Joshua Rubin, lead writer of People Can Fly's upcoming co-op shooter Outriders, was quite frank in describing his job.
“The job of the game writer is like the announcer at a strip club — you’re not what people are there for.”
He's aware that, for most players, gameplay reigns supreme, superseding music, graphics and especially story. The narratives games writers get to tell are ultimately subordinate to the play experience itself.
But Rubin also knows the power game writers wield. After all, he and lead narrative designer Szymon Barchan came to PAX East 2020 to host the first Outriders event panel by diving into the new game’s lore and story. After clarifying the difference between their roles — “The writer focuses on the character’s experience in the game, where the narrative designer focuses on the player's experience in the game,” said Rubin — the two began the talk by describing the game’s setting.
Outriders takes place in the far future, after cataclysm has forced humanity off of Earth and in search of a new home. The player takes on the role of one of the titular Outriders, an elite set of fighters and explorers sent to investigate the planet of Enoch. When they arrive, the Outriders run into a kind of devastating magical storm that breaks and distorts the laws of physics. The storm, known as the Anomaly, rends the ranks of the Outriders, killing almost all of them.
Thirty years after the Outriders first landed on Enoch, the Outriders have become a quasi-mythic force for the humans still trying to tame Enoch. The protagonist — whose appearance can be customized — wakes up into this world having been imbued with mysterious, godlike powers by the Anomaly. They’ll use those powers both to investigate an unidentified signal emanating from Enoch, and to save the human race by completing the colonization effort.
People Can Fly worked to build a fully realized world for players to explore. Part of that process came through speaking to scientists about how colonization might work in the distant future.
“We really wanted that sense of reality, that grounded-ness,” said Rubin. “So the work with the scientists we did was to really understand how a colonization would work. The way you would reuse every element of the ark ship that you brought, how the engine of that ark ship would be what powers that city.”
The team wrote 200 years of history, establishing cause and effect for everything in the game world. Rather than hide that lore, Barchan says players can discover all of it in-game through the 3.5 hours of cinematics, dialogue with other characters and supplemental reading material scattered across Enoch.
The Anomaly has had an enormous effect on the flora and fauna of Enoch, morphing it into bizarre and hostile new forms. That provides leeway for People Can Fly to design incredibly varied environments for players to explore, many of which appeared in a montage debuted during the panel. Enoch features dank swamps, honeycomb-like mountains, deserts full of abandoned wreckage, haunted forests, and floating rocks and glowing plants a la "Avatar."
That same variety appears in the weapon design. Guns from Enoch have a disturbing organic-ness to them, built from what looks like bones and flesh. That ingenuity in design proved necessary, as the team has included hundreds of weapons and armor pieces in the game.
Players experience these environments and weapons as they move through the game’s hub-and-spoke world. Certain locations serve as jumping off points into more hostile territory and delineate progress.
As they progress, players become more powerful, but they can always return to areas they’ve already completed to replay the encounters located there. Players have the option to play the game at various difficulty levels, but Outriders will reactively adapt its difficulty according to the player’s power level by default.
Although the game can be replayed, Rubin and Barchan are adamant that the team is not building a game-as-service in the vein of Destiny 2. They had a particular narrative they wanted to convey, with a single, resonant ending, and they saw an ongoing game as running counter to that goal.
“We wanted to tell a story that would hold a big fat mirror up to humanity, and would make us think about what we are capable of and what we’re not capable of as humans. Creating that story was really important to us. So, in a way, that was part of what led us to want to put the whole game in the box,” said Rubin. It’s not micro transactions, Rubin said in a predictable applause line. “It’s a macro transaction.”
Outriders’ story pits the Enoch Colonization Authority — a human governing body — against what it refers to as the Insurgents. These so-called Insurgents have been warped and changed by the Anomaly, making them more dangerous and hostile.
But the Insurgents have chosen a different name for themselves: The Exiles. This distinction indicates Outriders engages, on some level, with the politics and morality of the colonization process.
Speaking after the panel, Rubin pointed to Joseph Conrad’s classic novel “Heart of Darkness” as the game’s ur-text when it comes to imperialism, and as a powerful testament to the cruelty humans are capable of when they lack empathy. Rubin and company worked to balance that empathy with the game’s fundamental fight for human survival.
“It’s kind of this mix of trying to create them as real villains [but] at the same time that you understand why, and where they come from. A lot more of the empathy that you get comes from the journals if you want to engage with that.”
Rubin refused to say definitively whether or not Enoch was home to an indigenous population, preferring that players discover that for themselves. Square Enix did not return a request for clarification as to whether the Insurgents/Exiles were native to Enoch. Regardless, Rubin underscored the importance of empathy in the stories we tell.
“Until we can see each other as human, no matter who we are, we’ll always be fighting aliens,” he said.
Square Enix will publish Outriders when it launches on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One and Steam this holiday season.