Kelsey Beachum, A Need for Joy, Part TwoComplications Ensue
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Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Let's talk about the ending of Outer Wilds. You could interpret the ending as being incredibly hopeful or depressing. Tell me about your thought process in having a tragic ending. I know that you are not fond of the ending of Ico. So there exist tragic endings that are just, you know, irritating. And then there are really dark and satisfying tragic endings.

Screenshot from the game Outer Wilds
Kelsey: Ico is a really pretty game. But I also had that sense of dread the entire game. I mean, I also can't play Ico because I feel too bad for the for the giants. I can't kill them.

Alex: And then also at the end of it, I felt, OK, you're spanking me for doing something you made me do for the past dozen hours?

Kelsey: God, you know, that is why I'm so I'm still so, so mad about the whole Last of Us 2.

Alex: So what are the rules about tragic endings? How do you make a tragic ending work? When do you want a tragic ending?

Kelsey: I think the ending of Outer Wilds is only tragic if you think the story is entirely about you.

Alex: Well, your entire civilization is going to be destroyed.

Kelsey: True. But it was going to be destroyed anyway.

Alex: OK, but you must have had a version where you were going to save everybody that you rejected at some point.

Kelsey: No, no, actually I love that I get to say this, but we never considered having it possible for the player to save the world. And we had to actively work on discouraging people from thinking that that's what they were out to do. Quite difficult when you're fighting against convention there.

Alex: In one of the interviews I thought I heard Alex [Beachum] say that that was the goal in the very first version. Because, right, if the world is ending in your game, then the player saves it.

Kelsey: Originally, this was game about lighthouses and keeping those lit. Like, in space. But I don't recall there ever being a version where we were like, oh yeah, and then you'll stop the supernova. You can't really fight nature in that way.

Alex: What did you feel you had to set up in order to earn satisfaction with an ending where the player's civilization is destroyed?

Kelsey: The player's journey in Outer Wilds closely parallels that of the Nomai. You've gone through and pieced together everything that happened in the past. And there is a point at which you've uncovered the story of what is happening in your solar system now. The ending of the game is the point at which all three of those storylines, player, Nomai and world, all converge upon a single point. And that is the point at which the player can take definitive action to impact all three of those stories in a significant way.

The travelers all have individual, I hesitate to call them story arcs just because almost all of them are impacted by time resetting, but you probably noticed that each traveler has a subject that they care about. For example, Rybeck is that very cowardly, nervous, anxious, comically large character who has fallen down a portion of the planet Brittle Hollow as it's collapsing and is down in the ruins of the Nomai, trying to work up the courage to actually explore them.

And the tragedy of that character, of course, is that they will they will never succeed. And you can go through the world and explore and learn more about the Nomai. And you can go and tell Rybeck about it. They won't remember it from loop to loop. So there's no point. There's not necessarily a character arc. But you can get emotional satisfaction from telling them these things and they're thanking you and they're talking about why this matters to them. It's just a way that you can help this character complete their journey so that when they then appear at the end of the game, you have context for what it is they're telling you and hopefully that dialog is helping contextualize how this story is about more than just you.

Alex: So are you saying that if you're going to have sort of a bittersweet or bitter or downer or non-positive ending, that you need to create setups that are paid off? Or are you saying that you need to have it all mean something in the end? What’s the moral?

Kelsey: I think you need an amount of joy in case of an apocalypse. Because otherwise, it's all depressing. I suppose the thing we want players to click into is that the ultimate tragedy would have been complete nonexistence, and that is kind of banking off everyone's fear of death, obviously. The nature of nonexistence is terrifying, obviously, for a lot of people and I think the idea that you have impacted something in the world can be very soothing, even though ultimately I have to confess to being a bit of a cheerful nihilist. So, you know, how long do you really impact anything? We are giving the player the ability to impact what is about to happen in the universe, right? We try not to talk too much about the ending. And there are differences of opinion just between Alex and me as to what the ending is and what it ultimately means. But you have kickstarted a new universe, right? You have prevented everything in existence from complete ceasing to exist. Essentially, you're a creator God. And you do have to give life to get life, I suppose.

Alex: I guess there are enough Native American and Greek stories where the world is made up of bits of some poor God that got dismembered.

Kelsey: Right. We're a little less literal about it, but from a mythological standpoint, we are fine.

Alex: What sort of games do you play? Are there games that you play for research, games that you play for fun. Are the ones that you play for fun like the games that you make?

Kelsey: Yeah, OK, so this is fun, I've got like four buckets for this. I love games, obviously. I make a lot of time for it. There are games that I do play specifically for research. Like Overwatch. That's the kind of game where I will try to understand the mechanics. And if people are talking about particular aspects of a game, I want to go check those out. I like to be on top of what's going on. Then there are games that I play for fun. I play a ton of indie games. I would say I play more indie games, I played a lot of Don't Starve a while back. Obviously things like Disco Elysium. I'm about to play Knights and Bikes. I've got Tiny Echo on my desktop here that I really want to play I. I also got A Short Hike when that came out. Loved that.

Alex: What did you love about A Short Hike? What was the thing that made it special for you?

Kelsey: God, I think maybe just it felt like it captured what being a kid felt like, OK? I'm picking up these sticks and stones and whatnot because they're cool. I don't necessarily know if I need them, but they could be useful for something. I've got these coins. I'm allowed just the freedom to move around in the environment and how good it feels. I really enjoyed the writing and the characters. I enjoyed the setting. Just there's such a joyfulness about it, even though the main character is actively experiencing some anxiety about a big event. I can't really call it anything else but an inherent sense of joy. It's just a world I really like being in physically.

Alex: It reminded me a little bit of Bastion where there was really nothing groundbreaking about it, just the voiceover was great. And with A Short Hike, too, there's no ground-breaking mechanic, it's just like, OK, well, this is fun to play. I like being here.

Kelsey: I think it is a little innovative because it's making you slow down in a way that games don't ask you to do very often. .

Alex: You haven't been playing Animal Crossing!

Kelsey: Oh no, I we can't talk about that. I accidentally saw how many hours I put into it. And I had to swear my partner to secrecy. And he looked at me with sincerity in his eyes and he's like, Oh, don't worry, that can't be right. Oh my God. That was a devastating blow. I do that knitting and I watch the sky for balloons. That's a couple of hours right there.

Alex: I do that with 4X games. I have a thousand hours in Europa Universalis IV.

Kelsey: That is a separate style of game that I play for fun. I separate games like Tiny Echo and Disco Elysium and Hollow Knight. That's one bucket.

And then there's another one for farming type like Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, that sort of thing. Maybe the odd Harvest Moon. Or Cryptid the Necromancer I play a fair bit of still. Games that have routines and patterns to them and it feels kind of nice and familiar to play them. Tiny echo has a lot of those really tiny character moments that I really like. If you've played Night in the Woods, that's one of my absolute favorite games and it tackles some very heavy subjects. But it doesn't get completely weighed down with them because there's still joy in that world. We're all really into meaningful choice. And there's this moment where you have the option to push a slice of pizza to your friend who can't quite reach it, and if you don't do it, all that happens is he doesn't get the piece of pizza. Like there's literally no impact to the game whatsoever beyond just he does not eat an additional piece of pizza. But if you push it to him, he'll take it. And there's a little bubble that shows up quietly. That's like, Thanks. And I think that's brilliant. I love that. That's what I mean we love reactivity. But I think sometimes we look either too big or too like, oh, what's cost effective. Oh, we want to reward them for having done that first and like the responsiveness of it. And sometimes I don't need that. Sometimes all I want is to have an interesting interaction with a character. And that, by the way, is something I think Obsidian does really well, especially for having so many different writers. The way I approach creating interesting player moments in, say, a dialog is going to be different from what any other, narrative designer is going to. And I love that this studio does embrace that. So sometimes it does frustrate me a little that it's not as wildly innovative to work on a bigger game as it can be for a very small thing. But that's kind of the nature of game dev, right?

Alex: When you've got 200 people on staff, right, you've got a burn rate. And the amount of money you have to make for the studio not to collapse is pretty high. There are risks you can't take.

Kelsey: But the flip side is, going way back to the beginning when you asked me why I ended up working at a triple-A studio. Obsidian has been wonderful about, within reason, letting me throw these ideas out. They tend to have to be a little smaller scale. And some of it is also just building a rapport with a new studio as well, because I'm a little bit of an unknown quantity.

Alex: OK, but you also come in, again, having written a hit game. If you bring in an idea, folks should probably listen to it, eh?

Kelsey: [Does not seem to disagree.]

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