In the middle of the repetitive, largely incoherent story of People Can Fly’s Outriders, there is a moment that stood out to me.
The main character, a superhuman infused with alien goo, finds one (of many) sidequests littered around the disconnected hubs – a man is down on his luck and owes a local gambler money. The main character agrees to help and goes to see the gambler. It’s clear that the gambler is underhanded and the odds are stacked against the player, but they still agree to compete in Russian Roulette to clear the debt.
The gambler spins the barrel of the gun, puts it to his head, pulls the trigger and it gives an empty ‘click’. The main character takes the gun, pulls the trigger and… it fires, causing the character to slump forward, dead. Before the gambler can celebrate, the alien goo that empowers the character brings them back to life and they hand the gambler back the gun.
The character reasons that if this is a fair game, there is only one bullet, and it’s just been used, but the gambler hesitates.
“Pull the trigger, or I will.”
The gambler pulls the trigger and kills himself.
As the audience, we are supposed to look at this as the gambler getting what he deserved, but for me, this was the only time that the narrative properly married with the way Outriders is played — a moment of ludonarrative lucidity, if you will.
Every scenario in Outriders has up to three of these super characters walking into a series of areas filled with chest-high walls before taking on large numbers of enemies, and each of them has a litany of abilities that allow them to walk through a hail of fire unscathed. It becomes clear early on that the walls are meant as cover for the enemies, not the player, because the player is essentially a death-dealing force of nature.
One ability erects a mobile barrier that absorbs bullets and then reflects them back. Another will tag an enemy and then, once killed, turn them into a bomb that obliterates those around them. On top of that, each time these skills are used, they heal the wielder. In many instances I would have my character launch into the air, come crashing down on a mob, turn on a pulse ability that drained life from everyone around me, and then absorb their bullets as they desperately fired. The reality is that every bullet made me stronger while turning deadly to them. Through action, they were accelerating their own demise.
Outriders is not the first looter-shooter where the player is gifted with superpowers, and it’s certainly not the first game to treat the majority of enemies as canon fodder. However, the way in which the character’s devastating abilities are presented as the ‘fun’ button – to be pressed every 5-10 seconds – removes it from its peers. Sites like Reddit have referred to Outriders as a power fantasy, and I think that if you look at it from that angle then, sure, that works. However, that viewpoint ignores the antipathy almost everyone in the game’s world has for the main character as their power comes at the loss of their humanity.
Whenever the character shows up in a new area, almost everyone they encounter is immediately hostile to them, or at least disgruntled by their presence. This is repeated thematically over and over again — the character is met with suspicion, with people only interested in them as long as there’s something that these powers can offer them. The main character is not a person to them, but a weapon to be pointed at enemies. In this context, the player character is Godzilla climbing up on the shores of Tokyo, and the enemies are specks desperately, ineffectually trying to turn back its tide of violence.
The closest game I can think of that approximates the player’s role in Outriders is Carrion (the recent ‘reverse horror’ featuring a carnivorous tentacle blob) but that at least manages to evoke sympathy for an inhuman monster as it has been rudely awakened and only wants to escape from its human captors. Every time the main character in Outriders goes to a new location, the player cuts a bloody swathe through it — the main character’s presence is an unsympathetic menace that recalls the violent entrance of Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope.
With television and film currently brimming with ‘what if a superhero was bad?’ concepts (The Boys, Invincible, Brightburn, the Snyderverse in general) it seems inevitable that games will do the same. Whether intentionally or not, Outriders has laid the foundation for this by not being a power fantasy in the conventional sense, but by instead positioning the player’s character as a thing that happens to enemies and there is very little they can do about it.
The game delights in this gruesome inevitability, and in a macabre way, so do I.
He can be found on twitter, where he welcomes screenshots of Dreamcast games and talk about Mindjack, just don’t mention that one time he was in Canada.