Starfield v. The Outer Worlds, the New Fallout 3 v. Fallout: New Vegas

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With the new Fallout television series on Amazon Prime having been released this past week, I felt a strong pull to revisit what I consider to be one of the most fascinating “double-takes” in gaming history; the comorbidity of game development between Bethesda Softworks and Obsidian Entertainment. These two game studios have worked on entries in the Fallout universe and have seemingly taken similar paths with other games, whether intentionally or not. Role-playing games have long been associated with the most dedicated video game players as these titles typically boast over twenty hours of content to be experienced during a single playthrough.

There are a handful of companies that have become household names for role-playing game (RPG) fans. It is nearly impossible to discuss this genre without at least mentioning games such as Dragon Age (developed by BioWare), Kingdom Hearts (developed by Square Enix), and The Witcher (developed by CD Projekt Red), among others.

Two of arguably the most renowned RPG developers today are Bethesda and Obsidian. Bethesda’s iconic Elder Scrolls series launched the studio into mainstream notoriety for creating fantastical open-world RPGs. The series’ third entry, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, sold four million copies by 2005, three years after the game's release. Obsidian’s origins of fame come from their 2004 release of Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords which sold over one million copies by 2008. 

Seeing the success and talent of Obsidian, Bethesda approached the team with talks of working together on the following two entries in the coveted Fallout series. Bethesda wanted to expand the series from tactical-style games to a more open-world adventure just as they had done with the Elder Scrolls and the release of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. With these ambitious goals in place, Bethesda began the development of Fallout 3 while Obsidian began working on Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout 3 officially entered development in July 2004 and was released four years later on October 28th, 2008 to raving critic reviews. After purchasing the intellectual property from Interplay Entertainment who made the first two games, Bethesda aimed to reshape the series from its isometric action-point style roots into the blockbuster RPG franchise that it is today. One of the most prominent and long-lasting innovations made by Bethesda was the implementation of the V.A.T.S. system which allowed players to target specific parts of enemies during combat to increase critical hits. This game mechanic has been in every subsequent Fallout game and has become a critical part of many players' adventures through the wasteland.

Fallout: New Vegas had a significantly shorter development time of eighteen months. The game was announced in April 2009 and was released in October 2010, yet again to critical acclaim. The team at Obsidian continued the “West Coast” storyline of the Fallout universe, setting the game in Las Vegas, now known as “New Vegas” in the post-apocalyptic timeline. However, Bethesda rejected Obsidian’s proposal to have the game take place between the events of Fallout 2 and Fallout 3. In continuing with Bethesda’s ambition to bring the series to new heights, Obsidian broke the record for the largest amount of dialogue in a single-player game, having an estimated 65,000 lines of dialogue. 

Even still in 2024, fans look back on Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas as the crown jewels of the Fallout franchise, constantly comparing new releases to them. While 2015’s Fallout 4 was also released to strong reviews, many players could not help but to point out things that were seemingly lacking in comparison to the previous two games.

In an article posted by Kotaku in March 2023, author Patricia Hernandez summarized the shortcomings of Fallout 4 saying, “[C]ompared to the other Fallout games there’s something missing. Unlike the others, role-playing and world-building aren’t as important in Fallout 4. Instead, Fallout 4 seems more concerned with keeping you busy shooting stuff and finding loot.” While Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas worked to launch the franchise to new heights, it seemed as if Fallout 4 opted to attempt to hone in on the innovations made previously, for better or for worse. 

After sending fans to Nordic-inspired fantasy realms via the Elder Scrolls and nuclear wastelands in Fallout, Bethesda and Obsidian moved to the next frontier: outer space. In 2018, they announced their plans to create their own RPGs set in space. At Bethesda’s E3 showcase that year, they presented the audience with a short, frankly vague, cinematic teaser trailer. The one-minute trailer only highlighted the game’s title and galactic setting, but fans quickly pointed out how significant this game was considering that it was the developer’s first new intellectual property in twenty-five years.

Online forums were booming throughout the rest of the year talking about the possibilities, both good and bad, for the new game, and rightfully so. Some fans were hopeful for the new direction that Bethesda planned to take, while others were wounded by the realization that this meant Elder Scrolls VI, which has yet to be released, would not be coming any time soon. Starfield, as the game was titled, had captured the intrigue of game enthusiasts around the world with the initial trailer. 

The excitement waned over time as development seemed to drag on. When Starfield was released in September 2023, players quickly pointed out how the game felt lacking in personality, comparing it to No Man’s Sky at its launch. The limited use of space travel was also criticized as fans were expecting to be able to explore the galaxy at will. Despite the issues, the game sold three million copies outside of Xbox Game Pass downloads during the first month of its life. When Bethesda announced Starfield in 2018, it is unclear whether or not they were aware that Obsidian had a similar card up their sleeve.

At the Game Awards 2018, Obsidian announced their own RPG set in outer space, The Outer Worlds. The announcement trailer shown was significantly more informative than Bethesda’s E3 announcement had been. Instead of a one-minute teaser keeping the story as hidden as possible, this trailer showcased a glimpse into the game's narrative and reminded fans of Obsidian’s affinity for humorous dialogue. Unlike Bethesda’s space RPG, The Outer Worlds was released ten months later in October 2019. Having seen the announcement for Starfield just six months prior, audiences could not help but wonder if this would be a situation akin to Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas close to a decade ago.

I cannot help but notice numerous parallels between the Fallou 3 /Fallout: New Vegas era and the Starfield /The Outer Worlds era. The most obvious similarity is that, once again, Bethesda and Obsidian worked on incredibly similar titles within the same timeframe. In the early-to-mid 2000s, both studios were hard at work expanding the Fallout universe. Both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas were immensely successful in bolstering the franchise's popularity, helping to pave the way for Bethesda and Obsidian to continue developing exciting games for new and veteran gamers alike. In a similar vein, while not nearly as successful as the Fallout games, Starfield and The Outer Worlds proved that the RPG genre still has an infinite number of possibilities for future games.

Another similarity of note between these four titles is their fan reception. In both the cases of Fallout 3 /Fallout: New Vegas and Starfield /The Outer Worlds, fan reviews show a greater appreciation for the Obsidian-made games than the Bethesda ones. The people who have poured dozens of hours into these games agree that Obsidian’s character development, narrative structure, and world-building outshine Bethesda in these specific instances. In reference to Fallout: New Vegas, one user left a review saying that the game “sets the bar for RPGs in the 2010s. Excellent combat and story, the dialogue is wonderfully immersive (with Fallout's signature darkly comedic sensibilities), you won't find any other Bethesda game that feels this immersive to play,” (Metacritic).

Moving to reviews of The Outer Worlds, one user said that the game “[is] on a smaller scale in terms of pure size, as there are multiple smaller areas to explore, rather than one extremely large area like Skyrim or Fallout 4. The combat is probably my biggest criticism, but the dialogue, characters, story, and world-building are so fun,” (Metacritic). Fans of the expansive RPG genre of games, myself included, continually praise Obsidian for their linguistic strengths, and rightfully so. They have proven time and time again that they understand how to make characters who will force the player to think critically about choices as well as narratives that truly do shape themselves around the choices made by players. That level of attention to writing is hard to find in the majority of video games but is always appreciated when found. To put this into perspective numerically, we can visit the chart below:

Posted by App Trigger on Monday, April 15, 2024

So, what does all of this mean? Should we take these four games and definitively say that one developer is better than the other? In short, the answer is no. While it is interesting to examine how fans perceive these games, Obsidian and Bethesda each have their unique appeal that cannot be quantified, no matter how hard we may try. The “battle” between Bethesda and Obsidian gives them more reason to pursue high-quality titles with replayability and fully-fleshed worlds. This is so much better than the alternative of them not having as much direct competition and, in turn, pursuing quick cash-grab titles (à la mobile gaming or live-service initiatives). 

Bethesda has shaped the landscape for RPGs in gaming for decades, it would be short-sighted to see two specific games and immediately say that the insinuation is that Obsidian is better. While I prefer Obsidian’s humor/dialogue and character systems better, I like Bethesda’s overall gameplay and stories; the latter is more important for the game's longevity and replayability.

How do you feel about Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, Starfield, and The Outer Worlds? Personally, I intend to jump back into Fallout: New Vegas this weekend as I watch the new Fallout television show. Thank you for reading, and as always, game on friends!