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Tuesday, December 26, 2023 10:19:12 AM

Starfield Review (cornix94)

We've been hearing for years that Starfield is Bethesda's passion project, a game that they've been wanting to make even before Morrowind came out.
If this game is Bethesda's passion project, then they've lost their passion.
Plenty of reviewers are dragging Starfield for its technical issues. While it's true that Bethesda should not get a free pass on that stuff just because "lol, they're Bethesda", I was prepared to accept a certain level of jank if it meant experiencing an inspired world. What really kills this game is that the setting itself is deeply, relentlessly boring. It's a haphazard collage of space frontier tropes. And you know what? That could have been fine. Tropes can be effective when wielded in service of a strong creative vision. But here, there is no greater vision. There is nothing, and I mean *nothing*, to this setting beyond the tropes that serve as its foundation.
For our major powers, we have a vaguely Western-flavored federal government, a vaguely Texan-flavored frontier alliance, a vaguely Eastern-flavored corpocracy, some scrappy pirates, and some mysterious religious zealots. There is nothing meaningful to know about any of these societies beyond whatever pictures of them you just conjured in your head. If you have an ounce of creativity, the pictures in your head are probably more detailed and compelling than the crap that made it into the game. It almost seems like these factions have been consciously sanitized, as if someone went through the first draft and removed any cultural or aesthetic identifiers beyond the baseline of "Hey, this frontier guy wears a cowboy hat, likes guns, and has a bit of a stubborn streak!". You'd think that the writers would be forced to come up with some creative quirks just to explain how these people adapted to their alien environments, but even that minimal level of flavor exceeds the bounds of Bethesda's vision.
This aggressive blandness persists at every scale. We have planets that run the gamut of environmental conditions, but none of them impose meaningful gameplay changes (aside from gravity's effect on jump height, which is basically the lowest hanging fruit possible), inspire variations on the ten or so prefabricated structures that we can encounter, or even have much influence on which of the handful of flora, fauna, and feature assets can populate the game's tragically samey landscapes. One of the foundational aspects of space exploration as a genre is exploring how extreme conditions shape strategies and societies. Starfield cares so little for this relationship that it borders on immersion-breaking. I expected that Starfield would rely on repeatable assets to some extent, and that exploration would lose its shine once you've exhausted the list of things to encounter. What I didn't expect was just how short that list would be, or how sloppily curated it would be in the context of the game's environments.
And then there's the writing. Oh goodness, the writing. The best thing I can say is that, on a micro scale, it consists of grammatically correct sentences which could plausibly be uttered by a sane human being. Beyond that, it's shot through with the same listlessness that permeates every other aspect of the game. I'll present two case studies.
I came upon a sidequest where an unknown vessel was orbiting a resort planet. Investigation reveals it to be a generation ship sent from Old Earth, back before humanity developed FTL travel. They don't take it well when you explain that their new home has already been claimed by Space Epcot. The captain asks you, some random hobo who just happened across them, to negotiate with the corpos on their behalf. They send along no observers or advocates, and don't even think to request a direct line of communication. The corpos offer you three options: blow up the ship and kill the colonists, coerce them into indentured servitude, or pay out of your own pocket to install an FTL drive aboard their ship so they can find another planet. There are no other options to advocate for the colonists. At no point does either party express any sort of cultural interest, or even basic curiosity about the other. There are no potential interactions with other factions or alternate arrangements for compensation, despite it being well-established that everything to do with Old Earth (down to the meanest paperweight) is treated as an invaluable piece of vintage history. The situation has the setup for a potentially game-changing historical event, and the most interesting thing Bethesda can squeeze from it is "Corpos bad, are you willing to pay to feel better than them?" If a 15th century carrack made landfall on the shores of Florida carrying the long lost descendents of Ferdinand Magellan's twin brother, I don't think Disney World's first reaction would be "Shit, they want our land, pump 'em full of lead!"
Second case study. There's a plotline where you infiltrate the big pirate faction on behalf of the feds, right under the nose of their cunning leader and his paranoid, security-obsessed XO. So how do you stay in contact with your handlers during this delicate deep cover op? By PHYSICALLY FLYING FROM THE PIRATE BASE TO THE FEDERAL FLAGSHIP every time you complete a mission. Holy hell, are dead drops not a thing in this universe? Are the feds actively trying to give you away? During these OpSec-destroying excursions, you'll have the opportunity to turn in supplementary evidence on the pirates' many crimes. This evidence comes in the form of incriminating tapes that are just laying around in the general vicinity of the perpetrators. None of them, including the canny, wary pirate leaders, will raise objections to you stuffing said tapes into your knapsack in full view of everyone. While turning in these tapes, you'll speak to the federal XO, who repeatedly inquires as to your impressions of the pirate leader. You can either lie and say he's a nosepicking vagrant, in which case you'll be praised for your patriotism, or you can accurately inform her that he's an intelligent and charismatic figure who poses a real threat, in which case she'll chew you out for the betrayal of respecting the enemy. The questline sustains this level of cartoonishness right up to the end, where the defeated, betrayed pirate leader tells your narc ass that he's proud of you because deep down, you're the greatest pirate of all. A generous reading could paint this horrorshow as a satire of Hoover's CIA or something, but I'm not feeling very generous at the moment.
The common thread between these two cases is apathy. These scenarios have the potential to be so interesting and memorable, and the writers probably have the chops to deliver. But instead, they just... settle for mediocrity. They're writing with the expectation that they won't be held to a high standard. Situations don't have to make sense, commentary doesn't need to be thoughtful, narrative potential doesn't yearn to be realized. Dialogue is just there to point the way towards more gameplay, so write a few words and move on to the next contrivance. More and more, I feel like Bethesda views their games as theme parks; they're not writing a story, they're building a bunch of rides and doing the minimum necessary to shuffle people from one to the other.
And now, the rides aren't even fun. Starfield uses humdrum, recycled assets to simulate a humdrum, recycled setting. None of its components do anything to support each other: not the worldbuilding, not the environments, not the gameplay, not the writing. Every part of this game talks past every other part, and if you care to listen, you'll find that they're all just rambling drunkenly about the weather. The result is a joyless, colorless mess memorable only for the lengths it goes to insult its players. Bethesda can do better than this. But they probably won't, because they don't think they have to, and apparently professional shame isn't enough of a motivator for them.