Regarding Starfield

I’ve sat here for many weeks trying to marshal my thoughts about the game, and thinking about how to begin discussing it. The problem I’m having here is that every time I think “ok, here’s a topic to kick off”, the meandering thought process around the game takes me to something else that seems better, which leads to blah blah, down a rabbit hole. There’s not a clear set point to start.

So let’s start 12 years ago.

It’s 2011 and I’m playing the hot new game from Bethesda, Skyrim. Skyrim is an open-world RPG, the next in a line of games that are largely renowned both for having huge, sprawling, robust stories, and also being wracked with bugs and sketchy gameplay mechanics. I still quite love Skyrim: the writing carefully placed wonderful moments and story beats, intermixed with largely quite good gaming action and tension, all of which was wrapped up with truly quality voice acting. Some of the characters were lacking, for sure, but enough here or there were compelling, and that was able to keep the flow of it all moving forward. Mostly.

It’s 2015 and I’m playing the hot new game from Bethesda, Fallout 4. I’ve been a huge fan of the Fallout series for many years, and FO4 is the next installment after the fantastically well-made Fallout: New Vegas, which is notable for having been published by Bethesda, but not developed by Bethesda. That task went back to a team built from veterans from the older Fallout games I loved so much. But FO4 was a disappointment. It was on the same old game engine as Skyrim, and FO:NV, and several other things previous, but it was janky and often ugly. The writing wasn’t up to snuff, and although there were some distinct improvements (the gunplay was a great deal better), much of it just didn’t live up to the hype. They had tacked on a new base building sub-game which was… interesting, but not necessary or really helpful. Most upsettingly, a great deal of the story felt like it had been lifted from the earlier, much maligned Fallout 3, then translated back and forth a few times to make it less obviously a copy. It wasn’t an enjoyable time, and in spite of trying to engage with it, it never properly clicked for me. I never played its follow up, the hugely disappointing Fallout 76.

It’s 2023 and I’m playing the hot new game from Bethesda, Starfield. This is the first one since the FO4 followup, FO76. It’s been hyped immensely: a whole new property for a game studio that is renowned (?) in days long past for having huge, rich, storylines. They’re going to reset to the start and kick off something all new, really stretch their legs and have a chance to show what they can do without having to stick to existing storylines and mechanics. The visuals seem… both modern and dated at once, an old problem of having poor facial expressions from previous games has cropped up again. The world is weird and compartmentalized, just like previous games: loading screens are rampant, a problem that other modern games by other studios haven’t suffered. The story is strange and abrupt, the characters are dead-eyed and seem to lack personality. And then, for all their chance to really start from scratch, they lift and shift that FO4 base building which adds nothing… or worse, copying another game, No Man’s Sky, which I’ve also reviewed once upon a time. Even crazier, they go back to Skyrim and pick up one of the highlights of that game, the ‘dragon shouts’ that add amusing new powers to the player’s character, and sort of translate that into a space version? What?

I didn’t go in to Starfield expecting a lot, but even with that I was deeply disappointed. The mechanics are only able to copy other games (aside from the ship building stuff, I’ll get to that), and the story is… well.

The game opens with you, the character, playing as a space miner looking for materials. It’s implied in the dialogue that you’ve been working there probably less than a week, though it’s hard to tell. After a very brief amount of busy work they tell you they have a special task for you, go into this new chamber they just found and mine this weird rock. You do so, and embedded in the rock is some sort of alien artifact. When you touch it, you’re knocked out and see stars (an effect that could be said to have been copied from the first Mass Effect game, wherein you touch an alien artifact and etc etc). You then wake up, do a little character creation work under the auspices of a medical exam, and then are told to go outside where you meet some guy who’s interested in that artifact. A brief shootout with pirates occurs, and the guy decides that well, you must be super important! And he gives you his ship and his robot and tells you to go to his secret society. In in-game time this all seems to happen in the span of a couple of hours. In real-life time, this is probably all over with in about 15 minutes. Once that whiplash has worn off, you go to another planet, meet his secret society friends, and the leader decides she should follow you around while you go find more artifacts, and then you’re basically free to do what the fuck ever.

So we start off with a weak at best introduction at breakneck speed. I should note as well that you have no background whatsoever on any of the characters or their motivations at this point: it just plain hasn’t been addressed yet. But now you’re turned loose in a largely quite anodyne, sterile city hub area, and you can go find… whatever you care to. Mostly at this point this means following some lead or other to another planet where you find a strange alien ‘temple’, get some artifacts, earn some space powers, and move on. There are a few more specific set pieces like some mandatory gunfights, but this is the gameplay loop from here on out. You can loot/use/sell items and weapons and armor. You can follow some side quests (and some of them are quite good), and you can engage in some other mechanics like the space fights, or you can go find empty planets and treat them exactly as you would in that other game, No Man’s Sky, and then build bases on them FO4 style (or also just like NMS where it made a bit more sense).

Let’s talk about the space stuff. One of the most hyped parts of the whole ordeal was that this was the first time Bethesda would really do vehicular combat, and to facilitate that they wanted to make a mechanism by which you could modify, or even fully deconstruct and reconstruct, a spaceship for yourself. This is a fully modular setup where you can place rooms, weapons, power plants, fuel, the cockpit, all sorts of stuff, and you can build something fast, slow, heavy, lot of storage, really small, whatever you like. The flexibility is kind of great and I spent a lot of time playing with it. It also, ultimately, doesn’t matter much: you can create whatever’s practical for you, and there’s nothing in the game that really truly tests what you’ve done. Your experience with your ship is 1) moving around it on the inside, 2) seeing it landed on planets, and 3) sometimes getting into a low-complexity fight with random other ships in an empty space environment. Oh and 4) being annoyed that you need more storage space for the useless base-building materials you’ve been needlessly hoarding.

There is so little to engage with in this game, or at least very little that you can’t find elsewhere, often done better. Some of the environments are truly pretty, for sure, but that’s not the norm. All of the gameplay loop that’s outside of running down the story missions don’t feel like you’re taking on any meaningful duties or effort. Some of the side quests, like the return to Earth, are deep and fascinating… but also only provide some background on it all that is otherwise meaningless. Also even there the environments are dumb as hell: the whole planet is now a desert and you can visit a scant few locations like the ruins of old London, where… it’s just a desert, and somehow one single unrecognizable skyscraper survived. Nothing else, not even rubble. I’ll use that as the cover art for this post I think. Everything is so empty and pointless.

The story and characters feel like the worst I’ve ever seen out of Bethesda. Let’s talk about that for a bit.

Fall of 2023 has seen an abundance of really high quality game releases, some of which were either highly anticipated, or that came out of left field and blew everyone away. A few of these had unbelievably high quality writing (comparatively speaking) and characterization. Somehow, people were under the impression that Starfield would be in that mix, which has absolutely not been the case. If you want something recent to show you how great writing can go, get Cyberpunk 2077 and its Phantom Liberty expansion. Astonishing stuff with truly engaging, interesting characters. The story is both uplifting and horribly upsetting/depressing, but the latter is done in a beautiful way: really, really top tier stuff. Also on the list is Baldur’s Gate 3, which blew people away with its scope and quality. It has its issues, but it’s an amazing time. So, having played those around the same time, Starfield just looks like shit.

There’s honestly so little about the game to recommend it to others. One thing I’ll call out is that compared to most of Bethesda’s other self-developed games, it has very few bugs. That’s good! That’s progress! But that’s also not a reason to go play it. Everything that the game was hyped as… a big, new, story-driven world by a story-focused developer with big exploration elements and a fun space adventure… have either not delivered, or are done in a far better way by other games that took the time to focus on them (or that just created them in the first place and had their concepts lifted and shifted to Starfield).

Sort of the weirdest thing to use to end this discussion is a post-script about the many, many bad reviews the game was getting from individual users. From smaller publishers it’s not unknown for them to put in a reply here and there to rebut a comment here and there, but from a team this size? It’s very odd. And yet, exactly that has been happening: developers have been responding to individual users who have been complaining about, among other things, the load times between areas. The ultimate reason to do so would be if there was some sort of bonus payout based on user reviews or some such, which is unfortunate for the individual team members that worked on this. But it’s also likely that the brass is upset about the bad mix of reviews, and are taking the less helpful approach to trying to get them changed. Rather than having taken the time earlier to say “hey we need to work on some issues here”.

But that’s just not how they work anymore.