'Outer Worlds' Co-Director Says Game Was Influenced by 'Futurama,' 'Firefly'

"It’s a very dark world with dark themes, it can be bleak, but we were very adamant that we wanted it to be a fun game," Leonard Boyarsky says of his new sci-fi role-playing game.
Courtesy of Private Division
'Outer Worlds' (Inset: Leonard Boyarsky)

While much of the show floor at this year's E3 convention was dominated by new installments in existing franchises, remakes of classic games and adaptations of popular film series, developer Obsidian Entertainment and publisher Private Division debuted a brand-new title: Outer Worlds

Known for action role-playing games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II and Fallout: New Vegas, Obsidian was eager to work with co-directors Leonard Boyarsky and Tim Cain. The pair worked on the original Fallout game in 1997, and now are pulling back the curtain on their latest creation, a sci-fi action role-playing game that mixes dark humor with immersive exploration and combat systems. 

Boyarsky caught up with The Hollywood Reporter during this year's convention to discuss his latest game, the continued difficulty of pitching new, "strange" projects to publishers, his influences (Kurt Vonnegut, Futurama and the Coen Brothers to name a few) and the overhauled combat system in the new RPG.

What are the challenges of launching a new IP?

For [co-director] Tim Cain and I, the challenge was getting other people on board because we have a tendency to do things that are a little out of the ordinary and less mainstream. We’ve done it several times together — this is the third time. We work really well together and we seem to have no trouble generating these ideas and coming up with new stuff. We started in April of 2016 and within a couple months we had talked to publishers, had the basics of the world and the whole game and started bringing people in. It was a pretty easy process. Tim and I don’t really need a lot of extra communication, but figuring out how to communicate that weird attitude or tones that we’re trying to hit was a little bit of a challenge at the beginning but our writers and artists have really gotten into it.

Does having Fallout on your résumé make it easier for you to pitch a completely new game?

We’re in a very unique situation because the people who run and started Obsidian were working with us at Interplay when we made Fallout. They saw that whole process and specifically wanted us to do that same thing for them. When we were pitching stuff I do think people were interested in hearing what we had to say because of Fallout, but still, even if you’ve done something weird in the past that’s been accepted, if you go in a different direction it’s really strange to hear people say why isn’t it more like that weird thing that we didn’t care for 20 years before. It’s ironic. We found Private Division fairly early on and they’ve just been a fantastic partner.

This game feels a little bit like Fallout, but what makes it different from work you’ve done in the past?

It’s the first time we’ve done a pure sci-fi game. Fallout is postapocalyptic, which is a bit sci-fi but its own specific genre. Then we did Arcanum, which is an Industrial Revolution fantasy type of world. Sci-fi is one of my favorite genres so it’s weird that it took this long for us to make a game that is pure sci-fi. This one from the very beginning we were really concentrated on integrating companions more into the world and the story and having them interject. You’re going to talk to people in the game and if they’re trying to pull the wool over your eyes your companion is going to call them on it. It really makes the world feel like it’s a living, breathing place that has a history to it.

What were your influences for this game?

Firefly and Futurama. I’ve been watching Futurama a lot again lately and the branding in our game is very much influenced by it. We used to be big Simpsons fans and there’s a couple prominent Easter eggs in Fallout that are from the Simpsons. On the writing side, besides Firefly, I had my writers look at things like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, definitely Deadwood and True Grit. Obviously, we didn’t want to go that far, but we really wanted some of that flavor in there. I was also pushing them to read some early Vonnegut.

That’s perfect because your games all to seem to have a bit of that sardonic, dry humor in them. There’s also an odd silliness to them.

Yes. As Tim and I jokingly refer to it, that’s our secret sauce. He has this very silly, light-hearted worldview in a lot of ways and I tend to be a bit more dark, so we combine those two things. We tell our writers and designers it’s the mix of those two things. We don’t want to be too silly, we don’t want to be too dark. It’s a very dark world with dark themes, it can be bleak, but we were very adamant that we wanted it to be a fun game. How do you make a fun game in such a setting? You make it absurdist. You really lean into that.

And the other half of that is the gameplay. What’s new on that front in Outer Worlds?

We did first-person in the original Bloodlines, but this is very much about guns and science weapons and melee. We have that whole range. Obviously, we’re not going to have the kind of gameplay that Call of Duty, which is really focused on being a shooter, is going to have because we just have so much breadth. We have a history of having deep stories, great dialog, choices and all that, but we really wanted to bring the combat up to a really good level for this one.

Games seem to have a much longer shelf life nowadays. Do you think you’ll live with Outer Worlds for a while?

I’d love to continue living with this one. In the past, we’ve moved on and I’ve never done a sequel before. Well, we did the original design for Fallout 2 but we didn’t finish that one. I hope that with Private Division and Microsoft we can continue supporting this game because we really made a rich universe to play around in.

Do you think the industry has changed in that way?

For good and bad, yeah. I think sometimes there’s too much emphasis on that and sometimes you just want to say this is what it is. This should be enough. It’s weird for us, too, because RPGs, traditionally, have had very long tails. When we first made Fallout or Arcanum, we didn’t think that 25 years from then people would still be playing or talking about those games. So, it’s nice to be working on RPGs because it’s almost like we don’t have to add anything extra to keep people engaged. It comes with the territory of all the things you can explore in the game itself.