Starfield, Bethesda Softworks (BGS) newest AAA title, dropped on September 6th. Their first big title since Fallout 4 in 2015 and their first new IP in over 25 years, Starfield was hotly anticipated and had been in the works for nearly a decade. It also was expected to be crucial in regards to the image and success of BGS going forward.
Bethesda has a long history of being a pioneer in the gaming industry. They have been successfully making games since the late 90s with the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series being their flagship franchises. Their games have strived to set new standards for the gaming industry, often building massive and rich worlds chock full of details, quests, and memorable characters. They make use of a ‘blank slate’ model, giving the player ultimate creative control over their character in many regards. Additionally, many of the games in the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series have been critically acclaimed (with the exception of Fallout 76), so Starfield, as a result, had a high standard to meet.
I’m sad to say that, in my opinion, Starfield fell drastically short of those standards. Not just mechanically, but critically and creatively. Starfield is exemplary in its complete lack of soul, hitherto unseen in any previous BGS titles. We can’t say we didn’t see the signs, however. Comparing Bethesda titles such as Fallout 4 to titles in the same IP made by a different studio, such as Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas, you can see a stark difference in creative direction.
The gap between Bethesda's recent titles and their older ones stems from a shift towards more sanitised, simplified, and casual game design principles. Players are increasingly given fewer options regarding character customisation and building, an empty and more uninspired world to play in, and a less developed and inspiring cast of characters to play with.
Starfield is perhaps the worst offender out of all of the BGS titles. It represents an increasing trend towards these ideas, to the point where the game feels more like an interactive movie than an RPG. The player is effectively goaded into making several choices, the world is astonishingly underwhelming and bland in its construction, and the characters surrounding the player are impressively awful in their design. The main quest-associated group, Constellation, lacks depth and fails to engage players, often leading them to opt out of having them accompany their adventures.
To highlight the issues I am describing, I am going to use two titles. One earlier game developed by BGS, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, and a contemporary competitor developed by CDPR, Cyberpunk 2077.
In Morrowind, the main quest follows the Nerevarine Prophecy, centered on the return of a long-lost Dunmer war chief. The goal is to fulfil this prophecy by overcoming cryptic trials, uniting disparate tribes, and defeating a demigod within a volcano, ascending to legendary hero status. Throughout the journey, diverse characters are encountered, quests range from faction persuasion to securing mythical items, and the world teems with intricate factions, where aligning with one can preclude others.
Cyberpunk 2077 boldly tackles mature themes like drug use, poverty, and wealth inequality. The main quest follows V, whose mind is gradually overtaken by the deceased revolutionary, Johnny Silverhand, played by Keanu Reeves. To free themselves, V confronts the powerful Arasaka Megacorporation and collaborates with a diverse cast of characters, each with engaging dialogue and intricate backgrounds. The vibrant Night City hosts conflicts between gangs, corporations, and individuals vying for resources, offering immersive side quests that vividly depict life in the city.
In addition to the heavy topics, excellent writing and world-building, and memorable quest design, Morrowind and Cyberpunk 2077 also have complex gameplay mechanics. Character building in each game is expansive, combat is complicated and not easily mastered, and there are many different skills to develop which can impact the outcome of your playthrough. In Morrowind, for example, the player cannot advance in certain factions such as the Mages Guild without improving their skill in magic. Makes sense, right?
In Starfield, for comparison, many of these things are missing. The most frustrating and problematic of which is the horrid writing. Starfield features two main factions, The United Colonies and the Freestar Collective. These two factions have a long history of conflict, and fought a war in the time shortly before the game takes place. This, like many of the other elements of the game, is critically underdeveloped. Starfield overlooks the potential of unique locations like Neon, a dystopian settlement on the planet Volii filled with crime and poverty, controlled by an autocratic mayor seeking personal profit. Despite the promise of intricate and mature narratives, the game reduces Neon to a city devoid of the complexities it hints at, where the mature themes mentioned are absent in the player's experience.
In Neon, rumour has it about bodies littering the streets, rampant Aurora drug addiction, and widespread gang violence. Despite that, I never once found a body on the street, a junkie, or witnessed any gang violence in my tens of hours spent in the city. Sadly, the city's inhabitants lack depth, with only a handful of merchants and quest-givers revealing their identities. The absence of significant character development or profound conflicts leaves Neon feeling empty, raising questions about why BGS would mention these aspects without integrating them into the narrative.
Ultimately, this attitude permeates all areas of the game. The Crimson Fleet, known as hardened pirates, directs players on treasure hunts. Picking their side allows you to obliterate a fleet of warships, land in the United Colonies' capital, and face no repercussions. Even choosing the House Va’ruun background goes unnoticed, as characters treat you as an outsider. The game is rife with weird disconnects such as these that make it feel like there was no care towards the immersion of the player in its world.
This all feels emblematic in the direction of BGS today, and the gaming industry as a whole. To appeal to as wide an audience as possible, BGS (and the industry) seeks to sanitise and simplify their games, disregarding the elements that made them popular to begin with. In fear of offending people or being seen as too mature for children, any mature or controversial themes are stripped away and the game becomes a dead world with no realism or immersion.
Starfield received mixed user reviews and has seen a sharp decline in player counts since its month of release on Steam. Despite that, it sold well, and likely represents the general direction large RPGs will continue to head in the upcoming years. The hope is that titles such as Baldur’s Gate III, a completely industry-defining title released earlier this year, will serve to show that there is still demand for more mature and well-written titles in the genre.
Edited by Gio Eldred Mitre, Gaming Editor