Starfield Is a Game Where Everything Is Possible and Little Matters

Games

Early into my Starfield adventure, I looted a mysterious note from an enemy corpse. Though there are many such notes in the game, most of them only offer a small piece of worldbuilding or a quick joke. This one happened to put me on the path of a secret quest. I’ll avoid sharing too many spoilers about that quest here, but it was the best I had experienced in the game up until that point. It was filled with surprises, lore, and, at the end of it all, an incredible series of rewards that expanded my understanding and appreciation of the Starfield universe. Reaching the end of that quest was also the moment that I really started to understand and appreciate what kind of experience Starfield is trying to offer when it is at its very best.

There was another moment that happened early into my Starfield adventure that I often find myself looking back on when I think about my time with the game so far. After getting my first gun, I decided to create a quick save and then shoot an explosive canister in a nearby laboratory just to see what would happen. The canister exploded, as expected, but that was roughly the extent of the consequences of my actions. Because the explosion didn’t technically hurt any nearby NPCs (even though they were in the same room), nobody had any real reaction to it. There were no marks on my reputation and not even a “Hey, what are you doing?” Everyone was seemingly unbothered by what I thought would be a catastrophic action.

Those two moments came to represent the polar ends of my Starfield experience. It is a game where so much can happen and so little of it matters as much as you think it would.

Starfield Only Lets You Create One Type of Character: The Protagonist

One of the first choices you’re asked to make in Starfield is to pick your created character’s Background. Would you like to be a Chef who explores the furthest reaches of the galaxy for the next great meal or a Long Hauler who lives to get precious cargo from one planet to another? It is an initially thrilling process that leaves you wondering how your Background will affect the rest of your journey.

Except, that’s not how creating a character works. Not really. The only significant thing your Background does in Starfield is determine which three Skills you start the game with. The game doesn’t even do a great job of telling you what those Skills actually do at the time you pick them. The Background screen makes each sound equally viable and exciting. The actual Skills screen you’ll soon have access to tells a different story. Some of those initial background Skills unlock entirely new abilities and styles of play. Others increase your efficiency by a few percentage points. Which did you pick?

That too doesn’t really matter in the long run, though. See, there is no level cap in Starfield, and there are no restrictions on what Skills you can eventually pick up. There aren’t even character stats in the game that determine how efficient you might be in specific styles of play. In many RPGs (including most older Bethesda games), choosing your initial race, class, and similar character creation options is a kind of declaration of intent that softly outlines what kind of person you’re going to be in this world and how you will interact with it. In Starfield, with enough XP and enough time, anyone can do everything. 

In theory, I welcome the ability to play however you want with few (if any restrictions). That level of freedom is the backbone of so many incredible modern gaming experiences. Just do what you’d like and know that the other options are always there if you want to explore them. Like so many other aspects of Starfield, though, that freedom is a blessing and a curse.

Early on, I decided to play Starfield as a kind of cyber rogue. My plan was to sneak and steal my way across the galaxy while occasionally using my silver tongue to get out of a jam. Despite my best efforts, though, I occasionally found myself in a firefight or ship battle. Remarkably, I wasn’t at any considerable disadvantage during these encounters. With a little patience, I was still defeating enemies 15-20 levels above me without a Combat skill to my name, and space battles were more of an annoyance than something I needed to work around and carefully consider.

Because Starfield doesn’t really emphasize things like class-based strengths and weaknesses, it also rarely demands creative solutions. For that matter, it rarely gives you the chance to find those solutions in the first place. Sneak around enemies rather than fight them if you’d like, but you’re really just missing out on that random loot they drop. You can Persuade characters during certain dialog sequences, but your chances to do so are incredibly limited and rarely lead to anything more exciting than a skipped fight, a piece of gear, or a few spare Credits. Don’t want to invest points in things like piloting, crafting, or lockpicking? Ok, but you’re really just eliminating entire parts of the game rather than investing in alternative paths that will eventually offer a unique experience. 

I rarely felt a connection to my Starfield character, and that’s largely because my character was “Starfield protagonist.” Most of my build choices led me down the same basic path, albeit with an occasional scenic route detour. Starfield doesn’t offer a substantial enough character-building process to allow you to feel as if you’re slowly growing someone of your own design, and it doesn’t allow you to play as a previously established well-written character with a personality of their own. Instead, it forces you to exist in this limbo somewhere between those concepts where you never feel like you’re getting the full benefits of either approach.

Unfortunately, that’s just one of the ways the disconnect between Starfield‘s role-playing concepts and your actual influence on the game hinders the overall experience.

Starfield’s World Feels Remarkably Indifferent To Your Actions

Early into the Starfield campaign, Constellation member Sarah Morgan welcomes you to the club and lays down the laws of their society. She makes it clear that while certain members of the club won’t be thrilled if you were to, say, participate in unlawful activity, that kind of behavior isn’t strictly forbidden and won’t meaningfully alter your standing with the group as a whole.

It turns out that much of the Starfield universe follows that same basic philosophy. Kill all the Crimson Fleet pirates you’d like. They’ll still ask you to join them if you really want. Commit genocide in front of a morally upstanding companion. Their invisible affinity meter will drop, but you’re often a few good deeds away from eventually being able to marry them anyway. Watch the reveal of information that will change the course of human history alongside an NPC, and they will rarely even bother to acknowledge something just happened. At best, they’ll offer you a few chunks of Silver for having been nice to them during an earlier conversation. 

Some of these issues go back to the game’s protagonist problem. Starfield utilizes a lighter version of the classic “chosen one” narrative that strongly suggests you are at least a very special person in this universe. People are practically waiting for you to come along to solve their problems, yet it always seems like you’re just passing through. There are very few things you can do in Starfield that will actually change the world around you in any notable way. For that matter, there are very few things you can do in Starfield that change how you are perceived in this world, if only for a few moments or in specific circumstances. The rare times the game does offer to offer a split in the road are also the times it reveals how limited its ambition in that area really is.

For instance, I started the game with the “Neon Street Rat” Trait, which meant that my character was supposedly raised on the mean streets of Neon and had ties to its seedier side. It seemed to be a perfect fit for the rogue I intended to build. To be fair, that Trait did eventually allow me to tell one of the Neon CEOs how I felt about their exploitative business practices. Naturally, I did just that. The conversation briefly became heated…and then I immediately resumed the previously planned course of action related to her pre-determined role in my current mission. The game didn’t even have the dignity of pretending that something I had chosen might actually do more than unlock a few new voice lines.

That’s the thing you have to realize about Starfield if you’re going to make peace with what it is. Whatever fantasy you come into this game with is almost always secondary to the power fantasy the game wants you to feel.

Starfield does not want to judge you, limit you, or otherwise make you feel like you decided to do could ever be “wrong” in a meaningful way. Yet, it includes bare-bones versions of many of the mechanics we associate with such meaningful choices and potential consequences (such as factions, companions, morality, dialog choices, and character creation options). Why? Because that’s part of the power fantasy of the experience. You’re presented with the idea of meaningful choices, yet they rarely have meaningful consequences or lead to unique opportunities. It’s like you’re stuck in that Twilight Zone episode as the criminal who goes to a version of Hell where they can never lose unless they ask to lose. You’re given everything you want except the thing you really grow to want: the chance to feel truly free in a living world.

Strangely enough, though, that’s actually a big part of the reason why Starfield is able to accomplish some of the things it is rightfully being praised for.

Starfield’s Lack of Choices and Consequences Enable Some of Its Most Entertaining Open-World Features

Starfield’s relative lack of deeper, potentially consequential choices means that the game is often at its best when you are doing what the game would like you to do: a little bit of everything.

The ideal Starfield player is constantly bouncing between things to do. They’re interested in completing every mission, looting everything possible, and devoting dozens (hundreds, really) of hours to unlocking every Skill, every ship, every weapon, and every piece of gear. They gather resources to build Outposts that generate more resources that allow them to pursue various research projects. With the tools and information gathered from those projects, they’ll build incredible new ships that will harbor their growing crew and ideally be shared with everyone on social media. 

We’re used to seeing open-world games filled with stuff to do, and Starfield can certainly compete with all of them when it comes to the sheer quantity of that stuff. Yet, it’s the quality of Starfield’s individual activities that surprised me most. Its quests (especially its side quests) are not only significantly better than what we saw in Fallout 4 but are some of the best we’ve seen from Bethesda in years. Starfield‘s ship design and base-building systems often feel like their own games in ways that speak to both their depth and their occasional disconnect from the rest of the experience. Its shooting and dogfighting segments are pleasantly entertaining in an action game kind of way (even if they too sometimes feel divorced from the role-playing elements of the game). You can even buy several houses and customize their design pretty much however you’d like.

Because Starfield doesn’t dive too deep into the core aspects of the more traditional role-playing experience (characters, choices, consequences, builds, morality systems, etc.), it’s allowed to go shockingly wide nearly everywhere else. Few things in Starfield are burdened by the need to carry the weight of more substantial core concepts, which clearly allowed Bethesda to make a shockingly large game filled with so many things to simply do. So far as I can tell, everything that they promised you would be able to do in Starfield is in Starfield. In a post-Cyberpunk 2077 world, that dedication to fulfilling so many promises out of the gate should count for something.

Mind you, I’m not trying to hand Starfield a consolation prize for avoiding the deepest depths of modern game design disappointment. There is so much joy to be found in hopping between Starfield’s hundreds of planets, numerous ships, and compelling quests just to see what the game’s designers tucked into a corner of this game that you were never guaranteed to see.

There are countless open-world games that choose to focus on encouraging you to bounce from location to location and activity to activity while investing little thought into the weight of it all. Few of those games come close to matching what Starfield has to offer in terms of the care and craft that went into many of those individual activities. It’s one of gaming’s greatest theme parks and a pretty incredible example of open-world design as we know it based on the expectations set by so many modern examples of an increasingly complacent genre. In some ways, though, Starfield feels held back by a different kind of complacency.

“It’s a Bethesda Game, What Did You Expect?”

Variations of the above statement have popped up in many discussions about Starfield. Though not always presented as a negative, that statement is too often used to dismiss many criticisms of the game. No, the writing isn’t always the best, it’s not particularly challenging, the role-playing elements are limited, and the game is certainly wider than it is deep. However, some are more than happy to argue that anyone expecting more from this game shouldn’t be playing Starfield in the first place. 

It’s a fundamentally flawed argument that is entirely dependent on the idea that Bethesda RPGs are, and have always been, a very specific thing. After all, there was a time when Bethesda made its name as the company that helped turn deeper role-playing experiences into blockbusters by making such experiences work in 3D open worlds. With some of their more recent games, they’ve focused a bit more on open-world design elements and a little less on those pure role-playing mechanics. I’ve found that those quick to write off Starfield‘s shortcomings have embraced (or accepted) the studio’s recent creative path while also seemingly arguing that’s the way Bethesda has always been.

Yet, Starfield sometimes feels like a Bethesda RPG trapped between two time periods. It certainly feels much closer to a classic Bethesda RPG than Fallout 4 did, but it’s a far cry from a title like Morrowind (or even Oblivion) in that same respect. To suggest that a “Bethesda game” is one type of experience is to ignore both the history of the company and the ways that many of Starfield’s best qualities stem from the innovations that put the company on the map in the first place.

More importantly, such statements represent some of the worst elements of fanboyism in modern capitalist culture. Apple doesn’t need to lower its prices, Marvel doesn’t need to focus on stories and characters, and Bethesda doesn’t need to make player choices feel more significant in a role-playing environment Why? Because they’re major companies that have culturally established the idea that they offer a very particular product. You either support that product, or you say nothing. Those are your options in the minds of legions of “bought-in” fans who contribute to the commodification of art by tying themselves so tightly to the idea that the money and emotions they invest in a product represent a substantial piece of themselves that they must defend. 

That’s not how gaming (or any other creative medium) evolves, though. Starfield has been in development for roughly seven years, and quite a lot has changed in that time. When I think of the blockbuster games that have had the biggest impact during that time, I think of games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Elden Ring, and Breath of the Wild/Tears of the Kingdom.

There are a few specific qualities that unite those titles that I don’t think Starfield features or executes especially well (such as a tighter relationship between their worlds and their gameplay). Yet, the biggest quality that binds each of those titles is their developers’ willingness to step out of their supposed comfort zones.

Red Dead Redemption 2 was a more deliberate and mature style of open-world game for Rockstar. Elden Ring saw FromSoftware translate Dark Souls concepts into a massive new environment, much like Bethesda once did with Morrowind. Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom only exist because Nintendo was willing to change nearly everything we thought about The Legend of Zelda. Each of those games may have been born from larger developers, massive budgets, and major franchises that followed a certain formula, but they ultimately made their mark by challenging, defying, and, more often than not, surpassing the expectations surrounding them. 

Starfield is often an exceptional version of what it fundamentally sets out to deliver. You can dissect it and find numerous individual components that are all working as they were seemingly intended and represent the time, money, and talent that went into this project. It is an endlessly entertaining game that is certainly more impressive than the average blockbuster released in a given year.

Yet, there is an emptiness to the Starfield experience that tragically matches the emptiness of the “It’s a Bethesda game” argument so many are quick to toss at a game that took seven years, hundreds of millions of dollars, and a world-class team of talent to make. On the surface, it looks like a game worthy of those considerable resources. At a time when the very best games are trying to be more substantial than a playground, though, Starfield sometimes feels like the pretty shell of a hollow core.

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