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4 Reasons Why Starfield Needs to Be Great

Starfield has a lot riding on it: it's carrying the legacy of Skyrim and Morrowind, but at the same time it's carrying the baggage of Fallout 76. Bethesda are at a crossroads as a company, and Starfield could be the moment of truth.

Starfield Needs to be Great

I am pleased to say that I am now (cautiously) optimistic about Starfield. This is important because, for the sake of its genre, I think Starfield needs to be great. Bethesda’s recent work has left me and many others lukewarm at best. Fallout 4 seemed a step away from what the studio does well. Fallout 76 was an unmitigated disaster. With the release of the recent deep dive video, Starfield looks like it might just break that pattern.

Starfield Direct – Gameplay Deep Dive

Throughout the years I’ve been fond of saying that Bethesda is not especially good at what they do, but nobody else seems even to try. The experience of playing Morrowind or Skyrim or Fallout bears a resemblance to playing many more modern open-world games, but there are some key differences. And those key differences are subtle enough that even Bethesda themselves may not even notice them.

I’m going to outline 4 things that Starfield needs to do in order to restore my faith in the company. Things that, hopefully, Elder Scrolls VI will benefit from as well. Some of these things are already confirmed, others are still in question.

A Silent Protagonist

It seems to me that many people assume that a main character with a voice is innately superior to a silent one. I strongly disagree, and given that one of Fallout 4’s most popular mods specifically silences the main character, it seems I’m not alone. I understand why some people prefer voiced protagonists: on an intuitive level, it should be easier to emotionally connect with a character that benefits from an actors performance. But I’d argue that emotional connection isn’t the point of a great RPG protagonist, which is what Starfield needs. 

One of my biggest issues with Fallout 4 was that the game was always telling me who I was and what I wanted. The strength of my avatar’s character ironically weakened them as an avatar.

The stripped down dialogue interface didn't help either.

The stripped down dialogue interface didn’t help either.

I’m told what my backstory is. I’m told what my motives are. The emotion of the main character’s performance seemed purpose-built to support the story Bethesda wanted to tell.

A silent protagonist is silent because their story isn’t the point; yours is. You, the player. You don’t need to empathize with a fictional character’s experience: the experience happens directly to you. I’m often told this is a minor point, but in game where talking to people is a core pillar of gameplay, the voice of your main character becomes an aspect of the core gameplay loop. In Fallout 4, how I imagine myself to talk conflicts with how I’m talking. This happens literally every time I enter a conversation. I’m glad that Starfield’s protagonist won’t be doing that.

Character Options That Matter

It’s no coincidence that the most replayed part of the deep dive is the character creation section. The moment Bethesda started talking about how traits and background will affect story, people paid attention. And to be frank, this is part of the article where I stop telling Bethesda to go back to what they were doing before. This is where I start talking about how they can improve.

The presence of these choices – character options with weight – is not a consistent part of Bethesda’s work. Their previous silent protagonists were good at not intruding on roleplay but typically did little to enhance it. The charm of older Bethesda titles was just that you could get up to whatever insane shenanigans you wanted, and the game didn’t stop you.

This is so baked into their design ethos that when Fallout 4 tried to mix it with a more rigid protagonist, the result was an unintentional comedy. In Fallout 4, no matter what, you are a parent trying to save their child. This remains true even if you massacre a family farm and feast on their remains. Five minutes later you can be pleading tearfully with another character to help you find your son, presumably still stinking of human remains.

There is something fundamentally deranged about how little the option to become a cannibal changes the way others react to you. This contrived tension has existed in most of Bethesda’s games to some extent: in Skyrim, you can assassinate the emperor and parade around the capital wearing his robes minutes before joining the Imperial Legion. The traits and background system could represent Bethesda taking this issue more seriously.

In Divinity: Original Sin II, you choose 2 backgrounds that open up new choices.

In Divinity: Original Sin II, you choose 2 backgrounds that open up new choices.

Having quest outcomes depend on your background. Having certain characters appear only if you select certain traits. There’s a persuasive argument that such choices are the lifeblood of roleplaying. The thing you need to get right first before you worry about anything else. I hope it carries over into more major story decisions.

A Great Supporting Cast

Companion characters in roleplaying games make for great foils. Chiefly because they aren’t just there to be appealing on their own; they serve a purpose. A truism of fiction: there are three ways to characterize someone. What they say, what they do, and what others say about them. Two of those options require other characters. Wringing humanity out of a protagonist with nobody to play off is extremely difficult. This is one reason why the supporting cast of Bioware-style games are so crucial. The presence of strong personalities to ally with, to oppose, to agree and disagree with, is an invaluable roleplaying tool.

One of the best ways to make Skyrim a better roleplaying game is a mod called Interesting NPCs. And all it does is add more characters to the world with strong personalities and perspectives. A lot of them can’t even be recruited; they’re just interesting to talk to. They give the Dragonborn the opportunity to define through dialogue their perspective on the game world.

Just the injection of some humanity makes Skyrim's world feel real.

Just the injection of some humanity makes Skyrim’s world feel real.

Honestly, companions were one thing that Fallout 4 did well. Piper and company had a fair bit more going on than the legion of walking meat shields that comprises Skyrim’s companions. The problem with them, to my mind, was that the mechanical role of being a follower limited their agency. They were programmed to help you in any and all combat situations, even when doing so was severely out of character. The best way for Starfield to improve on them would be to make it possible for them to refuse your commands or even try to stop you.

Avoid The Procedural Trap

The mere existence of a vast in-game galaxy does not impress me anymore. No Man’s Sky had a rocky release demonstrating that sheer size does not make a compelling journey.

It took a while before the game actually looked like this.

It took a while before the game actually looked like this.

It isn’t feasible to construct a world of Sarsfield’s magnitude without using AI, but AI does not and may never match the artistic sensibility of a human being. The touted 1000 planets won’t improve the game if they’re all identically artless. Bethesda claims that procedural content is not replacing hand-crafted content, which is good. But that doesn’t mean the procedural content will actually be worthwhile in its own right. Or that it will justify the likely substantial time and money spent on it.

Starfield needs to work that procedural content into a compelling gameplay loop. Shadow of Mordor provides an interesting case study. The Nemesis system proves that AI can produce legitimate emergent storytelling if it’s curated properly. This is where Starfield has its work cut out for it most. If all these planets are just combat arenas with no story, I am dubious as to their necessity. What on these planets is actually worth finding?


Starfield has a tricky legacy. Evidently, it at once has a lot to live up to, and a lot to make up for. Elder Scrolls fans like myself are watching it like a canary in a coalmine. Because it may be the best approximation for how Elder Scrolls VI will eventually turn out. Time will tell if Bethesda goes the way of Ubisoft; a studio that began with grand artistic ambitions that is now infamous for copy and pasting the same gameplay formula year after year.

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