I’ve been playing The Outer Worlds over again recently and while I’m enjoying this playthrough so far, I’ve noticed something crop up that caused me to pause the game and start writing this. That thing is cannibalism, and I started thinking a lot about it during the quest Slaughterhouse Clive. In short, I don’t like the way that Outer Worlds uses cannibalism as a plot point or twist in its quests, and to explain why I’ll be comparing its usage in this game to how it was used in quests in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. While comparisons between Outer Worlds and the Fallout series are extremely common – almost to a detrimental degree – the reason I’ve chosen these two games is that cannibalism’s use in them is executed in a different and much more impactful way. When I talk about cannibalism as a plot point, most times what I mean is its use in quests as some kind of extreme immorality or nefarious evil that the player uncovers or interacts with.
I’ll start by introducing the quests in The Outer Worlds that are the subject of this post: The Secret People and to a lesser extent, Slaughterhouse Clive. While the wiki articles hyperlinked go into much more detail, I’ll give a quick overview of each quest here. In The Secret People, Velma tasks you with finding one of her employees, Braxton. Upon investigation, you learn that Braxton has been delivering medication to the Mather family, who live in a house outside of Stellar Bay. The Mather family denies knowing Braxton but invites you in for dinner regardless (locking the door behind you). As you explore the house before dinner, you discover that Braxton has been poisoning his drug deliveries to the family after learning that they are cannibals. Once he confronted the Mather family about their behavior, they murdered him and have been slowly eating him. You then have a couple of options for resolving this quest, primarily by escaping silently or by confronting the Mather family and killing them. In the second quest I’ll be discussing, Slaughterhouse Clive, Catherine of Sublight asks you to take over a boarst factory nearby owned by Clive Lumbergh. You can take a few different paths to sneak into the factory, and then choose to either sabotage the factory or kill Clive. An alternative option is also to convince Clive to work with Catherine, and one way of doing so is calling out his cannibalism and using it as blackmail if your Medical skill is high enough.
My issue with The Secret People stems from a feeling that the realization that the Mather family are cannibals doesn’t come as a shock or carry any emotional weight. The main reason for this is that for there to be a solid shock or emotional factor, there has to be a buildup of tension somehow. But instead of feeling tension or mystery, I felt like I was just roaming around another interior, looting and reading logs, until I happened to stumble upon a body. The confrontation with the family also leaves much to be desired; your options are basically to lie and say you saw nothing, escape silently, or attack the family. You learn very little about why the family are cannibals and have no influence over potential other outcomes. The Mathers being cannibals comes at even less of a surprise if you have played Fallout 3; in fact, almost immediately after the door locked behind me and the family told me to stay for dinner, Andale was the first thing to come to my mind. I think this quest could be improved if there were other options to resolve the situation, such as offering to supply them with drugs or attempting to convince them to give up their ways. But as it stands, this quest feels very predictable and the “realization” that the family is cannibals just doesn’t seem to hold a lot of weight for players.
Slaughterhouse Clive is a bit of a weird one. I actually skipped past the dialog options that called him out for cannibalism at first because I had no reason to suspect him. You can first point out the blood on his shirt, and if your medical skill is high enough you can call him out as a cannibal and use it as blackmail to get him to work with you. The issue here is that there was no strong inclination that Clive was a cannibal to begin with other than dialog options. All I saw upon walking into the room was him, covered with blood, cutting up what looked like some kind of meat on a table – but this does not imply cannibalism on its own. So when the dialog options to call him out started popping up, it felt very unexpected and I thought I had missed something important. I also felt like Clive being a cannibal just didn’t really add anything to his character, and if anything diminishes the weight of cannibalism as a plot point or story twist. I didn’t feel like a detective that just uncovered some dark secret that I could use as blackmail, instead I just felt like I had been lucky to click the right dialog option. Remember also that both of these quests take place on the same planet – I happened to do both of them in the same play session, which just made me frustrated and felt like cannibalism was being thrown onto characters for shock value and not much else.
After talking about the shortcomings with these two quests in The Outer Worlds, I’ll shift focus to the quest Our Little Secret from Fallout 3, which I briefly mentioned earlier. I won’t summarize the quest or talk a whole lot about Andale because there’s just a lot to cover, but in a way that’s sort of the point I want to make here. Andale and the four families that live in it (as well as Old Man Harris) have a ton of lore to them. And while having more lore doesn’t make this quest better on its own, the presence of all of this information makes the cannibalism present among these families much more impactful. Andale is a very creepy town, and the families within it also have very peculiar behavior, which immediately draws players into uncovering a mystery. Old Man Harris also plays a very important role in building the tension and giving the players incentive to pursue the quest, as well as offering more satisfying resolutions to the quest that The Secret People didn’t have. Our Little Secret is a larger quest, and as such offers many more interactions between characters, worldbuilding, and methods for solving the quest. Once you are confronted by the families, you can side with the cannibals (which is enhanced by a cannibalism perk), kill them, or look the other way. If you choose to kill the parents, you can choose to bring the kids to Old Man Harris who will “raise them right”. The consequences to this quest feel much more heavily weighted, and that is why I think cannibalism’s role as a plot point here is much more impactful.
Another quest that I feel integrates cannibalism well as a plot point is Beyond the Beef from Fallout: New Vegas. This is another quest with a plethora of lore that can’t be explained here, but like The Secret People it also starts with a missing persons case. This quest also offers the player much more control over its outcomes and drags the player deep into White Glove Society lore that turns this quest into more about their group than finding Ted Gunderson. The player learns of the Society’s cannibalistic past and reveals rising tensions between its members over whether or not they should return to that behavior. The player has a plethora of choices to make with various moral and world implications, which is a quintessential aspect of role-playing games. For example, the player can find the original victim and free Ted, agree to use Ted as a meal, find a human flesh alternative, or even sacrifice their companion as a meal for the Society. That’s just if the player agrees to help Mortimer; if not, you can poison the Society’s wine, expose Mortimer as a cannibal, or just act as an investigator. This quest is truly massive, but it ends up being less about cannibalism itself and more about what is the “correct” way to deal with Mortimer and the Society’s urges for human flesh. This is why I think the idea of cannibalism is used so well here – it’s not being used as an objective evilness, it’s being used as a way for the player to truly think about the best way of handling a situation with a bunch of cannibals. It’s quests like these, with tons of player choice and a variety of impacts on the game world, that can really use these darker themes powerfully.
It would be unfair of me to make direct value comparisons between the Outer Worlds quests and these in Fallout, as the former are smaller quests in a smaller game. I could also be misunderstanding the intended design of the quests in Outer Worlds. But my point here is more to think about the use of cannibalism in both of these franchises and understand that the way it is executed will strongly impact the player’s emotional reaction. Just having cannibalism in a quest as a dark “secret” to uncover is not enough to evoke a strong reaction from the player or to make the plot of a quest more complete. In the context of The Outer Worlds, this is especially apparent since both of these quests appear on the same planet and within the context of a story world that is already quite absurd. Cannibalism doesn’t enhance Clive’s character or ways that you can interact with him – we already know the dude’s more than a few screws loose, so tacking “flesh-eater” on top feels more like a predictable cliche. In my view, there should be a buildup of tension that makes the moral nefariousness of cannibalism all the more shocking AND there should be a variety of impactful ways for players to react to cannibalism within the game world – though this applies to any dark theme, not just cannibalism.