Nearly three years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kshama Sawant, an all-out socialist elected to Seattle’s city council in 2013. From what appears to be a small position, she spearheaded a campaign to bring one of the first $15 per hour minimum wage laws in the country, much higher than the paltry numbers offered here in the UK. As expected, the sky didn’t collapse, there was no sudden mass unemployment and the local economy kept ticking along. However, one of the city’s tenants, Amazon, has spent over $1m so far to try to bring her down in her 2019 reelection bid. (At the time of writing, she is currently trailing in votes.)
I had only played 20 minutes of the Outer Worlds when I read about Sawant’s current electoral challenge and I couldn’t avoid the direct link between the two. The game is set in an alternate timeline, where Teddy Roosevelt doesn’t become president near the start of the 20th century, and therefore trust-busting isn’t used to shape a mildly progressive economy. The first scenes lay the effects of this on quite thick, with messages of job insecurity and the fears of automation saved in personal logs, parallels to our own fears today.
The first big mission makes you choose between a group of haves and have-nots, by selecting who should have their power cut off, either the employees of a corporation or those who deserted them. The story explicitly shows that the habitants under corporate servitude are finding life much more difficult than the outsiders led by a botanist hippy. As she and others say, life isn’t all about productivity and numbers.
Yet as much fun as the game continues to be, there are a few sticking points that make the game fail substantially when it comes to much of its social commentary. The first is the lack of a cohesive backstory for our protagonist. How are we supposed to “stick it to the man” when in reality, our backgrounds are what inform our world view? It’s why you can trust (most) of the critics of the wealthy to be those from working and middle class backgrounds, especially as inequality continues to skyrocket across the globe.
We can see this happening in real time, particularly in American politics where wealth taxes continue to poll high and gain traction among the (progressive) frontrunners in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary race. However, in the Outer Worlds, we don’t really see the dire effects of inequality on those on the lowest rungs, whether it’s peeing in bottles or going to sleep hungry. The effects of the story you work through feel a little superficial because of this.
This is because the game suffers with the laziest display of corporate criticism, which is to demonstrate everything through tongue in cheek satire. Too many games go down this road and we never see the righteous, vengeful tone we internalise against heinous greed. The simplest, most obvious reason for this is because the biggest makers of games are, of course, massive corporations, including the new parent company behind the Outer Worlds. This makes it hard to see whether we can even trust games to portray corporate evil in any significant way. The only recent example that comes to mind is Inside, where you lead a young boy through semi-derelict buildings with ever-increasing security.
All of this deflects from the fact that the worst business decisions that affect us all come from real people who manifest the worst in humanity, and not the faceless, jovial-presenting companies they hide behind. The most glaring examples are people like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, hoarding billions to either escape into space or literally make the world worse through ethnic violence.
What’s interesting about this is how other games excel by being more visceral and emotional than satires like the Outer Worlds. For example, Far Cry 5 and Bioshock Infinite focus more clearly on evil monolithic cults. By taking white supremacy to task in those stories, there’s clearer spiritual and moral clarity that makes you more invigorated against that particular misery which corporate satires completely lack.
If games are considered a modern medium for art and want to discuss societal evils, we shouldn’t expect multiple titles that are aggressively activist in their tone. But with inequality rife and oligopolies controlling so many aspects of our lives, we should expect some of these games to say something more creative and substantial than the usual displays of gutless apathy we’re so used to seeing in sci-fi dystopias now. A common company slogan we keep hearing in the beginning of the Outer Worlds is, “You’ve tried the best. Now try the rest.” I think we’re still yet to see the best this genre can offer.