The Making Of: Outcast
Silly words are one of the hazards of science fiction, and Outcast is chock full of multi-syllabic names, places and giant alien ostriches. Ask a veteran of the game the first thing that they remember about it and these contrived concatenations of vowels will often come up. That Outcast’s characters had to pronounce quite so many awkward names has become a joke among PC gamers, making you feel like a Klingon dictionary was just around the corner.
But such absurdities were just one facet of one of the most ambitious attempts to create a cogent, living and breathing world for players to explore at their leisure. Because the second thing an Outcast player will remember is the sheer scale and the limitless freedom the game supplied. Its many different lands, from desert to swamp to icy tundra, were utterly free to roam, but structured enough to set the player on the road of an epic quest to save both his colleagues and the entire world, as well as fixing some problems back home on Earth.
Despite the fact that a black hole was eating their homeworld, players could take their time to explore this new planet and to build up a reputation among the peasants and rebel clans for whom our hero, Cutter Slade, was something of a messiah. Outcast’s towns, villages and alien wildernesses remain one of the outstanding visions of what PC gaming could and should be like. The game took an unprecedented open-ended approach to a serious sci-fi universe, while simultaneously allowing a storyline to emerge through the player’s interaction with complex AI.
One of the founders and game designers from that original Appeal team was Yves Grolet. A veteran of the French videogame industry, having started out as a programmer for Ubisoft at the age of 19, he went on to jointly found the development house in 1995, working on Outcast until its release in 1999. In 2002 he launched his own company, Elsewhere Entertainment. Clearly Outcast was important game for Grolet personally, but why should we regard it as an important game in the greater scheme of things? “I think it was the first game with an open-ended 3D immersive world that the player could explore at his own convenience, at his own pace and in the order he wanted,” explains Grolet. “It was also the first time that a game blended action and adventure in a seamless manner and without scarring either of those two components.”
Outcast’s alien planet was populated by a vibrant culture that swept from peasant-filled paddy fields to grim and dusty deserts. Once the tutorial (infamous for its near-impossible stealth training) was out of the way, players were able to access any of the huge terrains that made up the game’s different regions. Go anywhere, talk to anyone, you just had to stay alive long enough to unravel the bigger mysteries. Working with the natives against their oppressors was an epic task and keeping people on-side took some work for even the most dedicated roleplayers. For Appeal this meant a massive effort in scripting conversations and creating robust AI for the alien peoples.
Grolet is keen to emphasise this point: “Outcast was a game that featured an alien world that appeared alive with citizens ‘living’ their lives during the game. The AI was one of the most difficult parts to develop because the citizens had to do their job, react to the player missions, react to the player reputation and also react to danger and combat happening around them. The difficulty was to have the citizens prioritise and select the appropriate behaviours at any moment of the game.”
For the most part, this approach was extremely rewarding. Even subsequent games such as Oblivion have struggled to provide such a sophisticated and believable game world, one in which NPCs aren’t simply mannequin conversations waiting to happen. Grolet is justifiably proud of his team’s success in making people feel like they could approach a living world in any way they saw fit.