Starfield Is Too Big to Fail
For Xbox and its fans, Starfield isn't just a game but a cause.Games Features Starfield
The moment that Todd Howard told players that they could climb that faraway mountain in Skyrim, Bethesda trapped itself. It’s been over a decade since the infamous phrase was uttered by the exec during an E3 showcase, but even now, fans expect all Bethesda games to fulfill the same grandiose fantasy. In space, every planet is still a mountain, waiting to be conquered.
The first faction you join in Starfield, Constellation, is a reflection of Bethesda’s ongoing proposal to players. You are a part of the last real collection of space explorers, who feel it’s their duty as humans to see what’s out there. What a shock, then, for players to find out Starfield puts literal barriers up that prevent you from knowing what’s at the end of the horizon. There are 1,000 planets, but you can only see a specific segment of any of them—if they don’t turn out to be barren.
Bethesda was upfront about this design choice, sure. In an interview this summer, Todd Howard explained that the base gameplay loop would see players land on new ground, explore, and then go on their way to the next destination. Despite the larger open-world trends that have blossomed since Bethesda last put out a game, Starfield doesn’t expect you to turn over every space rock. It wants you to keep going, wherever that might be.
Part of the issue is presentation. Starfield sees players endlessly fiddling about menus, whether that’s mucking around your inventory or choosing your ship’s next stop. In typical Bethesda fashion, the UI governing all of this is confusing and esoteric, making it harder to complete basic tasks. Rather than bombarding you with icons, as Ubisoft typically does, Starfield maps are barren and borderline useless. The vast endlessness of space is confined to picking your next fast travel destination via a list, and watching a loading screen zip by. Well, unless you have patience: one intrepid Starfield player spent seven hours traveling to a planet manually, just to see if it was possible. For most of us, though, parts of Starfield have more in common with filling out a government form than it does achieving manifest destiny.
Starfield’s opening hours also do not invite the sense of wonder you’d expect from delving into the cosmos. You start out literally shooting rocks in a depressingly monotone mining operation. That’s followed up by sending you to a city that feels like someone sucked the air out of Mass Effect’s Citadel; it’s a fluorescent vision of the future that’s cold and sterile. NPCs ‘living’ in this space look like they exist merely to take up space. That reality is jarring in the face of games like Baldur’s Gate 3, which takes care to give you a voiced closeup on every character you meet. It’s also hard to ignore that if you’ve played a Bethesda game before, you’re likely going to recognize a ton of what’s in Starfield, from upcycled art assets to base game functions. It then takes hours for the game to really get going, albeit with the controversial limits to exploration. Prior to release, Bethesda’s Pete Hines remarked that it took him 130 hours to truly experience what makes Starfield appealing.
Communities like those on Reddit are staunchly apologetic about all of this, those design oversights that would normally sink a smaller game, but they’ve got to be. Fans have waited for nearly a decade for this game, all while Bethesda promised that their first original universe in 25 years would have “unparalleled freedom.” It’s a phrase that’s turned up time and time again, from the game’s official website, to recent interviews post-launch. If you’re on Xbox, the system will literally interrupt whatever else you’re doing to provide this promise.
The problem is that for fans of the genre, traversing every pixel that stands before you, no matter how empty or tedious, is what it means to be free. The open-world fantasy, set by games like Skyrim and ballooned to impossible standards by games like Cyberpunk 2077, has always hinged on being whoever you want and doing whatever you want. Judging from the trajectory of modern Bethesda franchises like Fallout, Bethesda is eager to meet part of this ceaseless, impossible fantasy, often at the cost of the things that make their games compelling in the first place. While systems like dialogue and choice have worsened over the years, Bethesda continues doubling down on procedural generation. Starfield randomly generates attractions as you explore, sometimes sprinkling in hand-crafted elements like quests within your playground. The hope is that you’ll be sated by always having something to do, but as it turns out, some players won’t feel ownership over what they can’t see or touch.
Unfortunately, where games like No Man’s Sky were hyped by fans well beyond its actual ambition, Starfield needs to be that girl. Microsoft purchased the RPG heavyweight for billions, proceeding to make Starfield exclusive for Xbox. Likely, Microsoft was eyeing the staying power of classic games like Skyrim, which many fans have bought several times, in the hopes that it will sell consoles.
All the while, by its own admission, Microsoft has been struggling. Game Pass is losing luster amid price increases and endless ala carte subscriptions, and its few would-be heavy hitters, like Redfall, immediately fizzle out. For fans who have made console wars their entire identity, Starfield’s public perception is a crisis worth evangelizing about. The possibility that audiences are misunderstanding or misrepresenting the RPG’s shortcomings are a potent motivator for fans who believe they’ve caught something most people are missing.
Will you find Starfield’s appeal after sticking it out and getting used to its quirks? As with most things, your mileage may vary. Even positive reviews carry a tinge of disappointment. Soon, though, the baton will be passed to the industry’s last triple-A leviathan, GTA 6. It’s impossible to predict how much the landscape will shift during this gestation period, how many studios might close, and how many trends might die, all in the service of meeting lofty promises, skyrocketing development costs, and perpetual profits.
Unlike most games navigating these precarious realities, though, Starfield will likely survive any of its controversies or shortcomings. For Microsoft, the game is too big to fail. And for fans trumpeting the cause, Starfield has gone from being one of the biggest games in the industry, into a convincing underdog that just happens to be worth billions of dollars.
Patricia Hernandez is the former editor-in-chief of Kotaku, where she spent a decade writing and editing. Prior to that, she served as the Culture Editor at Polygon, and as a reporter at The Verge.