The Outer Worlds ditches romance for friendship, and is better for it

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Note: This article contains spoilers for The Outer Worlds.

In The Outer Worlds, adventures are aplenty, planets and new frontiers abound, and players are never starved for choice. Problems in-game can be solved a myriad of ways and characters can be specced out to create various builds. Players can explore vibrant alien worlds and futuristic cities for the elite, with adventure waiting around almost every corner.

Yet there’s one thing you can’t do. You can’t light some candles, crack open some cold Zero Gee Brews, and try your hand at romancing the game’s many companions.

The Outer Worlds drops players headfirst into a journey to awaken their fellow colonists from cryo-sleep when their ship is abandoned at the edge of space. You’ll have to planet-hop across the system to find the chemicals to wake them, and along the way, you’ll amass your own crew. Your crew members can help you in combat, provide stat bonuses and buffs, and even increase your carry weight. They’re crucial to your success.

And you can’t romance any of them. It’s a surprising omission, not only because it’s an option players expect, but also because The Outer Worlds’ colorful cast quickly earns your affection.

The missing romance isn’t a mistake, however. It’s purposeful. The game focuses on friendship, not romance, and it’s better for it.

The unique characters you’ll run the gambit from priests, to fearless hunters, to medics turned rogue. Many of them will invite themselves onto your ship, having their own motivations that are often completely removed from both you and your mission. Parvati, a shy yet brave mechanic clearly channeling Kaylee from the TV series Firefly, leaves a particularly strong impression.

Your mission brings you to Groundbreaker, a space station on the edge of the galaxy, operating outside the jurisdiction of the corporations. This somewhat seedy station is run by Junlei Tennyson, a no-nonsense captain and engineer trying to keep the Groundbreaker running with limited resources.

Instead of playing the part of a star-crossed lover (pardon the pun), you take up the role of matchmaker.

Parvati is visibly flustered during your first meeting with Junlei, and as time goes on, it’s revealed that she has quite a crush on the captain. Instead of playing the part of a star-crossed lover (pardon the pun), you take up the role of matchmaker. You must instill enough confidence in Parvati to pursue Junlei, and what follows is a journey across the stars to collect the ingredients for a perfect date.

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As the quest progressed, I felt something I haven’t felt in an RPG’s for years. Parvati became my new best friend. One step of the quest sent us to a bar where Parvati, who grew up in a sheltered corporate colony, had her first taste for alcohol. Throwing back a few in a space cantina with your best friend is about as charming as a side quest can get, and it perfectly encapsulates what is so refreshing about The Outer Worlds’ take on relationships.

I had the chance to poke fun at the lightweight as she downs drinks with you and another crew member of your choice. Between the jokes and good-natured ribbing, you learn Parvati is asexual, and fears her aversion to physical intimacy will cause Junlei to reject her. That’s a complex, sensitive issue that games rarely care to consider.

The Outer Worlds manages to address a visceral and genuine emotion — the fear of rejection — while seamlessly moving the story forward and putting you in a position to emphasize with Pavarti’s worries.

That moment changed my entire outlook on my crew, and my position within it. I felt like I had to look after them, even protect them.

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Many will compare The Outer Worlds to Fallout, for reasons that are obvious the moment you begin to play. When it comes to relationships, though, Mass Effect feels as relevant. In Bioware’s epic trilogy, which has an even larger and more diverse crew, you can romance many of your companions. That dynamic can change how many see their crew, and even the way they play the game.

Romance becomes gamified in ways that feel unrealistic and don’t bring you meaningfully closer to your companions. Usually, players will adventure with a suitor of choice, perhaps completing loyalty quests along the way. Eventually, the romance climaxes (perhaps literally) with a scene that may or may not include nudity. In some games, like Mass Effect, this is reinforced with achievements for having “won” your romance sequence of choice.

It’s fun to fawn over your companions in Mass Effect, or even Dragon Age, but The Outer Worlds proves strong friendships are just as important, valid, and worth exploring. Upon the mission’s completion, I realized that Parvati’s concerns felt more authentic and compelling than most romantic subplots I’ve enjoyed in games. Perhaps the formula needs to be reworked, giving players a greater reward than a sex scene and an achievement.

Maybe it’s time to move towards character stories that explore previously untapped narratives, such as Parvati’s, which offer a relatable backdrop for a personal story, instead of a future conquest. The Outer Worlds truly shows that placing just as much of an emphasis on platonic relationships between a player and companion NPCs can be as rewarding, or even more fulfilling, than a dull romance thrown in to meet player expectations.

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