Partway through Outriders, the player character—the “Outrider”—is tasked with finding a lieutenant who’s gone missing in one of the sprawling battlefields that cover the fictional planet of Enoch. The lieutenant is discovered next to a wounded enemy soldier who pleads for his life before being summarily executed by a grenade. The Outrider, no stranger to violence themself, watches with dismay as the enemy explodes into a red mess of blown-up guts and brains. “War is war,” the lieutenant says. “What? You think we just hug and—” He’s interrupted by the crack of a gunshot that sends him wheeling in place before falling dead to the ground. The Outrider sighs, picks a bit of human matter off their face, and mutters, “Why do I even bother?” before walking away, their mission complete. Gunfire continues to rattle in the distance during the fade to black.
Outriders, as this one sequence makes clear, has a singular tone. It bounces wildly between grim violence and slapstick, self-serious musings on the horrors of war and wisecracks about the same, throughout its entire plot—and sometimes within a single scene.
The story follows humanity’s attempt to restart civilization on a distant planet called Enoch after Earth has collapsed in a final frenzy of global war and environmental catastrophe. Knowing they have no other home to return to, the remnants of Earth arrive on a habitable planet that initially appears as lush and placid as a living Eden. They begin making it into a new home, remarking with wonder at its gorgeous green fields and blue skies. Then, because these sci-fi descendants have learned little from the inequities that destroyed Earth, they implement unfair systems that lead to a new war that transforms the once bucolic landscape into a hellish, First World War-reminiscent bog of mud-filled trenches lined with barbed wire and bloody fields wet with carnage and littered with rusting industrial waste.
As the Outrider, a spell-slinging, gunfighting, superpowered ex-mercenary who navigates Enoch largely by slaughtering ceaseless waves of enemies and equipping weapons and armor with ever-higher statistics numbers, this war offers both a natural career path and an opportunity for endless displays of gallows humor.
Rather than wallow in the cruelty of a humanity that can’t help but turn its second chance as a species into another, extraplanetary retread of the worst moments in our history, Outriders details its sci-fi pessimism with a kind of wry acceptance and pulp fiction glee for the stylistic excesses its post-post-apocalyptic premise affords. (There are many, many alien monsters on Enoch that simply love disintegrating into splashes of gore when they get shot, and the planet does indeed have both a sun and a moon forever hanging in its paperback-cover sky.) Its plot, when pared down to a Wikipedia-level summary, reads as nihilistic commentary on our species’ destiny. The way that plot is communicated, though, is through characters bursting with life—as ready to make a quip at the outsized viciousness of a soldier, heartlessly murdering a captive before being senselessly murdered in turn, as they are prepared to sacrifice their lives in selfless displays of action-movie heroism.
This blend of comedic genre thrills and social commentary is more than a little reminiscent of John Carpenter, early James Cameron, and Paul Verhoeven. This isn’t accidental. Game director Bartek Kmita, in an email interview with WIRED, says that he “wouldn’t point to one film or one director that was the biggest influence,” but that “a mix of this whole culture that was born in the ’80s” contributed to the game’s conception. “The gameplay is light and entertaining,” Kmita explains, “but … people realize later [that] we’re not telling a light story.” Outriders’ creators found precedent for achieving this balance in the style of 1980s movies that showed creator People Can Fly (developers of 2011’s Bulletstorm, another game notable for its dark sense of humor and action movie aesthetic,) how to “merge a quite serious story with very light and brutal gameplay.”
The player character, especially the male version of the player character, bears out Kmita’s point. He’s as cool and sardonic as one of Carpenter’s Kurt Russell characters and, at times, as goofily earnest as one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action heroes. The Outrider is always ready to accept the plot’s most outlandish turns without dwelling on their greater implications, and they have a seemingly endless supply of one-liners prepared to cap off life-or-death showdowns or acts of casual violence. This approach can (and very likely will) be read as weirdly incongruous by players more accustomed to the sober, prestige-reaching humorlessness of so many mainstream action games, but it’s also what makes Outriders stand out.
Without its pulp sensibilities, the game would have a difficult time conveying its message and not appearing at least a shade hypocritical. Even when attempting to navigate weighty explorations of humanity’s apparently instinctual thirst for violence, Outriders remains a modern third-person shooter, its narrative funneled through the meat grinder of shoot-out after shoot-out. No matter what point is being made throughout the story, it’s always packaged within or presented alongside long sequences of the player character stampeding through a battlefield, whittling down enemy health bars by unloading thousands upon thousands of rounds into snarling opponents.
A straight-faced condemnation of our species’ aggressive tendencies would have looked as silly within this context as it has in countless other nominally socially conscious shooters. As it is, the endless violence both bemoaned and promoted by Outriders appears as a shrugging admission that there’s something compelling about brutality—something as inborn and disconcerting as the satisfaction of landing the headshot that pops an enemy soldier open like a water balloon filled with gore and item pick-ups. The player is invited to either interrogate this statement or ignore it. Outriders is confident that its point is made regardless.
It would have been easier, or at least safer, for Outriders to ignore the dread that inevitably colors our era’s visions of the future. It could have kept the aliens, the gore, and the jokes and ignored any serious connections to real-world concerns. But the game’s willingness to build its sci-fi world on a foundation constructed with equal parts legitimate social commentary and pulp ridiculousness gives it a lively character that’s too often missing from modern video games.
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