This article discusses plot points from the entirety of Outriders.
At the beginning of Outriders’ final act, the titular player character and his group of companions discover they aren’t the only humanoid species on the fictional planet of Enoch. The premise of the game up to this point is that humanity has fled a dying Earth to start again on a new world that’s seemingly inhabited only by plants, mysteriously vicious, parasitic fungi, and animals reminiscent of giant bugs and carnivorous dog-cattle. After fighting their way into a morally compromised scientist’s secret laboratory, though, the Outrider and their friends discover a tall, wispy-haired alien held captive, a giant tube in its throat and shackles locked around its long, thin arms and legs. The scene, which marries this revelation with a predictable enough spin on Soylent Green’s famous “it’s people!” reveal, is legitimately surprising, if not at least a little bit shocking. Outriders has, until this sequence, provided no foreshadowing (other than a cryptic radio signal) that Enoch is populated by anyone other than warring factions of post-Earth humanity depressingly come to their second chance home only to immediately engage in an endless battle for control of the land. Now the audience learns that there’s another highly intelligent species on this planet, and the humans have reacted to this knowledge by keeping it captive and subjecting it to brutal experiments. The imagery would be more disturbing if it didn’t involve a ragtag group of space soldiers helping to free a magical alien from the clutches of a mad scientist—if a moment of actual horror wasn't communicated through cartoonish characters removed by several degrees from real humanity.
The presence of this alien and the other extraterrestrials the player is soon to meet introduces a level of social commentary that Outriders delves into with an energetic faith that it’s now saying something quite important. The aliens are dubbed the “Pax,” hilariously, because they’re as uniformly gentle, trusting, and instinctually docile as bipedal lambs. They've been enslaved by a mad human expedition leader named Commander Monroy—a Kurtzian figure who reigns as cruel despot over the human colony that predated the Outriders’ own landing on Enoch+. The end of the game, fittingly, unspools as a Heart of Darkness retread in miniature. Monroy has, like Kurtz in the Belgian Congo, set himself up as the head of a brutally unequal society whose evils mirror those of the colonial Europeans described in Joseph Conrad's novella. Before credits roll, the player has uncovered notes detailing Monroy’s use of the Pax as a slave labour force, passed through a concentration camp, and learned of the humans’ attempted genocide of the aliens. Alongside clear evocations of historical subjects as monumentally horrific as the Holocaust and Europe’s colonization of indigenous nations across the world, Outriders explains that the Pax can communicate with supernatural storms and transform into mindless killing machines called “Ferals” when afraid for their lives.
It seems natural that these kinds of details produce a sort of wincing discomfort. Outriders clearly wants to use its otherwise delightfully schlocky sci-fi story to warn about the dangers of repeating the past—of humanity receiving a cosmic second chance only to replicate the worst of our history. And, to its credit, Outriders succeeds more often than it fails in communicating this idea. Throughout its first dozen or so hours, the game builds good will through a pulpy tone so effectively established it often calls to mind Carpenter and Verhoeven movies—loud, fun action whose big explosions, deadpan comedy, and splashes of gore act as vehicles for a largely cynical message about our species’ apparent inability to learn from its mistakes.
The basic thesis, that humanity is unable to help itself from creating systems of inequity that lead to eternal wars, is established well enough without the Pax subplot adding further, more historically specific details. Outriders already argues for the instinctual pull of violence and violent resource extraction in its marriage of goofily brutal gunfights and use of the consumerist, ever acquisitive “loot game” design that sees players chasing new gear with slightly higher numbers or more tantalizingly infrequent discovery rates. (Old gear in the game is marked as “junk” by pressing in the right thumbstick then holding a button to break it down into crafting parts, which is at least an encouragingly optimistic form of recycling.) Players are shown the joy of being a demigod warrior, superior to the rest of the battlefield, in actual play: One of the “Devastator” class's first abilities is a move that allows them to teleport into a group of enemies, so they explode wetly into an volcano eruption of blood and guts. Another, the charmingly named “Impale,” causes stakes to burst from the ground and pierce opponents through their sternums, leaving them a collection of limp, hanging limbs until their bodies disappear to clear room in the memory for more enemies to arrive. Each firefight is another delirious celebration of wanton violence that instils without asking outright the question of how the player can condemn the miseries of war portrayed throughout the game’s dismal, corpse-strewn battlefields when it’s so essentially fun to be the voracious master of those same hellscapes.
Combined with Outriders’ premise of cyclical apocalypses, this style of design does more than enough on its own to substantiate the game as a clever, implicit statement piece whose themes can be read into as deeply (or as glancingly) as a given player wants. When it slows down for a finale filled with instantly recognizable genocidal imagery, though, it feels like a step too far in a plot otherwise dominated by fantastical trappings.
Videogames should be as willing to delve into disturbing and uncomfortable subjects drawn from the real world as their creators wish, but it often feels like the mainstream is unable to do so without couching its exploration of these topics in cartoon fantasy. This aesthetic choice too regularly comes across as much as a distancing mechanism as it does a paradoxical struggle to both accept and deny an audience’s maturity. A game that wants to earnestly explore the evils of an unvanquished Nazi empire must also contain head transplants, giant robots, and spaceships++. Other series that look to examine violent self-interest, generational trauma, or American exceptionalism must also include fungus zombies and floating sky cities. Despite the varying quality of these games, they all share a kind of knee-jerk reliance on genre hooks as a way to navigate (or perhaps even soften) the impact of the subjects their stories are based upon. Even videogame explorations of mental illness and death largely rely on cartoonish metaphors as storytelling devices.
Of course, the success of this sort of approach varies wildly from game to game, depending greatly on whether a project is conceived with its thematic vision’s suitability to format in mind, and it’s going too far to lay the sins of a medium’s blockbuster expressions at Outriders’ feet, especially when the bulk of its runtime illustrates how cartoonishness can be used in more tasteful but still thematically weighty ways. But, the pang of unease that comes from seeing sci-fi alien corpses arranged to replicate the real bodies of Holocaust victims—the sort of repulsion sparked by a comic book movie’s villain visiting Auschwitz or a superhero fighting across the abattoir of a literal First World War battlefield— should be interrogated as part of a trend in genre fiction that deserves scrutiny, if nothing else.
In this sense, Outriders may be most useful as an example of where a line might be drawn. It’s an illustration of the limits of mainstream-friendly genre abstraction, one that’s enormously capable at making the most of its design and tone until it suddenly isn’t. Understanding when that shift occurs, and why, is valuable.
+ There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent here that positions the Pax as either hopelessly naïve on a biological level, willing to worship and serve the humans as gods, or relentlessly, unthinkingly murderous. As stand ins for colonized peoples, this characterization is more than a little troubling.
++ This aspect, to be fair, is one of nü-Wolfenstein’s least pressing failures as a narrative project.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.