More than a decade after its release, Skyrim still holds a special place in players’ hearts. Bethesda games tend to do that. The tireless efforts of countless modders, combined with the high quality of the vanilla game, have kept many players coming back again and again. Now, Starfield has joined the scene. On the surface, a sci-fi treasure hunt across the universe might not seem much like the Dragonborn’s quest to restore order to a fractured continent, but these two games have much in common. Immersion ranks amongst the most important aspects of both. In the Starfield vs. Skyrim showdown: Which game is more immersive?
Exploration in Starfield vs. Skyrim
Starfield and Skyrim are both immersive in their own ways. One of the biggest points of divergence relates to exploration and how travel is handled. Setting aside dungeons and the interiors of buildings, Skyrim is basically one undivided landscape. The player can run from one end of the kingdom to the other, and despite the presence of horses, that’s exactly what most players do. The unbroken map, combined with the slow yet meditative means of traversing it, grounds players in the present moment. You feel every onslaught of rain or break in the clouds. When you’re that attuned to every step of the journey, immersion is inevitable.
On the other hand, Starfield takes a compartmentalized approach. Cities, settlements, space stations, and dungeons all exist in separate instances. So do the countless procedurally generated landing sites that the player can explore. Whether the player is fast-traveling from place to place or flying their ship, travel is much more akin to a montage than an unbroken film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach to gameplay, and some players will prefer it. Arguably, however, it’s more cinematic than immersive: You may feel that you’re watching a thrilling and wonderous journey, but you don’t always feel like you’re a part of it.
Immersion in Bethesda’s Plots
In terms of immersion in the story, one of Starfield’s biggest problems occurs at the very beginning. You ride an elevator into the mines, touch a mysterious artifact, and the next thing you know, Barrett is handing Vasco and the Frontier over to you. Anyone who has played Fallout 4 long enough to meet Preston Garvey understands Bethesda’s tendency to hand players the reins of power a little too quickly. NPCs in Bethesda games have an odd habit of shoving the player into trusted leadership positions before they’ve fully earned that trust. Starfield isn’t necessarily more guilty of this phenomenon than other Bethesda games, but starting the main quest off that way is jarring.
How does the infamous cart ride into Helgen compare? Well, it’s as tightly scripted and restrictive as Starfield’s mine opening, but at least no NPC entrusts a stranger with their prized possessions five minutes into it. Freedom of choice is a critical factor in immersion because if the player finds their decision-making hemmed in by invisible walls, the illusion of presence quickly begins to crumble. It’s easier to ignore Skyrim’s Dragonborn plot than it is the demands of Constellation in Starfield. You’re all but shoved into the latter. It’s an understandable design decision but an unfortunate narrative one.
Starfield Immersion Mods
When it comes to immersion, Skyrim beats Starfield handily, but the debate doesn’t end there. Something tips the scales in Skyrim’s favor, and until it’s accounted for, there’s no way of knowing which game will prove itself the more immersive with time. The difference is mods. Skyrim has one of the largest and most dedicated modding community around. 12 years after the game’s release, new mods continue to appear daily. These include everything from bug fixes to new cities, and immersion mods have done wonders to build upon Bethesda’s foundation.
Whether or not Starfield proves as popular, it will inevitably have a multitude of mods as time goes on. Bethesda games don’t achieve their final form until the modding community has had its say. In the Starfield vs. Skyrim debate, it’s fair to say that Skyrim is the more immersive game right now. It’s also fair to say that the future may change that. One game is already an immersive masterpiece, and with time, the other may become one too. With that in mind, there’s one clear winner: Bethesda fans.
Starfield is available for PC and Xbox Series X/S.