Out in the Outer Worlds – by Nessie Smith

The Outer Worlds is a massive open world single-player space exploration role-playing game released in a staggered manner around the start of 2020. It is being played with gusto by asexual queer gamers as COVID-19 restrictions offer us an unprecedented level of excuse for indoor play—including me. Lost in transit while on a colonist ship bound for the furthest edge of the galaxy, our character in the game (you) wake up decades later only to find yourself in the midst of one of many deep conspiracies threatening to destroy the Halcyon Holdings Corporation colonies. As you encounter various factions led by potential allies or enemies with attractive asymmetrical and butch pirate haircuts in the furthest reaches of space, your character increasingly becomes the unplanned variable in this initially corporation-dominated intergalactic game of thrones. How impossible, and how important, are digital intimacies in this game?

You: Playing Ace

The Outer Worlds is being lauded across online gaymer mags, Reddit Boards, fanzines and Insta as one of the first ever ‘big’ games—perhaps the very first—to star openly asexual characters. Talk of asexuality in popular culture often explores conservative ideas on ‘virginal’ or ‘motherly’ women, depicted as not sexual, or as not sexually active—whatever their attractions are (Jovanokski, 2017). Asexual identity or a description of desire levels, however, challenges any assumption that all people have feelings of sexual attraction. It is related to those feeling little to no sexual attraction to others or interest in sexual acts; approx 1+% of people (Emens, 2014) … though statistics can be conservative for atypical sexuality constructs. Asexuality can broadly include people who to some degree feel romantic or aromantic (Deluzio Chasin, 2011). It can include a portion of those who have diverse gender identities, sex characteristics, or romantic orientations (Hillier et al., 2010; Jones et al., 2016). Engagement in actual sexual activity levels should be seen as a separate issue from actual desire due to the complex politics of relationships and many other themes (Emens, 2014).

Surprisingly what most online discussion overlooks is that the openly asexual characters in the game include not just one of your companions (more on her later). These include first and foremost the player-run protagonist: you … If you choose to accept the specific dialogue options to run your character’s script in an ace (asexual) way. There’s not much in popular culture in terms of asexual representation, let’s be honest. Perhaps Jughead Jones in the Archie comics and Star Trek’’s Spock (Wrhel, 2017)? However there has been certainly no protagonist of note pro-actively declaring Ace-hood that we as audience or player can steer and ‘be’ in an intimate first-person digital experience in mainstream media of any kind. If you play a female-bodied character you can also take on the male identity of the former commander of your ship The Unreliable ‘Alex Hawthorne’ and flirt with his computer and fuck with his gender after realising you have probably landed your escape pod on his bod accidentally killing him in some early scenes … and a variety of other surprisingly fun and gender or sexuality queering options. I’m not sure if these are ‘canon’ (developer-intended), but there’s something about this game that suggests it doesn’t matter.

There are character customisation options so you can choose your gender, your level of gender diversity (facial hair options and a range of hairstyles available to all), skin tone and features, skills and attitudes. Though some characters call you ‘The Stranger’ or ‘Captain’ initially, I can’t give you the name of your ace character to celebrate. That’s also something you get to decide; to a degree. Interestingly, across 2020 fans of the game have discovered through trial and error that The Outer Worlds censors over 500 words as names for your protagonist. These include words which could perhaps be considered politically loaded such as ‘gay’, ‘transgender’, ‘Muslim’ or even just arguably offensive or inoffensive terms related to nationalities. The list is especially notable for its inconsistencies on LGBTIQ+ and other identity-related terms. For example the list includes the banning of the Polish and German terms, and yet not the English term, for ‘lesbian’. This feels like an undeniably strange decision. Fans’ debates on discussion-boards centre on whether this inconsistency is due to the developers of the game, Obsidian, simply importing a name ban list from some generic company that maintains such terms according to country-specific regulations so the game can have a global playership? Or whether it is based on more direct context-specific efforts at making a ‘woke’ game even more woke through provincialised prevention of discriminatory slang. My guess is they probably were forced to comply with country-specific rules to get the coveted generically accessible ratings most companies crave for expanding playership and profits.

Digital Intimacy Rating: Up to 10/10.

Parvati Holcomb: Asexual Lesbian Mechanic

 

The Outer Worlds also features the first openly asexual lesbian companion—Parvati, an empathetic yet initially rather naïve mechanic. She suffers from endearing if over-the-top confidence issues. You’ll find Parvarti working in Edgewater on Terra-2, the first planet you get to truly explore. She is maintaining the Saltuna Cannery’s machinery, giving them names and seeing them as friends she cares for. It’s important to note that Parvati is positioned as the first companion option, in a game of many companion potentials. The first time you head up to speak with Reed Tobson as part of the main quest, Parvati is in a debate with Tobson about fixing machinery before your arrival interrupts them. Listen to what Tobson has to say … Parvati will then be the first potential companion to offer to accompany you. At this point in the game you can accept or decline her offer. This ‘first companion’ position is a privileged position in a massive open world game. It is most likely you will accept her above any others. To begin with, roaming Space alone is relatively boring compared to shooting up monsters with an artificial pal! Also, more people play the first portions of games than the latter portions. In addition, the option to find and really connect with Parvati is almost inevitable (save for in the 12 minute speed runs some gamers have proved doable, though this game could otherwise take months of playing for hours). Later locations and pals are far less likely to be encountered by such a strong majority of Outer Worlds players. So they don’t necessarily share the depth of character development and digital intimacy possible with Parvati.

There is also the greatest potential for you to spend much time in Outer Worlds with Parvati building up her strengths and qualities. Adding Parvati to your party adds a variety of potential skills to your team (Persuade, Lockpick, Engineering etc.). Parvati can also bring helpful fighting moves useful in the far reaches of space like slamming down her mechanically-enhanced hammer, creating a blast wave that shocks corporeal enemies and stuns auto-mechanicals (Outer World’s term for robots). You could choose to leave her as is … a fairly shy and dependent character who rarely speaks up when reprimanded and doesn’t make decisions by herself to. Or potentially, with your help—let her bloom into a go-getter declaring her feelings and preferences. Over the game if you spend enough time with Parvati you will learn that although she has had past romantic relationships, none of them lasted long. This, she explains, was due to her disinterest in the physical side of relationships. This resulted in lovers misinterpreting her as ‘cold’. Here you can choose to relate with or encourage her in her experiences and feelings. Therefore it is also most likely you’ll feel the greatest attachment to Parvati overall in the game, merely by spending so much time shooting the breeze with and reassuring this likeable and often goofy space peer (or understandably disgruntled employee; depending on your choices and treatment of her). There is potential for great intimacy with this character through the conversations you have and the sense of companionship built over what can either be a very short or very long game … you choose.

Digital Intimacy Rating: Up to 10/10

Junlei Tennyson: Groundbreaker

After leaving Edgewater with the Captain and travelling to colony ship Groundbreaker, Parvati meets and develops feelings for the leader of the Groundbreaker outpost and Chief Engineer, Junlei Tennyson. Junlei is the third generation of Tennyson leadership aboard the Groundbreaker. She is an out gay character. She has an ‘active’ dating history. Junlei is interesting for her resilience. Also for her impressive career achievements in rising from Engineer to Captainship. Moreover, for her dedication in running the only community in Halcyon operating outside The Board’s control. Junlei has an excellent knowledge of ships, so Parvati is both impressed and intimidated by her knowledge and kind, calm, confident ways. Junlei sends you, the protagonist, on some quests involving obtaining parts for repairs for the heating system on her ship (starting in the quest ‘Happiness is a Warm Ship’).

Through the Parvati-Junlei dating drama storylines (including quests titled ‘Drinking Sapphire Wine’ and ‘Don’t Bite the Sun’) you can choose to also come out as asexual/Ace. This is done sensitively not only in support of Parvati, but in your efforts to help her pursue her idol Junlei. You can help Parvati achieve a closeness with Junlei by giving advice and aid on practical aspects of their messaging and dating needs, or leave that alone. If you pursue it, warning: you’ll be putting in some hours on a large range of collection quests for items now rare across the corporate colonies (some pre-date soap here, some fancier clothing there, some delicious date-worthy ‘Dustback Casserole’ and so forth). There is also a session of poetry analysis. At some stage, some heavy first-time drinking is involved. Then there are all the pep talks and various heart-to-hearts between characters where we rake over the coals of what happened with exes named Isabelle and what-not. Some fear in the night, some happy-screams into pillows. There seem to be a few other characters competing with Junlei for Parvati’s attentions, too. These include the pink-haired haberdashery owner Celeste Jolicoeur from Byzantium’s Prosperity Blaze. Also, the incompetent engineer Thomas Kemp from the Terra-2 Botanical Labs. However Junlei is Parvati’s sole focus. Indeed, players warn that if you kill Junlei whether on purpose or by accident (some of your weapons can be unwieldy), there are dire consequences for your relationship with Parvati.

Digital Intimacy Rating: 5/10.

Ellie: The Butch Space Pirate

There are throughout the game a range of other queer-feeling couplings and gender non-normative characters, perhaps because this game is set in a future time period. In this future, generic social ties as we know them seem to be organised very differently in ways that challenge traditional familism. Refreshingly, Western society’s current gender norms are no longer really that dominant and definitely not reflected in fashion for women in particular. Some interesting characters include for example the enjoyable criminals Nelson Mayson the sartorially inspiring drug dealer, and Catherine Malin the tough rebel leader in Fallbrook Monarch. These two may sound like problematic constructions sure, but they are hardly as problematic as the many queer feeling corporate stooges and police characters … or their straighter counterparts. Nobody in space has a straightforward ethical compass. Their ‘goodness’ is often a matter of your own perspectives and values.

But perhaps most notably there is Ellie the butch space pirate. You meet Ellie inside the Groundbreaker, where you find the medical bay (Medbay). Ellie is arguing with one Dr. Mfuru about a patient, Jessie, and how Ellie wants to be able to see her but is not permitted into the quarantined zone … it feels like a romantic love story and could be ‘read as such’. But Ellie is no simple Casanova cut-out. Obviously in this endless parade of possible quests, you are given the opportunity to aid Ellie in reaching her girl, or her ‘friend’, as she calls her with shifty eyes. First you have to complete a set of collection and disguise tasks. Mainly, grabbing an ID cartridge and sneaking about in restricted areas. It turns out later, things have soured between the women and money is owed.

Completing Ellie’s quest means she can tag along with you when you have finished. Ellie is often heard making moody observations and getting into seemingly random fights with the other characters you collect in your spaceship’s kitchen. She generally spends her time providing an enjoyable visual background of heartily pissed off gun-toting space butch swagger to whatever you are all getting up to in any given scene. She keeps her cards close to her chest however. Unlike with Parvati, you will find it is much harder to get her to open up about her side quests. She is particularly touchy on her parents, and it is not easy to find out more through conversation alone. She’s generally a woman of few words, and short temper, on any major topic close to her heart or personal history. She doesn’t particularly come out as gay but then, many video game dykons don’t. To me her gender non-conforming aesthetic is pleasurable enough in adding some LGBTIQ+ diversity action on our screens and to some extent plays to the desire of gamers to interpret characters and messaging in games at will (Muriel & Crawford, 2020). She feels like a kind of space-bound K-Stew. By that I mean she would get more offended than Parvati if your character dared to prod into her sex life or force some sort of consistent narrative onto it. Fair enough.

Digital Intimacy Rating: 3/10.

Martin Callahan & Other Corporate Sheeple

Outer Worlds is arguably also a game in which its creators at Obsidian are erecting their collective middle finger at corporations … which in the game appear to have claimed the giant’s share of earnings, whilst pushing their employees to produce lesser quality products at an impossible pace. Long story short: the majority of planets and cities you can visit in Outer Worlds are either directly run by ‘The Corporation’ under ‘The Board’. A small band of rebels or misfits, fight against said corporate machine’s demands for their profits and increased efficiencies … often at a great cost to quality of life, length of life and life itself.

The people you encounter vary in their awareness of this corporation-slave dynamic and the revolutionary counter-cultures arising across the solar systems. They range from feeling a vigilante rage and pitching violent revolutionary rebellions against their corporate overseers like the anti-corporate Iconoclasts (whom you can join or lead with guns blazing); right through to feeling an irrational to-the-death loyalty to their employers. Some are literally working themselves early into their corporate-required graves after pre-paying their overseers’ gravesite fees via their own endless labour. Arguably one of the most both comical, and sad, embodiments of the latter group is seen in the character Martin Callahan. You meet Callahan, an employee of the Spacer’s Choice corporation whose own face is always obscured by his Moon-face Spacer’s Choice Moon Man mascot helmet, on the independent ship Groundbreaker. He stands dejected at a shop where he is perpetually working as a vendor of a range of Spacer’s Choice goods. He speaks with a notably exasperated voice when dealing with the player and will often ironically end dialogue lines with Spacer’s Choice slogans like ‘…it’s not the best choice, it’s Spacer’s Choice’ and ‘Taste the freedom’. Callahan has extensive dialogue options that allow you to pry into the disturbing depths (or lack thereof) of the mindsets of corporate sheeple. Upon longer interrogations, you can attempt to subvert his thinking and see how well he responds.

Digital Intimacy Rating: 0+/10… how much time are you putting into this guy?

Conclusion

Overall, whilst it could come off as a generic shoot-’em game where at times you battle plenty of space creatures and robots, really The Outer Worlds is strongly affected by the choices you make and the intimacies you develop or reject. Especially, it is shaped by your choices in either aiding corporations or any of the many factions rebelling against them, aiming at various goals and levels of independence or revolution. This all plays on the increasing emphasis on creating a sense of the importance of player agency and intimacy in modern gaming design overall (Muriel & Crawford, 2020), particularly in the Massive Open World genre.

The strong focus on the choices made around asexual characters and queer companion options probably widens the accessibility to LGBTIQ+ content given the restrictions for gaming content around the globe, and the game considers romantic or companionship intimacies more than it does direct sexual contact … and particularly the issues of not wanting sexual contact. This is an innovation I personally welcome. The corporate geopolitics of the game take up more of the characters’ headspace, as well as feelings of loyalty to people and ideas, than these factors might otherwise in a genre I find often associated with characters chasing sexual partners. You may not want to think about the commodification of your work or the structural domination of corporate entities in politics, geopolitics and even life and death. But this game will seep into your subconscious and directly make you choose whose side you are on, again and again and again. Until these questions are holistically faced. The thoroughness of the consequences for your stance in these virtual outer worlds, gives one pause when reflecting back on one’s real-world life positions on capitalism and their long-term outcomes beyond the game.

References

Deluzio Chasin, C. (2011). Theoretical Issues in the Study of Asexuality. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(1), pp.713-716.

Emens, E. (2014). Compulsory sexuality: asexuality as means to broaden antidiscrimination law framework. Stanford Law Review, 66(2), pp.345-387.

Hillier, L., Jones, T., Monagle, M., Overton, N., Gahan, L., Blackman, J., & Mitchell, A. (2010). Writing Themselves In 3: The Third National Study on the Sexual Health and Wellbeing of Same-sex Attracted and Gender Questioning Young People. Retrieved from Melbourne: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/ssay/assets/downloads/wti3_web_sml.pdf

Jones, T., Hart, B., Carpenter, M., Ansara, G., Leonard, W., & Lucke, J. (2016). Intersex: Stories and Statistics from Australia. London: Open Book Publisher.

Jovanokski, N. (2017). Digesting Femininities: the feminist politics of contemporary food culture. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Muriel, D., & Crawford, G. (2020). Video Games and Agency in Contemporary Society. Games and Culture, 15(2), pp.138-157.

Wrhel, N. (2017). The Acest of Aces: Representations of Asexuality in Fiction. (Masters of Arts in English). Truman State University, Kirksville Missouri.

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Nessie Smith is an ace bi-romantic girl presently studying for a Bachelor of Arts. Besides enjoying student-life, Nessie loves gaming, cos-play events and writing. She wastes a lot of time on vehement ‘next series’ predication debates with strangers online who share her Sci Fi and Fantasy fandoms.

The Outer Worlds was developed by Obsidian Entertainment, and the images used here are gaming screen shots credited to Obsidian Entertainment. For more on the game visit: https://outerworlds.obsidian.net/en

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