Class War on the Final Frontier
The Outer Worlds isn't quite a socialist video game. But it's close.
It’s no shock that the war depicted in the new Star Wars isn’t a workers revolution. George Lucas’s neverending sci-fi franchise has always centered on a sectarian conflict between factions of aristocrats and an elite caste of holy warriors. The intergalactic masses? They primarily function as cannon fodder.
That’s a point famously made by Randal, the pop-culture-obsessed video store clerk character from Kevin Smith’s original Clerks movie. He argues that when the Rebel Alliance blew up the half-finished Death Star during The Return of the Jedi, they (probably) mass murdered thousands of tradesmen toiling away on its construction.
“All those innocent contractors hired to do a job were killed—casualties of a war they had nothing to do with,” he says. “…You didn’t ask for that. You have no personal politics. You’re just trying to scrape out a living.”
In the absence of a Star Wars prequel about the tragic fate of plumbers installing space toilets, we’ll have to settle for the video game The Outer Worlds. The first-person roleplayer out on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC is a significant departure from Star Wars and most popular science-fiction in that it’s concerned with the plight of workers in space over princesses, and eschews a traditional good-versus-evil narrative in favor of workers-versus-bosses.
When you’re not planet-hopping across the galaxy to find superweapons or bantering with wacky robot sidekicks, you’re taking down Big Pharma in space and negotiating with management on behalf of striking factory workers for better pay and conditions. The Outer Worlds’ villains don’t wear sinister black capes and shoot lightning from their hands; they wear expensive suits, sit behind desks, and spout banal managerial jargon to justify their company’s decision not to offer healthcare to their employees. In other words, the closest thing to the Dark Side in the game is capitalism, and Darth Vader is a run-of-the-mill CEO.
The Outer Worlds’ is ultimately light years away from being a socialist game, but you’d be excused for mistaking it for one.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Picket
The Outer Worlds was released in October by Obsidian Entertainment, the same developer behind Fallout: New Vegas; a 2010 game about extreme greed and vice fueling the politics of fledgling states in the radioactive deserts of post-apocalyptic Las Vegas. This time, Obsidian trades the 1950s kitsch-meets-Mad Max aesthetics of New Vegas for a marriage of the Wild West and Space Age retrofuturism to depict a distant future in which space is the final frontier for intergalactic robber barons.
The story is set in Halcyon, a solar system in a galaxy far from the reach of Earth’s democracies that’s been purchased by The Board — a formal oligarchy led by the executives of ten mega-corporations. The Board has terraformed several of Halcyon’s planets with the intention of creating a utopian colony with one pure market to rule them all. But 70 years after its founding, Halcyon is a crumbling mess of Dickensian sweatshops, cruel factory farms, and labyrinthine prison planets.
Much of the first act of the game directs you towards a kind of misery tourism through several circles of space capitalist hell. Everywhere you go, low-wage laborers are breaking their backs extracting raw materials and mistreating and slaughtering animals on the cheap for the benefit of The Board and an ultra-wealthy leisure class that lives in the confines of what’s essentially a city-sized gated community.
Halcyon’s workers aren’t just faceless abstractions. Almost everyone you meet in the game’s first half is among the rank-and-file: assembly line operators, machinists, bartenders, and lowly retail clerks. (Even SAM, your chatty robot companion is a worker — he’s a repurposed janitor bot eager to lob corrosive acid at your enemies while shining your ship on the side.) Much of the game’s first half involves listening to workers tell horrifying stories of exploitation by their bosses. Your quest is to intervene on their behalf.
One of the first areas you explore is the company town of Edgewater where those slaving away at the “Saltuna” fish canning plant aren’t allowed a day off work, even if they’re extremely weak from starvation or dying from contracting the plague. Paychecks and health care are doled out by a manager-determined “merit system,” and skipping a shift can mean being cut off from both.
“Do your work, show up, wear a smile, and you’ll get your medical privileges,” an Edgewater supervisor tells a sick worker. “Medical treatment is a privilege, not a right.”
It’s in Edgewater where you encounter Parvarti, a shy ship mechanic stuck under the thumb of her boss, a cruel man in a bowler hat named Reed. Ask Parvarti to join your ship’s crew and it helps her avoid the same lamentable fate as her father, a man who literally died from overwork on Edgewater.
When roaming the surface of the planet Monarch, you can discover the ruins of another company town abandoned by the pharmaceutical giant Auntie Cleo and the bureaucratic maze that it forced its employees to run in. Not only did Auntie Cleo force them to move to a different planet, but it also deducted the relocation costs from their paychecks. Can’t afford to relocate? You had to apply for a Relocation Fee Loan, and approval of loans requires an audit of work history. No money audit fee? Ask for an audit fee loan.
There’s no relief from the colony’s Department of Labor, which acts as a secondary corporate HR department. Rules posted in factories say that overtime pay only counts if the quality of said work is considered exemplary and automatically blames workers for their own on-the-job injuries. Even suicide is considered “damage to company property” and your next of kin has to pay a fine and a gravesite fee.
Meanwhile, the colony’s religion reifies the corporate order, and art and culture have been reduced to televised professional sports or TV series like “The Masked Marketeer,” about a super-hero who lectures villains on the wisdom of free-market economics. The patter of casual conversations comes filled with company slogans and nervous affirmations of fealty to the Board.
Some of these scenarios are mined for dark laughs. Aboard the starship Groundbreaker, you encounter Martin Callahan, a shop clerk whose entire head is encased in a leering Moon Man mask he’s been forced to wear—the logo of the Spacer’s Choice company. Ask him probing questions about his demeaning job and you can hear the quiet desperation behind stiffly delivered responses like: “As a consumer-facing representative of Spacer’s Choice, I am obligated to project honest testimony.”
What makes this explicit kind of anti-capitalist satire so striking is that it’s wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of a mass-market video game. The gaming industry — itself largely a corporate dystopia — has traditionally been the artistic medium where leftist political commentaries go to die.
Gaming is best known for paper-thin, simplistic distractions designed to steal your quarters or violent shoot-em-ups meant to titillate its primary audience of young males. They’ve long been a bipartisan scapegoat; both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have condemned them for causing moral rot in kids.
That they’ve drawn so much ire from crusading politicians is ironic considering that most big-budget games—even while trying to appear apolitical—implicitly reflect hawkish or conservative worldviews. Military violence is glorified in shooters like Call of Duty, Age of Empires is no critique of imperialism, and SimCity is like a neoliberal mayor simulator (Mayor Pete: The Game, anyone?).
In comparison, the fact that The Outer Worlds’ “end boss” is a faceless group of rather ordinary corporations feels almost radical.
The game’s creative director, of course, has been careful to say that The Outer Worlds is an “alternative history” and not a commentary on our current Gilded Age. But playing through it, my mind kept wandering to the mega-companies whose vise-like grip over large sectors of the economy and culture keeps getting tighter. Their top executives see a planet running out of new lands to exploit that won’t be ravaged by climate change and are looking skyward. If Jeff Bezos already has a grand plan to build giant space pod settlements and Elon Musk thinks he’ll have a Mars colony ready within the next decade, is The Outer Worlds’ brand of corporate dystopia really that far-fetched?
Missing the Marx
Now if only if The Outer Worlds was as good at plotting a new course for humanity as it was critiquing the one it’s on.
The more of Halcyon’s planets you visit, the more you realize that the contradictions of capitalism are leading to the eminent collapse of society. Food is scarce across the colony, for example, but instead of working to solve that problem, one corporation is trying to invent a kind of toothpaste that could suppress the hunger of workers to lower the costs of feeding them.
More workers are beginning to respond to The Board’s rapiciousness with rebellion, and Halcyon’s plight would seem to call for a revolution. But socialism in The Outer Worlds is only pursued by murderous anarchists, uncompromising religious fanatics, or opportunistic con men.
What Halcyon needs, the game believes, is you—an anonymous superhero who tries to save capitalism from itself.
You’re an anonymous colonist who’s been in cryogenic sleep for decades aboard a lost ship called Hope. That character is no union organizer empowering the workers of Halcyon to fight for their own liberation—you’re an ultra-powerful unelected outsider who determines the future for them by shooting and stealing your way to the top. Your character’s work may save lives, but it never inherently changes the relationships of production.
Taking the “bad” path means ruthlessly climbing the ranks of The Board and becoming their next CEO. But even the “good path” doesn’t make room for the possibility of a decent revolution.
According to Phineas Welles, the rebel scientist who wakes you from your Rip Van Winkle-like nap, you’re among an elite group of 10,000 colonists whose suspended animation on Hope has prevented Halcyon from achieving better outcomes. This group is made up of the missing middle classes of engineers, architects, artists, and academics.
The main quest of the “good” way to play the game is to essentially engineer a reverse Atlas Shrugged for the professional-managerial class by unfreezing everyone stuck on Hope and let them make the world a better place. You’re told the working class is too sick and beaten down by capitalism to rule themselves, and so the best-and-brightest will invent new solutions to Halcyon’s problems and become the wise, reformist-minded countervailing political force to The Board.
In the end, it’s great that The Outer Worlds has imagined an enemy different than the monomaniacal dictators and Third Reich-style fascist regimes of Star Wars and it’s ilk. It’s too bad it can’t fathom a better future beyond a benevolent technocracy.