 45 Best Video Games to Play in 2019

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Yet, The Outer Worlds features a more active combat style that resembles an action game upon first look. While that approach is certainly more broadly appealing, Cain and Boyarsky acknowledge that it’s difficult to incorporate role-playing into action.

“We always have the discussion of when your character in the game shoots somebody, how much of that is your player skill and how much of that is the character skill?” Cain says. “If the overall number was mostly the character skill then the player says, ‘I’m standing next to someone point blank and I’m missing,’ If you rely too much on player skill, then you just made a first-person shooter.”

Finding the right balance is an ambitious goal, but Cain and Boyarsky have always dreamed big when it comes to RPG design. With The Outer Worlds, though, they’re trying to incorporate some of the lessons they learned from making RPGs that were perhaps too ambitious for their own good.

“The first meeting I had with [The Outer Worlds] lead designer Charlie Staples, I told him, ‘You have to edit me. I will have lots of ideas,’” Cain says. “Of course they’re all good. Not all of them can go into this game because we don’t have the time. We had many discussions and arguments over the last several years while making this game, and I didn’t win all of them. I should have, but I didn’t.”

The two find comfort in other limitations. They acknowledge that The Outer Worlds is a smaller game (what some call an “AA game”) and that it doesn’t have the resources of other major titles. That means not being able to do certain things, but it also helps them make the RPG they want to make.

“If we had over a hundred million dollars riding on this game, there’d be a lot more people concerned about how well it may or may not do,” Boyarsky says. “I feel like we didn’t have to be as concerned about making some of the choices that come naturally to us with our dark sense of humor than we otherwise would have if we were trying to sell 30 million units or whatever.”

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While the pair would almost certainly love to see The Outer Worlds sell 30 million units, the joy of this opportunity seems to stem from the pleasure of watching others make their own adventures.

“Somebody was actually watching me finish the game and he asked why some group was there helping me. I was like, ‘Oh, because I was really nice to them all throughout the game. They’re here to help me now at the end,’” Cain says. “He was surprised and said, ‘Well I was nice to them.’ I asked, ‘Were you really? Were you nice or were you really nice?’ I said, ‘Go back and be really nice.’”

To Cain and Boyarsky, The Outer Worlds is a chance to pick up where they left off and make the types of games they love most.

“We kind of learned how to make games when we were at [Fallout developer] Interplay. It’s the way we made the majority of our games,” Boyarsky says. “Obsidian feels like an extension of the heart of Interplay. So in that way, it very much feels like a homecoming.”

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014

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