Science fiction has great potential to help people reimagine the possibilities of the world. However, the constraints put in place on the medium of videogames, and specifically the genre of action role-playing, can severely limit those possibilities. Games set in the future struggle to demonstrate radical solutions to the institutions and structures they critique and satirize because of the audience’s expectations of mainstream games and the financial expectations foisted on them by their outsized budgets. For example: The Outer Worlds and Cyberpunk 2077 are two action-RPGs set in dystopian futures where the player can only rock the boat so much.
Released in 2019, The Outer Worlds comes from Obsidian, the studio of former Interplay/Black Isle Studios developers behind Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, Fallout: New Vegas, and Pillars of Eternity. It is set in a future where antitrust laws were never passed in the U.S. in the early 20th century, so—going into the 24th century—they own the name, licensing, and governing rights of entire planets and star systems. The Outer Worlds takes place in the atom-punk world of the Halcyon solar system colony, where the Halcyon Holdings Board of Directors (the CEOs of the major corporations operating in the system) govern everything.
The aesthetic seems a bit like if that of Fallout was applied to a different sort of sci-fi future, though arguably there’s some Bioshock in there as well. Before I played the game, I thought it was like ‘if the Fallout people made Mass Effect,’ but aside from some broad similarities around space exploration and the existence of party members, they’re very different sorts of games, even within the action RPG genre space. This spacey aesthetic represents an alternate strand of retro-futurism to that of Fallout or Bioshock, showcasing the anxiety of unfettered capitalism embodied in the cyberpunk genre applied to a narrative that is less brooding and more whimsical in its visual and verbal satire, and in a setting where corporations are even more in control. Corporations don’t even need to control the state in The Outer Worlds because they’ve effectively become it. The player character has been in cryo-sleep for 70 years on one of two ships sent to colonize the Halcyon system—the other, the Groundbreaker, is now an independent citadel orbiting the sun—and is awakened by a mad scientist that wants to save the colony, whom the Board have named a terrorist.
In the introductory parts of the planet of Terra 2, players can choose either the Spacer’s Choice company (and the Edgewater Settlement) or the anarchist break-away group known as The Deserters (and the Botanical Labs north of Edgewater). The game is bold in its decision making here by forcing players to make a clear choice; direct resources to one and slowly kill the other. It is empowering and the moment has gravity because only one faction makes it through intact; members of the other group will have to join or die. After making it through the independent space station colony of the Groundbreaker, where you first meet the pirate corporation SubLight Salvage & Shipping, the next planet is Monarch (formerly Terra 1), where three settlements house three factions. Monarch Stellar Industries are a reformist corporation pushed out of the board located in Stellar Bay, the Iconoclasts are a religious anarchic set operating out of Amber Heights, and the SubLight salvage network is in Fallbrook, an outlaw town where the rich come to play.
While Terra 2 presents players with the choice to support the company town or the breakaway anarchist sect, the optimal solution on Monarch is to get the Iconoclasts and the company town to reunite because of resource reasons so that the company town can try to change the Board “from the inside.” Sublight figures into other quests on the planet, but not into this decision.
Players also meet a young troublemaker on the Groundbreaker that can join the crew. He aspires to join rebels on the planet Scylla. The leader there sends you to kill a deserter, who reveals that the rebel leader is a privateer for the Board who kills anyone that finds out he’s a mercenary (a beat similar but not identical to the discovery that the leader of the Stormcloaks in Skyrim was at one point a Thalmor asset). Leading up to this resolution, when asked about the alleged deserter’s whereabouts, his ex-wife tells the player character that anyone talking about a revolution is probably trying to sell you something. Characters within the world maintaining a cynical perspective is not a storytelling failure. It is nonetheless remarkable, if not entirely unrealistic, that two of the major breakaway leaders aspiring to live in a better world turn out to be frauds.
Violence is always difficult to avoid, and when you enter the belly of the beast—the rich Terra 2 district of Byzantium—easy to fall into by quickly falling out of favor with the Board. In this way, the game does allude to the violent nature of revolution, and the way that real struggle requires real sacrifice. In The Outer Worlds, the player does end up getting to choose Phineas Welles and a loose conglomerate of people-over-profits organizations to lead a collaborative effort to save the Halcyon colony. However, at the end of the day the player’s agency is in choosing one of two options: maintain and uphold the status quo by siding with the Board or brave into the wild unknown by siding with the mad scientist and alleged anarchist Phineas Welles. The latter is the more altruistic, humanistic, and world-changing. It just so happens that the path to get there is in line with what you would do in any other action-RPG.
It comes down to a lack of imagination that stems in part from investment requiring that games are made in a way that focuses on gameplay styles that do not mesh with radical action. A budgetary emphasis on developing combat systems means you’re not necessarily developing a complex dialogue and character-interaction system that can help you in, say, community organizing, even if the dialog system does allow for branching paths and multiple solutions to problems (usually somewhere on the talk-kill-bribe-intimidate continuum). The player is also not talking to every NPC to learn what they want for their community, rather talking to whoever in the community has already developed a level of importance and acquired resources, then doing errands for them.
In The Outer Worlds, the protagonist character (“The Stranger” or “The Captain”) are helping a mad scientist consistently referred to as a terrorist with his plan to liberate the colony, but of course you have the option to sign with the corporate elites instead, and in the meantime you interact with what amounts to local chieftains of various outposts led by Board-affiliated companies, people that have already left those companies, or upstart pirate companies. While the player can help a dock worker waiting on a package, model clothes for a designer, act in a film, or intervene on either side of a work stoppage (through conversation with the strike leader), the plot is motivated by engaging with the powerful-acting upon or defying their wishes.
In Cyberpunk 2077, there is a tendency toward a pseudo-nihilistic “radical centrism.” By adopting the aesthetic of cyberpunk, CD Projekt RED can make critiques of capitalism and a dystopian late-capitalist trajectory which, while canonically diverging from our timeline somewhere in the 20th century, is not altogether unimaginable from our current course. Nonetheless, your character’s choices are hardly revolutionary. The protagonist, V, doesn’t have the option to take down the governing corporations, or even to develop alliances among the street-level gangs that might be empowered and incentivized to do so. The player mostly operates as a freelance corporate/police lackey. It’s like GTA without the ability to acquire territory, or any manner of RPGs without getting to be the chosen one. Your character is simultaneously anonymous and a catalyst for all sorts of chaos.
In Cyberpunk 2077, the more egregious dissonance comes in part from being a larger release while mimicking the confines of the cyberpunk genre as it has been expressed to mass media—the game’s narrative thrives off overlapping neo noir tropes. And it’s not that it isn’t fun; for all the game’s many problems, I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much I’m enjoying it. But your protagonist, V, never really escapes the clutches of corporations—whether you start as a nomad, a street kid, or a corpo that is quickly dishonored and disavowed.
The intensified privatization of society in an independent city that is essentially a corporate colony like Halcyon leads to the violent freelancing that is inherent to the structure of RPGs. It makes for fun gameplay and an engaging story but also requires you to become a gunman for the police or for corporate infighting. It’s noir, it’s cyberpunk: the protagonist is operating within the confines of a cynical world, trying to make do. But, for all the problems pointed-out about specific corporations, militarized emergency forces, and the general effects of hyper-capitalism (the corpo life path starts working in counterintelligence at a weapons contractor) there’s no option in the violent power fantasy to lead the people in mass struggle.
The critique here is not that these games offer inadequate options for their medium as videogames, but that art made by major corporate entities can’t take down the systems they’re part of. That becomes more obvious with games like these; role-playing games purport to give the player power to affect their surroundings, sci-fi dystopias show their audiences the need for change, but mainstream games as they are made today can’t seriously critique the capitalist structures they exist within.
It’s hard for CD Projekt RED to say that society would be better if corporations were torn down into worker-owned co-ops; it’s hard for Obsidian not to imagine the best path is somewhere between anarchy and despotism. In a critical moment of late capitalism in real life, art here is too closely imitating life without offering a genuinely radical alternative. This doesn’t mean the games are failures (there are other reasons to make that argument, but I think they’re both fun). It just means they’re constrained because of what players have been conditioned to expect from mainstream videogames—power fantasies that don’t conflict too strongly with capitalist ideology, even when they want to look like they’re critiquing it.