During the lead up to The Outer Worlds’ release, Leonard Boyarsky (a co-director for the game) said in an interview that he did not want the game to be politically charged and then went on to define the very essence of politics as the game’s main theme, describing the game as about “power and how power is used against people who don’t have it.” Despite Boyarsky’s hesitation about being “political,” he understood that all stories have a point of view to convey and that’s evident in what the game has to say about idealists and, consequently, about politics.
Throughout the game players encounter various people who imagine a different world, but the two that stick out in my mind are Clyde Harlow and Graham Bryant. The arcs for both characters are strikingly similar. As the player meets them, both are cast as revolutionaries who desire the destruction of the corporate hegemony and liberation of those who suffer under it. They send the players to accomplish a task and during its commission, the players discover some facts that reveal these leaders are actually cruel opportunists who–like the corporations–treat human life cheaply. Once the players confront these leaders about their past deeds, they rationalize their actions and refuse to give in, leading to a battle between them and the players.
While the trope of fallible leaders and the message to always hold them accountable is good, the Outer Worlds does this with the leaders who explicitly expressed a liberated, revolutionary view of the future. The leaders it offers as a contrast are Sanjar and Zora. Sanjar is the leader of Stellar Bay, a walled city abandoned by the corporations but is still managing to get by through imitation of the corporate structure. More importantly, he is a reformist who believes he can confront the all-powerful Corporate Board and gain concessions from them by manipulating bureaucracy and revealing their hypocrisy. This method of negotiating seems particularly laughable to us in 2019 as the utter impotence of bureaucratic process or appealing to some alleged moral conscience of the powerful is laid bare.
Zora is co-leader of the Iconoclasts, the group founded by Graham. The Iconclasts are former Stellar Bay residents who were inspired by Graham’s rhetoric of a freer world and left the settlement in pursuit of it. But life outside the walls is tough and Zora takes up the matters of being concerned with the daily needs of the group her and Graham lead; their food, safety, and long term survival. Zora voices these essential needs at various times through the player’s conversations with her and it becomes clear that they are what drive her actions as opposed to Graham’s ideals of freedom from corporate rule.
While the groups led by Sanjar and Zora are set up as rivals heading to a violent clash, the player is given an opportunity to negotiate a peace between them. As they meet in the climactic negotiating scene to hammer out what a cooperative relationship looks like, Zora begins by laying out her priorities of her group’s needs. Sanjar responds in characteristic consternation about the difficulties of meeting those needs. It seems like they will butt heads about what each group wants, what they have to offer, and why they should get it, but then the conversation takes an odd turn to focus on Graham, the now dead leader. They quickly come to a consensus over the fact that he was someone who could not be worked with and then quickly agree that they will work together without really laying out how the difficulties that face them will be confronted.
The juxtaposition of those ideas feels intentional; The Outer Worlds saying that the only barrier to getting things done was a person whose ideals were too radical. But what of the people in Sanjar’s town who will be asked to have less space to accommodate strangers? What of Zora’s Iconoclasts who left that same town to escape corporate rule? The Outer Words waves those concerns away and seems to say that as long as people are fed and happy, they’ll suffer injustices. It is capital “L” Leaders and their ideals that block the way. Liberation has no value on an empty stomach, so it’s best to meet those who would exploit you halfway. What could be a more political statement than that?