Bethesda Game Studio’s upcoming sci-fi epic RPG, Starfield, has a lot riding on its shoulders. While the developer’s games continue to sell quite well, the fandom is somewhat cooler on Fallout 4 than prior projects, and initial reception to the most recent Bethesda entry, Fallout 76, was so dire that few are even aware the multiplayer sandbox has made a pretty impressive turnaround. With senior producer Todd Howard claiming that Starfield will feel like more of an RPG than recent efforts — and the game unexpectedly becoming a key Xbox exclusive — it’s no coincidence that the development team has elected to release it on the 11th anniversary of Skyrim: 11/11/22. Bethesda is making a statement of quality and self-assurance, so here’s a statement from yours truly — here are five things we want from Starfield.
The best Bethesda games are the ones that stick in our heads even when we’re not actively playing them. Their mood-setting soundtracks, lush and lively sound effects, and appropriately lived-in feelings all contribute to a unique identity. Hundreds of Western RPGs have been created since Morrowind, for example, and many are well worth playing. But not a single one of them feels like Morrowind. That strange, titular realm is home to bizarre creatures and hollowed-out giant mushroom townships. How Vivec City stands out in the south, nine massive cantons as imposing as the god-kings the Dunmer revere is Bethesda’s art team at their strongest.
Starfield must take cues from Morrowind and many other Bethesda classics. What is a space opera without awe? If we will be visiting alien worlds, should they not be diverse? Some as vividly so as Vvardenfell, others almost Earth-like in appearance but with buzzing insects that make noises unlike any we’ve heard and magnetic storms too severe for urban sprawls to ever sprout. The music should rival the greatest open-world themes. Small animals ought to frolic and flee, giving deadly and dreadful predators a wide berth. The game must feel alive.
For my money, no Bethesda Game Studios epic better captures the sense of immediate adventure quite like Oblivion. In Oblivion, it’s a short and fateful traipse through a rat-infested dungeon and you’re off to the open world. The realm’s capital, Imperial City, looms before you in all its walled grandeur. But look in any other direction you’ll be greeted by emerald plains, shaded forests, scary caves, and ancient ruins. No matter which way you choose to move, it won’t be long before an adventure begins.
Adventure must await us in Starfield, and we should recognize that quickly. Bethesda opening sequences are seldom award-worthy; it’s that first moment of the vastness that truly sticks with us. With a literal spaceship to command and the unequaled width and depth of space as our proverbial ocean, the high-octane adventure should be our #1 fuel source. Planets should look intriguing even at a cursory glance, their true depths springing to life as we land. Fellow explorers should tell us about the distant reaches, the uncharted regions, and the supposed treasures lingering out in the unknown.
Nothing can compare to initiating liftoff and traveling across the universe at faster-than-light speeds. If Bethesda cannot manage to make the most incredible premise suitably mesmerizing, Starfield probably can’t limp along on these other four out of five things we want from the game.
Maybe this one screams obvious, but there are some wonderful space-based science fiction stories that either focus more on human infighting (The Expanse comes to mind) or omit alien life entirely (now I’m thinking Battlestar Galactica). It is entirely feasible to craft a compelling interstellar narrative without extraterrestrials. But it probably isn’t what Bethesda Game Studios should do here.
Let’s dwell on the Altmer of The Elder Scrolls; high elves through and through, but with a distinctly Elder Scrolls flavor that proves Bethesda Game Studios can bring fresh angles to old notions. In Fallout 3, there is a quest to stop a cult of literal nuke-worshipers from unleashing another armageddon. And the more said about Fallout‘s ghoul people, the better. I can already think of five preexisting sci-fi and fantasy races I’d love to see in Starfield; five distinct things the game should feature isn’t much harder.
We already know that Bethesda is capable of giving us intriguing aliens. They just haven’t been… well, aliens. The pride and arrogance of the Dunmer. The warrior spirit of the Redguards. It doesn’t take a magician to transform these aspects into galactic empires and star-roving bands. But it does require competent writing. Bethesda has slipped up on that side in the past, but by and large, I have plenty of faith.
There should also be a good number of aliens of the more unknowable variety. The Rachni from Mass Effect, for example. These hive-minded bugs perceive their universe through specific conjunctions of color and sound. Let’s turn the Rachni into economic staples all over again.
Nothing says “space” quite like Star Trek. Since 1966 (1965 if we count that failed first pilot), journalists like me have brusquely inserted the phrase “boldly go” into everything that’s ever been written about Star Trek. I won’t do that to you… wait, whoops. I already did.
One of the things fans adore about Trek, to the point that it can be quite contentious when new content is made that doesn’t expressly demonstrate this trait, is the idea that most problems can be resolved via diplomacy rather than weaponry. Certainly, Starfield will need plenty of combat in its arsenal of gameplay systems. A 100% peaceful experience would be tough to jive with the Bethesda formula. But Fallout 3 and the Obsidian-helmed Fallout: New Vegas had so many skill checks that allowed players to resolve tense scenarios through knowledge, persuasion, and even science.
Let’s leverage that big-time in Starfield. All those aliens must do the things they do for a reason. If players are given the opportunity to find out what makes some of their foes tick, they should also be able to use that information to prevent at least some otherwise lethal encounters. Ditto plenty of standoffs against our fellow humans.
If an angry starship commander wants to kill an alien in a bar due to his or her xenophobic streak, maybe we can teach the fool that they share more in common with the hapless extraterrestrial than they realize. If a sneaky, stealthy species is monitoring us uncomfortably because they thirst for an excellent understanding of who we are, why not keep your gun holstered and try to explain first why there are less invasive ways to find out?
These are just a few examples of why diplomatic opportunities are one of the five big things we want to see from Starfield.
Taking things completely in the opposite direction here, but Bethesda shouldn’t forget that many of its fans are avid role-players. While I recognize it’s a lot of work and resources are never unlimited, the above passage’s content should not be overemphasized to the point that more Machiavellian characters are impossible to create.
To cite Mass Effect again, one of the coolest things about the games is how players can role-play Commander Shepard to be an absolute jerk, often to hilarious effect. There are also moments of pure darkness that show a renegade Shepard unafraid to get their hands dirty for the sake of a mission.
And then some players legitimately seek the means to “write” their character as being completely evil and outright opposed to the type of heroism embellished among most of Bethesda Game Studio’s main questlines. While it would be exceedingly difficult to pen Starfield‘s questline such that it can facilitate pure scum, we should at least be able to be vindictive and ultraviolent in smaller-scale scenarios. Perhaps peaceful outcomes with too many strings attached just aren’t your thing. Better to blow ’em all up and let the cosmic space gods sort it out.
All Together Now
Ultimately, I suppose it would be apt to say that what Starfield needs is a three-dimensional setting chock full of memorable content. It also needs to be able to accommodate multiple play styles along the way. The five things we want from Starfield can fold into one word: quality. If Todd Howard and the gang deliver an excellent sci-fi epic that doesn’t funnel players along one path rigidly, Xbox will have a hit on its hands.