By Alex Wakeford
Obsidian’s latest RPG released just a few short weeks ago, but it’s already made a cosmic impact in the industry – exceeding the expectations of publishers Private Division and Take-Two critically and commercially.
This week, Universally Speaking looks at how The Outer Worlds revolutionises romance in mainstream gaming through its sensitive and authentic handling of representation.Last year, I recall feeling some degree of disappointment when Obsidian announced that their next big game wouldn’t feature any romances with the player character.
It’s something that we’re used to now, right? It’s rote. Even Assassin’s Creed had it as one of its most marketed features for its latest Grecian outing.
Having grown up on Bioware RPGs (from KOTOR, through countless replays of Mass Effect and Dragon Age) my first impression was that this was unfortunate news, which wasn’t helped by how quickly I was won over by the companion characters in The Outer Worlds.
But what Obsidian neglected to mention was that they were going to do something better.
Enter Parvati – the first member of your crew that you’ll recruit (unless you choose to go it alone, or with a select few companions).
She’s a shy mechanic with the most wholesome heart of gold, and to tell you the truth I have yet to swap her out of my party. It’s always Parvati and ‘someone else.’After completing the first stage of the game, repairing your ship to explore the rest of the system, you’ll find yourself heading to the Groundbreaker (depending on your choice of where you want to go).
This was a colony ship that has been converted into a space station, one that operates outside of the suffocating reach of the Board.
Parvati (voiced by the marvellous Ashly Burch) directs the player to the Groundbreaker because she’s interested in pulling her weight as part of the Unreliable’s crew. She’s an engineer but has little experience with performing maintenance on starships, so she directs you to Captain Junlei Tennyson who she believes she can learn from.
But she quickly finds herself swept off her feet by Junlei, stumbling over her words and generally conveying the sense of being a canid in headlights.
From there, Parvati’s personal quest is about trying to set her and Junlei up on a date – her mutual interest is articulated in a similarly awkward fashion through the most deliciously kooky love poetry that Parvati runs in circles trying to interpret.
You’ll also head to a bar with her to talk things over with varying amounts of alcohol (how much depends on your choices – are you sensing a recurring theme here?), and it is here, if you’ve grown close enough with her (depending on your ch), that Parvati confides something personal to you.
“I’m not much interested in… physical stuff.”
Parvati is an asexual lesbian.
It’s not “alluded to,” or “hinted at.” The Outer Worlds doesn’t mess around; you don’t have to squint to see the representation.
Parvati fears that her lack of interest in sexual intimacy will result in Junlei rejecting her – if not now, then at a later point when what isn’t seen as a problem now suddenly becomes one.
Suddenly, The Outer Worlds became more than a comically larger-than-life sci-fi RPG, but a comically larger-than-life sci-fi RPG with an emotionally honest heart.
According to Kate Dollarhide, Narrative Designer at Obsidian, Parvati was written as an ace wlw “from the jump.”
It is this diligence and passion towards authentic and meaningful representation that we ourselves at Universally Speaking strive to ensure is part of our own process in ensuring we work with narratives that push for inclusivity and representation as we bring these stories to an international audience.
Asexuality is something that often goes either terribly misrepresented (as ‘alien’ or ‘childlike’), or is ignored outright.
When this kind of trend develops in how queer identities are represented in (or erased from) media, it sends a clear message.
“You don’t count.”
It’s unhelpful when we describe things like dating, sexual attraction, and falling in love as universal human experiences because the reality is that they’re not – some folks aren’t wired that way and that difference does not make them in any way ‘lesser.’
It’s worthwhile bringing up the difference here between asexuality and aromanticism, as these can be broad spectrums. Simply: the former refers to people who don’t experience sexual attraction, while the latter refers to those who don’t experience romantic attraction – these things are often mistakenly conflated.
Parvati is asexual, but she has romantic feelings. Hearing her confide to my character that previous experiences with romance had gone badly was heartbreaking, saying that her lack of sexual needs left former-partners calling her “cold,” when she stands out in this setting for having the warmest and most caring heart.Upon being told this by Parvati, you get five dialogue responses to choose from.
This is surely where it stumbles, right? This is a choice-based game where you can be a real nasty piece of work at the player’s whim – in which case, you assuredly won’t be somebody Parvati trusts.
But no, none of the dialogue options are dismissive of her. In fact, you can even tell her that you’re asexual too, to which she responds with:
“You’re… like me? So we’re… kin-like. That makes me — well, unaccountably happy, Captain. It’s a lonely thing, being different like this.”
Many queer fans can undoubtedly relate to Parvati’s words here. She’s had nobody to talk to, no support network, no way to share her experiences and feelings. She was alone, knowing only that she was different…
What follows with this quest is a star-hopping odyssey where you can help Parvati acquire everything she needs for the perfect first date.
And, in the end, there’s a happy ending for them – something a lot of media fails its queer characters and audience with, subjecting them instead to some gruesome death instead and closing the book on them.
After your cosmic adventure, Parvati and Junlei stay together on the Groundbreaker, accepting and embracing each other for who they are.
Turns out, ‘Goundbreaker’ is a pretty fitting name for that ship!Among its brilliant design, storytelling, and worldbuilding, The Outer Worlds transcends as a major mainstream title with authentic, sensitive, and compelling representation.
Becoming a cosmic matchmaker for a character who effectively (and effortlessly) became my best friend is something that I found myself far more emotionally invested in than chatting up a companion for an awkward sex scene and achievement.
The Outer Worlds focuses instead on building a strong, platonic relationship, which, it turns out, is a much-needed (and welcome and wholesome and amazing and) evolution of how Player-NPC interaction is framed.
It’s truly unlike anything you’ve probably seen in games outside of the market of dating simulators from indie developers.
There’s a wonderful quote from Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s show-defining episode ‘The Measure of a Man’, where he says (as his individuality and personhood is held in question):
“I am the culmination of one man’s dream. This is not ego or vanity, but when Doctor Soong created me, he added to the substance of the universe. If, by your experiments, I am destroyed, something unique – something wonderful – will be lost. I cannot permit that. I must protect his dream.”
This is one of those landmark moments that sets a new standard in the industry for representation. This is something that adds to the substance of the universe.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go and pick up some sweetheart cakes from Monarch…
“Lost in transit while on a colonist ship bound for the furthest edge of the galaxy, you awake decades later only to find yourself in the midst of a deep conspiracy threatening to destroy the Halcyon colony.
As you explore the furthest reaches of space and encounter various factions, all vying for power, the character you decide to become will determine how this player-driven story unfolds.
In the corporate equation for the colony, you are the unplanned variable.”
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