Saturday, 2 Mar 2024

The Outer Worlds continues Fallout’s 20-year-old ‘dumb’ mode tradition

The Hope’s central computer is almost within reach, I note as I approach a set of large metal doors, easily the most heavily guarded I’ve encountered on the colony spaceship Hope. The gunmen in front work for The Board, the bureaucratic, money-grubbing, and disastrously incompetent band of corporate CEOs leading the Halcyon colony. And that’s why I’m here: Thanks to mismanagement and greed, thousands of lives are at stake, possibly all that’s left of mankind if you believe the rumors.

This ship’s cargo of Earth’s best and brightest — frozen in cryosleep for the better part of a decade now — is our only hope of finding a solution. I convince the guards I’m among their ranks, slip through, and tap into the Hope’s control hub. The plan is to jump the entire ship through hyperspace and land it by the lab of someone who can hopefully bring these colonists back to life. He’s gotten the procedure right once so far, at least: with me.

AI assistants begin to plug in calculations and coordinates for our journey, but I tell them not to bother; after all, “I know numbers real good,” so I’ll be the one programming the skip drive. Somehow, they aren’t convinced of my brilliance. They babble on about how “all the humans will die” and “these calculations don’t look right” and “why is this number negative?”

But what do they know? Blocking out the haters, I assuredly tap in the coordinates, triggering a cutscene: The Hope’s engines power up, we shoot off into hyperspace, and re-emerge unscathed … albeit on a direct collision course with this galaxy’s sun.

Well, that’s embarrassing. It seems my undoubtedly flawless logic has jettisoned humanity’s last hope to certain death. A placard pops up as we drift toward a fiery grave: “The End.” Oh, and look at that, I even get an achievement: “Trophy earned! Sunburn.”

It’s a ridiculous and anti-climactic ending that few players will stumble across in a typical playthrough of The Outer Worlds. Yet it’s one that holds true to the spirit of a tradition — one that spans more than 20 years and three studios — where various developers have been slipping a certain sort of secret into their games with little fanfare since the original Fallout was released in 1997.

Here’s how the Easter egg generally works: Typically, when a player sets their stats like strength, endurance, and whatnot at the beginning of an RPG, any relative strengths or weaknesses only influence gameplay, not the flow of the central plot (other than possibly locking players out of alternate routes if they can’t pass certain skill checks). But when you give yourself low intelligence in Fallout, for example, you act stupid. And I mean really stupid. Out of the game’s 10-point scale, setting your character’s intelligence to 3 or below (though that threshold varies in games that later continued this tradition) makes you so dumb that other NPCs notice and comment on it throughout your journey. Some of them quite meanly.

Activating “dumb” mode, as it’s called, adds a number of new dialogue options and NPC responses, and it drastically alters some side quests and completely locks you out of others — usually because you’re too much of an idiot to figure out what’s going on (and the inhabitants scrounging about a post-nuclear wasteland aren’t exactly keen to waste their time spelling it out for you).

For what’s objectively and literally a very stupid joke, it requires a ridiculous amount of commitment on the part of both the developers and the player. Since your intelligence skill influences how many skill points you net with each level gained — thus impacting how quickly you can progress through quests — opting for “dumb” mode inherently raises the difficulty level in a way that necessitates senseless grinding. Programming all the rippling in-game effects of your incompetence is no small feat, either, though that hasn’t deterred developers from including the homage in half a dozen games over the years.

Yet despite the absurd amount of effort required to achieve it, I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never related so much to an RPG as I do during these moments. It’s like some kind of dialectical self-own: While I understand that the “dumb” mode exists solely to be laughed at, I also can’t ignore how much déjà vu every exasperated sigh, every eye roll and questioning glance triggers within me. Because I have a confession to make, dear reader: I, too, can be a total dumbass.

An example of dumb mode in The Outer Worlds
Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Private Division

‘It started like a lot of Fallout things that are now canon …’

This decadeslong, elaborate in-joke all started with a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Tim Cain, one of the creators of the Fallout series, remembers telling his team about the game during the original Fallout’s development in the late ’90s. With Cain leading as Dungeon Master, another player intentionally gave his own fighter character severely low intelligence, and Cain thought it’d be a fun challenge to, as a reflection of this, require that he only speak in monosyllabic words while role-playing. The task ended up being more difficult than any of them anticipated. With the majority of the key fantasy lexicon, words like “treasure” and “dragon,” suddenly barred, communication became a game in itself.

“So there were all these things that limited how he could talk, and it was super fun playing around with that limitation,” Cain says.

The experience proved indelible as well. After Cain mentioned it off-handedly to the Fallout team, the group set to work incorporating a similarly silly mechanic into the game.

“It started like a lot of Fallout things that are now canon,” adds series co-creator Leonard Boyarsky. “It was a joke. We just thought it’d be funny, so we did it.” (Both he and Cain later led development on The Outer Worlds.)

Yet it’s a punchline that has lasted decades. Other developers at Interplay Entertainment and its subsidiary Black Isle Studios were charmed by the idea too, so much so that they went on to include a low-intelligence playthrough option in the game’s sequel. After Bethesda Softworks acquired the rights to the franchise, it continued the tradition in the mainline series with Fallout 3 as well in the follow-up Fallout: New Vegas, a spinoff developed by Black Isle veterans under the banner of Obsidian Entertainment. (Bethesda dropped the homage with Fallout 4. Asked why, a company spokesperson declined to comment.) Outside of the Fallout series, though, Cain and Boyarsky also kept up the goof at Troika Games, a studio they founded with fellow developer Jason Anderson after working on Fallout, with the two paying tribute in their RPG Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.

An example of dumb mode in Fallout: New Vegas
Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda Softworks

So what happens when you’re the biggest idiot in the room?

In Fallout and Fallout 2, a low intelligence stat triggers a cascading effect that ups the game’s difficulty far beyond combat. In addition to reduced skill growth, your character’s basic literacy skills also take a hit. Directing them to read a sign, for example, prompts a message detailing how they struggle to parse “those pesky little bug-like marks,” and the game suggests that you find something “less taxing” to do instead. While it gets a laugh, it also makes finding your way around most locations a literal guessing game. This liability extends to conversations with NPCs, too; several characters simply “talk too smart” for you to understand them, turning captions into unintelligible glyphs.

One companion in Fallout 2 becomes completely unavailable for these reasons. A chemist named Melvin that players can find in New Reno usually tasks you with gathering ingredients to help him develop an iconic drug from the series, Jet. Afterward, he joins your party as thanks. In a “dumb” playthrough, though, he only babbles gibberish, insults you, and ignores you, in that order. Most other NPCs aren’t much more forgiving; they’ll only humor you for a bit before shrugging you off as “dim-witted” and demanding that you stop wasting their time. Even super mutants, humans that boast all brawn and no brain after being enhanced by a Forced Evolutionary Virus (FEV), delight in taunting you for how dumb you are.

A low-intelligence playthrough also severely limits how you can tackle critical objectives. For example, Fallout’s final boss, the Master — the progenitor of the super mutants — typically gives players the option to join his cause before outright killing them during the last confrontation. Joining his ranks, which subsequently requires you to rat out where your vault is so he can transform the vault dwellers you were meant to save into super mutants, earns the player a “bad” ending. If your skills are high enough, you score a chance to talk him out of his plan entirely, in traditional Interplay/Obsidian fashion.

An example of dumb mode in Fallout 2
Image: Black Isle Studios/Interplay Productions

However, if you’re an idiot, approaching the Master yields only one dialogue option: to call him ugly. Well, “ugh-lee,” at least.

“I doubt even the FEV will help you,” the Master responds, thus cutting off both nonviolent means of moving forward. And since your low intelligence likely means you don’t have the skill points necessary to unlock the only other possible ending (hacking into the central controls of the Master’s sanctum to initiate a self-destruct sequence), most players are left with one choice: Mow down every last living thing.

Later homages toned down these low-intelligence handicaps significantly, focusing instead on peppering in increasingly elaborate Easter eggs available only to particularly inept characters.

“Back in the Fallout days, a dumb dialogue line really cut things off,” Cain says. “Whereas … in The Outer Worlds, we made it more into an incredibly naive character that’s not understanding what’s happening.”

Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and The Outer Worlds demarcate some of these instances with the label “dumb” next to certain speech options, though in many cases, you simply have to work them out via context. Like when a friendly Protectron robot still roaming the halls of a long-derelict Roosevelt Academy recognizes your character as a “special needs child” and volunteers to personally escort you around the building. Or when you’re getting the lowdown from an NPC about the post-apocalyptic Mojave desert’s intricately connected factions, but all the questions you can ask butcher their names, like “Flowers of Pock-Lips” for Followers of the Apocalypse and “NCR Bear” for the National California Republic.

As Nitai Poddar, one of the narrative designers behind The Outer Worlds and a fan of “dumb” mode’s previous iterations, summarizes the conceit: “It’s supposed to be a bit of a penalty, but in many cases the humor feels like a bonus.”

One particularly memorable example happens in New VegasOld World Blues expansion. At one point, regardless of your intelligence, you come face to face with your character’s brain. Even for players with average stats, the brain immediately launches into a tirade of insults and thinly veiled condescension, chastising you for somehow managing to lose it (along with several other vital organs). While it’s still every bit as patronizing in a “dumb” playthrough, players get the added option to ask why their brain sounds so smart all of a sudden, and, since it can talk, can their other stolen organs talk as well? After some frustrated attempts at explaining, your brain finally says:

“Very well, let me put this in terms you’ll understand. Brain: smart. Heart: stupid. Spine: very stupid. You: exceptionally stupid.”

(As for why the sudden jump in intelligence, the brain attributes that to catching up on some “actual literature, mind you” during your separation. That, and a significant number of Mentats.)

Occasionally, your stupidity can even result in rather fortuitous coincidences. Inexplicably shouting “ice cream!” at a security bot in Fallout: New Vegas can confuse it so badly that it short-circuits or becomes hackable. At other times, your rudimentary logic manages to — against all odds — arrive at the correct solution. In one of Cain’s favorite “dumb” speech checks in The Outer Worlds, the player can help an Edgewater resident recover from an insidious plague making the rounds by offering the following advice: “You should get really drunk. Alcohol kills germs.”

In The Outer Worlds specifically, opting for a low intelligence provides one unexpected advantage Cain and Boyarsky say they hadn’t really considered before. That “dumb” ending I mentioned at the beginning of this story — wherein I unintentionally doomed humanity by hurling the Hope into the sun — consequentially makes the game significantly shorter, which means that being stupid has since spread among Outer Worlds speedrunning communities as an optimal strategy for shaving off time.

“Overall, in terms of just simply going for the fastest time [in The Outer Worlds], the dumb ending is the way to go,” CreeperHntr, a speedrunner who beat the game in just 12 minutes using this method, told Polygon in a Twitter direct message. And while Fallout 4 may lack a full-blown “dumb” mode, players have found an homage to the tradition, the “Idiot Savant” perk, surprisingly useful as well. “You’re not stupid. Just … different,” reads the perk’s description; when equipped with it, the player receives a significant experience multiplier for random actions, with the probability of triggering this based on how low their intelligence stat is. The result, as one Reddit user broke down, is that pairing the Idiot Savant perk with a pitiably low intelligence can be a viable strategy for leveling up a character quickly.

It should be noted, by the way, that none of these games except for The Outer Worlds outright signals the way in which setting a low intelligence stat may impact your experience. The Easter egg’s very existence has mostly spread via word of mouth, shared by players who just happen to stumble upon it in their playthroughs. However, Fallout: New Vegas does include a line early on that’s arguably the closest a game comes to hinting at these consequences. After taking a bullet to the brain in the opening cutscene, you’re fixed up by a character named Doc Hudson, who walks you through the character creation process. When you pick an intellectually challenged character, he’ll lament, “Sorry, son, I fixed up your head as best as I knew how. Guess I missed a spot.”

An example of dumb mode in The Outer Worlds
Image: Obsidian Entertainment/Private Division

Taking a joke too far, far away

When continuing this tradition in The Outer Worlds, Cain and Boyarsky challenged themselves to more thoroughly flesh out the conceit to make players feel like they were playing an actual person, and not just the butt of a joke given human form. After all, as part of your character’s backstory, you begin the game frozen among the other colonists on the Hope, a hand-picked collective of Earth’s most qualified individuals. The question to answer then became, as Cain puts it, “Why would someone as dumb as you be shipped out here?”

“We didn’t want the character to be completely monosyllabic and can’t put two and two together,” Boyarsky says. “We wanted to try to come up with a different idea for what that character was. So we just went with someone who is kind of completely clueless. They weren’t necessarily … you know, they could probably read, they could probably write — but they just seemed to miss how things would actually fit together or what was supposed to be happening.”

As part of this endeavor to create a more three-dimensional idiot, the Outer Worlds team tackled building out unique options for “dumb” characters with the same tenacity reserved for more traditional builds, like those focusing on melee or stealth (albeit significantly more tongue-in-cheek). Instead of adding jokes ad hoc, incorporating “dumb mode” became just another piece ingrained in the writing process, “so you’d come up with your persuasion checks, your other skill checks, and your dumb checks,” Boyarsky says. As part of QA testing, Cain says he also asked testers to keep an eye out for opportunities to insert additional “dumb” dialogue or scenarios, and to flag any particularly long gaps between such instances.

According to narrative designer Poddar, allowing “dumb” players to accidentally skip themselves on a death cruise into the sun was “one of the very few ideas baked into our game since well before development.” As early as his second day on the job, he notes, he remembers Cain and Boyarsky calling for the option to be included, back before the Hope and its vital human cargo were even in the picture (an earlier Outer Worlds draft involved skipping an asteroid across the solar system, not a spaceship).

Similarly early on in the development cycle, the team fleshed out how “dumb” speech options would function in The Outer Worlds by writing interactions with one of the game’s six companions, a then-nascent version of Ellie. Though she would evolve into your team’s no-nonsense and morally ambiguous sawbones who’s quicker to offer sarcasm than actual help, she didn’t start out that way. The exercise was simply intended to be a proof of concept, but it ended up serving another purpose, as the game’s writers continued to cast Ellie as the de facto straight man long after they no longer needed her in that role. “So I think that became part of her personality, because we used her to test the idea,” says Boyarsky.

These tests also served as a tonal touchstone for developers and writers unfamiliar with the decadeslong joke in any of its previous forms — a way to show exactly how “dumb” of a “dumb” player Cain and Boyarsky envisioned for The Outer Worlds. When asked what direction they gave the team’s narrative designers, Cain jokes: “I didn’t write any of the dumb dialogue, but I did inspire it.”

The team also used other media as reference points — specifically, famous idiots that managed to successfully navigate that fine line between charming simpleton and moron you want to strangle.

“Having been raised on a diet of Simpsons, Futurama, and Firefly,” Poddar notes, “I just pretend the archetypal “dumb” character I’m writing for is a combination of Jayne from Firefly and Zapp Brannigan from Futurama, with a little bit of Homer Simpson thrown in for good measure.”

And the result of all this dumb dedication? In The Outer Worlds, Obsidian takes the 20-year-old goof to previously unseen heights, adding countless speech checks, new NPC dialogue, and multiple new endings for low-intelligence players. Some endings come complete with their own unique cue card during the somber final narration of the player’s aftermath that’s emblematic of most Obsidian RPGs. Sticking only to “dumb” speech options when siding with the Board, for instance, triggers the following:

“After you rescued her in Tartarus, Sophia Akande offered you any reward you could imagine. Power. Wealth. Influence. However, you were more interested in the simple pleasures in life — like the smooth, artificially enhanced flavor of a Rizzo’s Purpleberry Munch. Rizzo’s Purpleberry Munch — the only snack in Halcyon officially endorsed by the Captain of the Unreliable.”

Your character’s fate doesn’t vary much if you choose to help Phineas, either. After the final battle, he asks if you’ll help him build a better Halcyon and save it from the brink of starvation, to which “dumb” characters can offer the blasé response that they were too busy thinking about getting some ice cream to pay attention to Phineas’ request. Though it may just seem silly for the sake of being silly, this ending is actually something of an in-house Easter egg, according to Poddar.

“It’s a reference to an idea Obsidian had during NV’s development where, for a low intelligence player, the entire story of New Vegas is just ‘the quest to acquire ice cream,’” he writes. While writing Phineas’ ending sequence, it struck him as the perfect place to slip in such an homage. “I peeked into Tim and Leonard’s office and pitched my idea for the Ice Cream Ending. They loved it. I wrote it. And that’s how things sometimes get done here.”

If given the time, Boyarsky says he would have loved to make The Outer Worlds’ “dumb” mode even more immersive by including an alternate quest log specifically for low-intelligence characters. In it, all objectives would be written by the character, and thus only reflect their rudimentary grasp of the goings-on around them.

“You’re playing a dumb character and someone tells you to find a power regulator. You don’t know what that is,” Boyarsky says. “So all you write down is ‘I have to find that thing for the ship. You know — the thing …?’”

As with most other “dumb” mode quirks, it would make the game significantly more difficult, but for some people, the ridiculous level of commitment only makes the payoff that much better. That’s partly why “dumb” mode has managed to snowball so far beyond its initial scope in the original Fallout, and why developers continue to delight in keeping up the tradition. It’s the same reason why Cain and his D&D group found adhering to their self-imposed limitations fun in the first place. Sometimes a stupid joke only gets proportionately funnier the more seriously people commit to its delivery.

And while I realize that at the end of the day it’s all just an overly elaborate goof, over the years I’ve been playing various “dumb” modes and I’ve found that, time and time again, I can’t help but sympathize while in my character’s shoes. A significant portion of my professional career has required that I ask what many would consider to be stupid questions.

Because here’s the thing: Even an expert that’s at the top of their field can be absolute crap at explaining what the hell it is they actually do. (At least, in terms even vaguely comprehensible to your average person off the street.) Part of my job — first as a technical editor, and now as a journalist — is parsing that gibberish. Better yet, parsing that gibberish while everyone in the room except you has a perfectly clear understanding of what’s going on. You’d be surprised how many important questions end up getting unearthed when a layman comes in and asks: “OK, someone please explain this to me like I’m 5.”

So I’m no stranger to the blank stares my “dumb” character earns seemingly every time they open their mouth. I’ve been on the receiving end of those exasperated sighs and awkward pauses more times than I care to count. So much so that it tickles me to no end to embody such an exaggerated personification — my ultimate dumb-sona, as it were — in these games.

In all sincerity, though, after a long and arduous campaign of saving the Capital Wasteland cum Arcanum cum Halcyon Galaxy, and running around endlessly at the whim of every NPC who bends your ear, who wouldn’t want to say screw it and retire off somewhere to enjoy a snack?

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