In Space No One Can Hear You Scream…Except If You’re in the Halcyon Galaxy

My First 3 Hours of “The Outer Worlds”

It’s a tale as old as time: the drive to explore the unexplored and to live off the fruits of your labor. The Outer Worlds introduces a universe where Mankind has stretched beyond Earth and into space. Specifically, in this scenario, you are bound on a colonist ship that will travel to the furthest reaches of the galaxy. There you will find the New World and new opportunities! Cue the beautiful advertisement, the sheer ease of the travel in your hibernation chamber, and “perfect society” here we go.

Three hours into The Outer Worlds and the rose-colored glasses are ripped off. This is not the land of fruit and honey as advertised— well, it is…if you’re high enough up the food chain to enjoy it.

The Outer Worlds pulls you into a complicated galaxy and tells a story that is not as far fetched as one would think through its compelling missions, environment, and artwork.

So if you dare to read on and scream along with me, beware of spoilers.

Come to Halcyon! Prosperity Will Find You*

*Terms and Conditions Apply

The tantalizing preview of what could be with its twentieth-century styled travel posters and slogans is dashed when your vessel is visited by a stranger. You’re plucked out of your slot and it’s during character creation is there a curious realization: everyone on the ship is of relative simple means. No one is bearing a hoighty toighty profession. It’s maintenance workers, customer service reps, sub sous chef, and so forth. Even the “Bureaucrat, Rank 0” is just a paper pusher.

I opted for the Beverage Service Technician because there is something novel about being thrown into an unknown world and your key skill is making a mean margarita.

The list of aptitudes you can choose from feels intentional.

Historically, the ploy of encouraging the migration of workers and families (specifically those of lesser wealth) to colonies is an old one. In the formation of English colonies in the 1600s, the Virginia Stock Company (a group of wealthy investors) would encourage English families to leave and come to the New World. These investors would specifically advertise and recruit the poor. Why? Cheap labor.

The earliest settlers soon realized that they had lots of land to care for, but no one to care for it. With passage to the Colonies expensive for all but the wealthy, the Virginia Company developed the system of indentured servitude to attract workers (PBS, 2014).

Looking at the list of colonists on this ship, the list of aptitudes makes sense. A journey to Halcyon is being promoted as a guaranteed promise of a better life and prosperity. This is the same spiel provided by investors to those in the Old World and many will make this incredible journey to find a miserable future.

But hey, maybe this time it’ll be different! Right?

It’s Not Different

It is revealed by Phineas Welles, the stranger who wakes us, that those grand promises are not true. In addition, ten years have not passed, but seventy! The Hope, the vessel we have been riding in, has been “lost in the aether” and has become nothing more than a tragic story whipped up by this enigmatic Board (the parent company to these corporations exploiting the galaxy). To the current residents of the Emerald Vale (the first planet you explore), Hope is more myth than truth.

The irony in that statement alone is palpable. You’ll see why.

Corporations & Government Are Not A Good Mix. Trust Me, I’m a Bartender.

It’s only been three hours, but Obsidian writers reveal that, yes, those who came to live on these outer worlds are facing the same harrowing fate that occurred to all indentured servants in the 1600s.

Planets — at least portions of it — have become colonized and governed by wealthy investors and their corporations, such as Spacer’s Choice and Auntie Cleo’s (to name a few).

The first colonization effort you encounter is at the Emerald Vale. Spacer’s Choice is the dominating force governing an outpost called Edgewater. Acting like a proprietary colony (company selects someone to represent their needs and wants for them), the sole purpose of Edgewater is to meet a rather high quota of canned fish. Your first interaction is with the Junior Inhumer (aka Gravedigger) who will ask you to collect grave fees.

This is where it becomes very apparent why companies have no business in the creation and running of a government. For the sake of brevity, here are just a few rules to ensure “success” in Edgewater:

  • You must pay rent for your own burial plot. If you do not and you die, whoever was relatively close to your corpse when discovered must pay the fee.
  • Your body (whether alive or dead) is Spacer’s Choice property.
  • Retirement is a lottery system.
  • Taking a sick day means YOU are paying Spacer’s Choice to take those days off (which you must request four to five weeks in advance).
  • You are refused medical care if you are actually sick. You should work harder and maybe you’ll get better.

I’m floored. This isn’t even a complete list of the ridiculous laws set in place that openly views people as parts of a machine. Your goal is to be productive. If you die/get injured/sick, there are others who can replace you.

This is uncannily similar to the situation indentured servants faced in the New World.

…their life was not an easy one, and the punishments meted out to people who wronged were harsher than those for non-servants. An indentured servant’s contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant (PBS, 2014).

The punishment for those living in Edgewater revolves predominantly around debt and overall financial wellbeing.

However, there are more outright, violent consequences. You will discover there is a community of workers who have deserted Edgewater because of work/living conditions. To leave is an egregious offense, showcased when the Outpost’s Administrator, Reed Tolson, asks you to single handedly destroy this community by taking away their resources.

The Art: Fear Mongering & Authoritarian Themes

In-game art is reminiscent to travel posters that became popular in the twentieth century. On the right, image by Otto Nielsen (1916–2000) who was prolific for his artwork for airline companies.

Artwork in-game, so far, has helped serve the purpose of building upon the story and environment.

The Outer Worlds’ art lead Daniel Alpert, co-director Leonard Boyarsky, and team introduce twentieth-century poster art in-game, the style a mixture of art nouveau and art deco for the advertisement of traveling to different colonized planets. In here, highlighted aspects and wonders of different worlds are presented in these soft and colorful landscapes. The same applies to consumerism, the goods developed in outposts advertised directly to the colonists with quirky slogans.

However, what stood out to me was the poster art posted across Edgewater pushing for productivity and obedience.

The Board is utilizing different media outlets to push out a message that the colony’s wellbeing is above the wellbeing of the individual. This is not only seen through the poster art, but even from the commentary made by side characters you interact with, referring to everyone in Edgewater as “a family.” It’s not about you, it’s about us, but us is the The Board.

These posters are similar to the propaganda art pushed by both Soviet Union, China, and the United States during the Cold War. The art style is chock full of symbolic images, bold colors, and bolded letters. These posters understand the audience and push out specific messages to ensure people accept and follow a certain ideology.

Left: Anti-Communist Propaganda published in 1947. Right: Outer Worlds Propaganda

Fear mongering is present in the posters, the above a side-by-side comparison of anti-communist propaganda published during the start of the Cold War and propaganda found, first, in the Emerald Vale outpost. In The Outer Worlds, to demand freedom or to be free from indentured servitude is to welcome anarchy into your life. With marauders being a constant threat to the outpost’s wellbeing, messages such as these help keep workers submissive.

Symbolism is continued throughout these posters to drive home messages of obedience, one of them portraying dissenters (those who voice against outpost leaders and the corporations) as one of the monstrous wildlife faced in these worlds. Specifically, they are portrayed as Primals and carrying the unwilling colonist to their doom.

Posters bearing positive messaging are those glorifying the Board leaders, such as the Chairman. They portray strength and security. For the workers, advertisement of the ideal worker smiling and consuming the products created by the corporations they work at.

These are unique artistic touches that help paint an image of these corporations, current society within these worlds, and the tools they have been utilizing to ensure everyone is subscribing to a specific message: a productive, obedient, overworked worker is a happy worker. It’s a powerful way of showcasing the background of these worlds without having it be explicitly told through a narrator or character dialogue.

It works. I’m hooked.

Three hours in and I’m left with this incredible drive to topple the whole damn system. I think of rebellion in this beautiful world of clear blue skies and green, rolling hills. Of standing up and taking down The Board with my shock baton in one hand and a Whiskey Sour in the other.

As I scream into space, daring for my character to be heard, I load up the game.

PBS. (2014). Indentured Servants In The U.S. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/indentured-servants-in-the-us/.

A writer who enjoys analyzing video games. Dungeon Master, teacher, accessibility consultant, & fiction writer.