This Janky Holodeck 20 Years Later: Thoughts on Starfield

How better to kick off a new blog than to write abt Skyri...I mean, sorry, Starfield?

I'm just over twenty-ish hours in, but it's already been eventful. I tried to suffocate myself by running out of oxygen with my space suit on in a breathable environment. I was forced to lie on a job application about being good at chemistry, despite having already gained an aptitude for making medicine. I've been able to glitch an NPC into talking exclusively with the radio static effect, at least until the game was reloaded. It's all familiar and it should be. There is no mistaking Starfield for anything other than a Bethesda Games Studios title. It is the kind of game that, for better or worse, the studio has been making for years now.

The narrative is just flying by, and it's jarring, even by the standards of a Bethesda game. I really couldn't tell you what the story is about, outside of 'mining' and 'exploration' and 'space'. Every main character I meet is constantly tossing hot potatoes of lore and story at me, like I have any context for all these factions, events, & places I haven't met, heard of, or seen. Characters swerve, mid conversation, from harshly questioning your motives and actions, to buddying up to you and trusting you to pick up their baubles. And why, just why, does a guy just give me his ship at the beginning of the game? It's hard to suspend disbelief when the narrative puts so much effort into breaking it, thru exposition-heavy dialog, constantly tone-shifting characters, and frankly lazy plotting. BGS has long made this style of writing their brand, but this is such an egregious version of it. If it were any other studio, I would describe it as self-aware and parodic, but it feels like Starfield wants to be taken seriously, as it is.

Similarly, the uncanny valley is unavoidable. Everything around the game is stylishly realistic (if drab & muted), the improved rendering of different physical surfaces gives a lot more depth to the surrounding world, and character models carry more detail than ever before. But that illusion breaks the moment a character moves, with the same stiff, jerky animation style that has been around since Oblivion. Sometimes, people just kind of slide away from you with the grace of one of those military contractor robots, after a conversation ends. Ambushing them from behind will have them straining their necks to look back at you as they deliver their lines, before the 'turn around' subroutine kicks in (if it ever does). And NPCs still love to photobomb that zoomed-in conversation interface, which is such a hallmark of these games. It happens even more this time around, since folks continue to walk around in the background while you chat.

As far as the mechanics of the game, I can already tell Starfield is going to bore me, just like Fallout 4. (At least until modding enters the chat.) The level scaling is thru roof. By level 11, I could already tell enemies' health were far outpacing my own power to damage them, and even the loot I have found doesn't seem to make much of a difference. Quests are way too simple at the start, and it's only been finally opening up to some more interesting ones, such as the Crimson Fleet space pirates quest. Encumbrance has somehow grown from an annoyance to a deterrent, and I find myself poking around places a lot less to avoid getting overloaded by loot. Whatever ambition they had coming into the project, the designers really get trapped under the weight (heh) of trying to follow the formula so rigidly and spread it so thin.

A Bethesda Game is at its best when it aspires to present a place, rather than a gameplay loop. Traditionally, you're kinda of just thrown out into the world, so the the world has to be something fetching, something worth exploring. The design relies heavily on your own innate curiosity for propulsion, crafting unique moments for you to stumble upon to reward that curiosity. That's the appeal, that's why the formula is compelling - the whole 'you see that mountain you can go there' meme. I spent time searching caves & mines in Morrowind, or poking around vaults all over the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, because of that feeling of being there, in a place, however simulated. Resisting the sirens' call of fast travel and exploring off the beaten path are where these games display their intricacies and their joy. I remember the first time I set foot in an abandoned mine left behind by the vanished Dwemer folks, or unraveled the mystery of a vault full of clones who could only say 'Gary' over and over again. I found those moments just wandering around, making them all the more special and memorable. There's a sense of ownership unique to this style of game design. You, the player, made those discoveries and they're yours, even if every 'discovery' was a bespoke creation from the designers, artists, and writers.

Twenty hours in, Starfield hasn't offered much incentive to get lost in its many wilds of jagged desolation. It has places, to be sure, and some of which are pretty neat - New Atlantis, Aklia City, and Neon all have their distinct charms & feels - but the barren wilderness around those cities & on most planets, and the load times hopping around the galaxy discourage setting out into the unknown. Jumping between planets and systems always necessitates a load, and if I'm already in my ship or traveling to a new star system on a route I haven't charted yet, then it will inevitably be more than one, (if I don't get caught in a fire fight or flagged down by some random ship waiting right where I'm jumping to). While it is admirable that BGS decided to peruse realism, the planets I have come across are devoid of meaningful points of interest, relying heavily on what seems to be pure random generation. What's more, without vehicles, traversing around these barren flat spaces becomes so tedious that it's starting not to feel worth the effort. I haven't discovered any strange caves or mysteries poking around these places. It's just been cohorts of enemies, loot, and experience points. And a surprisingly low amount of text; no corporate memos with leads to track down, no lore book with some vague hint hidden in mythical stories. 'Wide open but shallow' is over-memed criticism of Bethesda games, but I feel it uniquely applies to Starfield. This is the first one of these games where I feel like I have to track down and take quests in order to find the interesting moments, rather than getting lost & letting curiosity propel me toward my own discoveries.

Still, playing a Bethesda Game in 2023 is an odd bit of comfort food. For as much it seems like I'm draggin' the game, I like Starfield. I'm enjoying my time with it. Many of these flaws give some personality to what would otherwise be the same janky holodeck full of lifeless robots spouting tropes & quests I've seen before. Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, released last year, evoked the same feelings of a style of game long past its prime, only with a bit more polish. Its faux Souls-like design & fancy rendering were vehicles to deliver a weird ass PS2 title with edgy, ridiculous, memorable characters and a refreshingly nonsensical story reveling in Final Fantasy's rich & silly history.

But I'm not sure I'll finish Starfield, like I did with Stranger of Paradise. I have been playing some variation of this game for two decades now. This version draws from the glittering idealism of 1960's-era NASA space exploration and drizzles over with pretty rendering techniques & some new mechanics, but I cannot escape the feeling that I have done it all before. It will sell well, because it tickles the nostalgia bone for people of my generation, on this side of the world. I look forward to putting it away after I get bored with it on Gamepass, and then picking it up on Steam sale a few years down the road, modding in the Millennium Falcon decked out with pride flags & using an overpowered Dwemer sledgehammer to smack fools around or whatever.