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Space Junk

Clunk, clutter, and busywork in Bethesda Game Studios’s “Starfield”
A video game screenshot in which a figure in a space suit stands before an open mountain range.

“See that mountain?” asks Skyrim, the award-winning, sixty-million-unit selling action role-playing game that made Bethesda Game Studios the closest thing in video games to a household name. “You can climb it.”

But even in 2012, before the novelty of game worlds so big they’d take you an afternoon to walk around in wore off, there wasn’t much point. Atop that virtual mountain, players quickly learned to expect little more than the same familiar rock(ish) textures, skeletons to fight, and a treasure chest with randomized loot as a reward. Fallout 4 (2015), the studio’s next single-player game, introduced a suite of base-building mechanics that, despite their complexity, clashed with the rest of the game’s systems. Instead of completing quests and advancing the story, players interested in expanding their bases comb through abandoned supermarkets and empty, bombed-out houses looking for “resources” like adhesives and nails. In an RPG like Fallout¸ where the gameplay loop focuses on character interaction, dialogue, and combat, these mechanics aren’t gameplay. They’re digital chores to be checked off a list. Content for padding the game’s runtime.

In contrast with the bloat that’s characterized its post-2010 releases, early BGS titles won audiences over with an emphasis on art direction and cleverly economical design. Despite a mere forty-person team and (to hear them tell it) the constant threat of the whole studio going bankrupt, the developers at BGS focused not on flashy action mechanics or graphics but rather on handcrafting spaces that felt alive. Morrowind, BGS’s breakout title, had moody music, a muted color palette, and unsettling alien architecture in its cities. But, more importantly, those cities were stuffed full of characters that worked on schedules, moved around on their own accord, and had relationships with each other. Fallout 3 filled its Washington, D.C., wasteland with warring factions that the player could fight against, join up with, ignore, or even annihilate using a dormant nuclear bomb left lying in the mud. But it also had such a granular attention to detail that even the corpses littering the Metro tunnels had stories to tell, as long as the player cared to look. Bethesda RPGS were janky, often ugly, and limited by their technology. The charm was how they felt lived-in, busy, like real worlds, with real people. Like they’d exist with or without the player.

Starfield’s aggressively average reception is by no means the worst thing that could have happened.

It’s jarring, then, jumping from a game like Fallout 3 to Starfield, BGS’s latest title and its first for PCs and consoles in five years. When, after a few hours of cutscenes, character introductions, and tutorials, Starfield finally opens up to the player, the most striking thing about it is its size. Given a “starmap” and a mission marker that the game more or less encourages you to ignore, you navigate a dizzyingly large menu of star systems and planets laid out in 3D space. Points of interest are noted as “landing zones.” But when you select a planet, you can use your cursor to manually select anywhere on any planet’s surface. Starfield, as the PR team for BGS had been eager to point out ahead of release, features over a thousand distinct fully explorable planets. In terms of sheer surface area, it dwarfs anything else the studio has ever made.

If that technological promise sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Early in my playthrough, I navigated my spaceship to the orbit of Venus and selected a random section of its surface to land. After a brief animation, I walked out onto the arid planetary surface—green tinted and hostile. In the distance, I could make out the shape of a few man-made structures worth exploring. A defunct research facility (full of enemy pirates who attack on sight) and an abandoned mine. I walk a little further and find a mineral deposit, which I scan (aim at and press A) for research data. Then another mine, looking nearly identical to the first, with the same minerals. Then another. Eventually, I hit an invisible wall. The game prompts a message which tells me that if I want to explore further, I need to go back to orbit. So much for the final frontier.

Outside of “handcrafted” story-focused hubs—cities, space stations, small settlements of NPCs—everything on the surface of Starfield’s thousand planets is procedurally generated. Developers decide on general traits for each planet (Mars is arid and red with bouncy gravity; others are filled with valuable resources like water but have orbits littered with asteroids and space debris) and use algorithms to generate the entirety of their terrains. Occasional points of interest (“mini dungeons” like empty factories and caves) are sprinkled in for the sake of variety—as if the silhouette of yet another blocky-looking research facility in the distance is encouraging enough for the trip by jet-pack across unpopulated rock for five more minutes. While exploring the game’s frontiers (the titular “Starfield”) the player quickly realizes that each of these seemingly infinite landing zones is really just a tile of randomly generated terrain that only extends for a few kilometers in each direction. So, when measuring the number of “unique” locations players can explore, Starfield seems massive. But it’s also empty.

While Starfield is a BGS game through and through—“Skyrim in space” is reductive but not wrong—it doesn’t so much revolutionize the Bethesda RPG formula as it blows it up to a nauseating scale. Fans of The Elder Scrolls and Fallout will be familiar with the character creation screen, the world filled with warring factions, the companion characters, and goofy side quests (including a Batman spoof the internet already loves) off the beaten path. There are densely packed cities populated by RPG mainstays like rival gangs, ambitious shopkeepers, and suspicious religious groups. It’s got solid combat, a fancy new graphics engine, and shipped relatively bug-free (a relief following the debacle of Fallout 76). Starfield may never reach the narrative highs of Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Last of Us, but it doesn’t need to. While emotional stakes may be lacking, its writing is always serviceable, often quite funny. The main quest—chasing down ancient (space) magic with a band of Victorian-style gentleman (space) explorers—is nothing to write home about, but the scripted portions of the game at the very least entertaining. Narrative-wise, Starfield is the best BGS game since Fallout 3.

The strength of Starfield’s scripted sections make it all the more frustrating that the rest of the game seems to be crammed full of mechanics and systems that are at odds with themselves. Once the tutorial lets the player loose, the core gameplay loop of Starfield is never really defined. Instead, the developers go wide rather than deep, dipping their toes into dozens of underdeveloped gameplay systems. There’s sci-fi gunplay (serviceable), planet exploration (boring), base building (inconsequential), spaceship combat (confusing), and survival mechanics like crafting and cooking (so simplistic that they should have been cut).

From a marketability perspective—Bethesda’s oft-repeated mantra is that you can “go anywhere, be anyone”—including all of these mechanics make sense. But when compared to what Starfield does well (writing, level design, and not much else), the developers’ insistence on including so much busywork is baffling. BGS celebrates their games having choices as something essential in of itself, rather than ensuring that those choices actually matter. It’s a fixation on having stuff to do versus actual scripted sequences. On quantity over quality. The illusion of scale.

Bethesda has existed under various names since the late 1980s, but its status as pop-RPG hitmaker can be traced to the 2002 release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Under project lead Todd Howard—who’d go on to become BGS’s Silicon Valley-style visionary-slash-PR man—Morrowind revamped the forgettable early PC Elder Scrolls games into a console-friendly action RPG. Combining the originals’ first-person combat system with a new emphasis on world design, character building, and exploration, Morrowind popularized the cryptic mechanics of PC RPGs and refocused that complexity into writing and art. “Old school” character building was still an essential part of the game, but now those stats were used in concrete, action-driven mechanics like dialogue persuasion, lock-picking, and real-time character movement rather than number-based dice rolls. Between the streamlined mechanics and a partnership with Microsoft’s fledgling Xbox console, Morrowind became Bethesda’s biggest game to date. Two expansions and a sequel, Oblivion, quickly followed.

In the aughts, BGS built a reputation as a developer of “gamer’s games.” In 2008, the BGS-developed Fallout 3 brought the moody, isometric world of Interplay’s Fallout PC games into their Oblivion engine. Critics wrote the game off as an action-driven oversimplification of what made the original Fallouts great—“Oblivion with guns”—but BGS’s 3D Fallout games became a success to rival The Elder Scrolls. Never mind that many of the role-playing mechanics were copy-pasted from Oblivion or that the narrative featured way fewer narrative-altering choices than the originals. Fallout 3 was well-written (if linear), fun to play, and accessible in a way the PC games of the 1990s could never be. And so, by watering the games down and adding some explosions, Bethesda’s reputation got even bigger.

By the 2010s, Bethesda was an empire. Howard, now the public face of not just Bethesda but of the Elder Scrolls and Fallout IPs, featured in magazine profiles and was interviewed on business TV. Subreddits and Twitter threads popped up full of fans only half-jokingly buying into the company-pushed image of Howard as “real” gaming’s boy genius, whose climb from a hobbyist messing around on his Apple II to project lead on some of the biggest games of the decade became a sort of nerd culture American dream. It was during this era, in 2012, that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim released with a nonsensical story, watered-down RPG mechanics, and the biggest world of all BGS RPGs. In part thanks to a robust modding scene, which kept the internet invested in the game for years after its release, Skyrim was BGS’s biggest game yet—the studio’s defining title and, to date, the seventh best-selling game of all time.

This growth mindset took hold in the business side of things too. Starting in the late 2000s, BGS’s parent company ZeniMax Media began acquiring other game studios and transitioning Bethesda into an expanded role as a publisher. While Bethesda Game Studios focused on their flagship RPGs, newly purchased studios expanded the Bethesda brand to other genres like first-person shooters (id Software’s 2016 DOOM reboot) and immersive sims (Arkane Studios’ cult favorites Dishonored and Prey). In the span of a few years, Bethesda transitioned from a small but savvy RPG developer to a prestige imprint for risky, conceptual games. The BGS output during this time (Fallout 4 and, notably, Fallout 76’s flopped experiment with MMO-style multiplayer) stagnated, but the Bethesda brand had never been healthier. And it’s in this moment, with Bethesda’s reputation at a critical and commercial high, that Microsoft entered talks to buy the company and its IPs outright. In 2021, the purchase was finalized—Bethesda would be incorporated as an autonomous imprint of Microsoft’s expanding Xbox Game Studios, a deal worth $7.5 billion. 

In a pre-release puff piece published in British GQ, art director Istvan Pely describes Starfield as “all clunk and clutter,” a throwback to the 1960s space age aesthetic when technology was “tactile” and the prospect of space exploration was optimistic and limitless. “NASA punk,” they call it—a portmanteau that should make anyone familiar with science fiction (or words in general) groan. There were dozens of reviews, interviews, and profiles published ahead of Starfield’s release, most of which highlight Howard’s nerdy enthusiasm (“Everyone else is better at [development,]” the GQ piece quotes, “I just ask the right questions.”) and mentions the Microsoft deal in passing.

It seems like no one has stopped to ask the question: Will the games be good?

But more than anything else in Bethesda’s history, the Microsoft purchase demonstrates Starfield’s flaws—an emphasis on being bigger rather than better. It makes sense why Microsoft, whose Xbox products have been famously unprofitable, would want access to Bethesda’s readymade brand. After a console generation of losing both critically and commercially to Sony’s PlayStation-exclusive games like The Last of Us, Spider-Man, and God of War, Xbox needs its next Halo.

That Bethesda’s target audience is “real gamers” with (supposed) taste is invaluable for Microsoft’s otherwise bottomless pockets. Never mind that mere name recognition kept the company in the public good grace post-Skyrim, even as the quality of its products dropped and the market became saturated with competition. In the second half of the 2010s, competing with new RPG series like Dark Souls and The Witcher that promoted their complexity and unforgiving difficulty as a selling point, Skyrim’s “you can be anyone” messaging wrapped up in a janky packaging felt less charming than lazy; anachronistic, the development philosophy of a different time.

Four months after its release, practically a lifetime in the uber-competitive attention marketplace of video games, it’s clear that Starfield is not, despite its massive budget, the killer app that the Xbox brand (which now incorporates consoles, PCs, a “Game Pass” subscription service, and experiments with cloud gaming) has been hoping for. Despite mainstream press coverage before and immediately following the games’ release, it’s currently sitting at a “mixed or average” 7.0 user score on review aggregator Metacritic (think Rotten Tomatoes for video games, including all the baggage such a comparison entails).

Popular game streamers and YouTube creators made a sport out of picking apart the BGS’s false promises—notably the emptiness of procedurally generated planetary surfaces and the fact that unlike popular space simulators like No Man’s Sky or Elite Dangerous, Starfield’s galaxy is walled off between loading screens. In an industry as cutthroat and indebted to the whims of the internet’s “outrage machine” as triple-A gaming, Starfield’s aggressively average reception is by no means the worst thing that could have happened (look to the memes about Fallout 76’s release for that). But after releasing in the middle of 2023, a year that’s probably going to be held up as one of the best in recent memory for critically acclaimed gaming, Starfield might face an equally undesirable (for investors) ending—being forgotten.

But even without the fanboys on their side for this particular title, Microsoft has their bases covered. Since 2002, with the $375 million purchase of beloved Nintendo-affiliate studio Rare, the company has been trying to close the gap from its late entry to the gaming world by throwing money at the problem. Some of these deals and acquisitions have been successes—Bungie’s Halo and Epic Games’ Gears of War series were defining hits of their eras—and some have not (most Rare games). Alarmingly, though, the speed of Microsoft’s acquisitions has been accelerating.

Shortly after the Bethesda purchase, Microsoft announced an even bigger deal, its intention to purchase major competitor Activision Blizzard, the team behind massive (even for Microsoft’s standards) series like Call of Duty and Overwatch. The FTC filed a suit on antitrust grounds, as did similar agencies in Europe, but the nearly $69 billion acquisition was finalized in mid-October 2023. Just like BGS did with Starfield, the title that was supposed to define the Xbox brand in the 2020s, Microsoft decided to go wide rather than deep in its latest battle against Sony and Playstation. And, just like Starfield, in the rush to build the biggest business in gaming, it seems like no one has stopped to ask the question: Will the games be good?

The worst externality of this unprecedented consolidation and expansion of the gaming world is that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t even matter if Starfield is good or bad or connects with audiences at all. Todd Howard, the endearingly awkward face of a game studio once known for its scrappiness, has become a million-dollar asset of a billion-dollar company in the middle of an entertainment arms race to make trillions. While small-scale and independent games continue to thrive on more-or-less their own terms, Triple-A gaming has gone the way of Hollywood—all about scale, sequels, and billion-dollar IPs. In 2023, there have been a few titles—The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate 3—that have managed to walk the tightrope between scale and still feeling handcrafted. But Starfield’s clunk and clutter and throwback sense of techno-optimism seem like less of a deliberate artistic choice than a distraction from what video games of the past ten years have been doing wrong. That as the tech gets better and better, the stars are the limit for what gaming can become. But that doesn’t mean those worlds will be worth exploring.