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Infinity Meets the Finite in ‘Starfield’

For its latest blockbuster, Bethesda built ‘Skyrim’ in space. Is that enough to make it an “important” RPG?

Bethesda Game Studios/Ringer illustration

In a certain safe, in a certain city, on a certain planet, in a certain system, while on a certain side quest in Starfield, Bethesda’s new sci-fi RPG, I found a copy of Walt Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” The eight-line poem, first published in 1865, conveys Whitman’s preference for a romantic, experiential, naturalistic communion with the wonders of the universe. As the speaker listens to a lecture by an acclaimed astronomer, he becomes “tired and sick.” And so, seeking relief from proofs and figures, charts and diagrams, he “wander’d off by myself / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time / Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

I’ve spent plenty of time staring at the stars in Starfield. (I have a hard drive full of screenshots to prove it.) I’ve gazed at them from the ground, like Whitman’s narrator—not just in the mystical moist night air, but on moons and planets with no air at all. I’ve seen them in space, from the bridges of several ships and the view ports of scattered space stations. Yet I’ve also seen them in charts and diagrams while plotting countless courses in some of Starfield’s many menus. Whitman’s wandering, wondering narrator would probably find a lot to like about Bethesda’s mammoth new game, but he’d also find a fair amount that would frustrate him. In Starfield, an ambitious scale and scope meet the constraints of technology, interactivity, and players’ and developers’ time. Unlike Starfield’s obliging NPCs, the infinite and finite, and the miraculous and mundane, don’t always make cooperative companions.

All images courtesy of Bethesda

The expectations and stakes for Starfield could hardly be higher. For one thing, it’s the first original IP developed by Bethesda in 25 years. The maker of Fallout and The Elder Scrolls has harbored sci-fi ambitions since the ’90s, and Starfield itself has been in the works for a while: Its title was trademarked 10 years ago, and it’s been in development for most of that decade. The most recent games developed by Bethesda, 2018’s Fallout 76 and 2019’s The Elder Scrolls: Blades, were poorly received, though the reportedly mismanaged Fallout improved after its launch. In 2020, Microsoft spent $7.5 billion to acquire Bethesda parent company ZeniMax Media, partly to ensure that Starfield would appear on Xbox instead of PlayStation. (It’s also playable on PC.) Microsoft has suffered from a dearth of triple-A console exclusives (which was compounded by Bethesda-published Redfall’s flop in May), and the company is counting on Starfield to be the centerpiece of a first-party resurgence.

Now that it’s here, is Starfield shaping up to be “one of the most important RPGs ever made,” as one Xbox executive bragged months before its release? The legacy of a gigantic game isn’t cemented in week one, especially in an era of downloadable content, patches, and post-release rehabilitations (to say nothing of the user-created mods that always spruce up Bethesda games). But based on my time with Starfield and the positive but far from effusive critical consensus, probably not. Part of the problem is that a game that promised to let players “explore with unparalleled freedom” offers qualified freedom, at best. Starfield shoots for the stars, and it definitely lets you look at them. Only intermittently, though, does Starfield seem to be made of star stuff itself. Sometimes, it seems more like the lecture from the learned astronomer.

The most common response to Starfield is that it plays a lot like other Bethesda games—which, depending on the person, can be a compliment or a criticism. Starfield director Todd Howard would agree; in 2021, he described the new game as “like Skyrim in space.” In most respects, it fits the bill: It’s a potentially long-lasting, single-player, player-empowering odyssey featuring factions, funny facial expressions, branching dialogue, innumerable items, a lot of lore, a clunky user interface, and romance with less sex than a superhero film.

That’s not to say Starfield hasn’t improved on past releases in some crucial respects. For instance, it’s a lot less buggy: Aside from a couple of crashes and occasional clipping problems, I haven’t had any issues. Traditionally, Bethesda games have been celebrated more for their side quests than for their main quest lines, but Starfield’s relatively compact campaign is compelling. Combat hasn’t historically been Bethesda’s strong suit, either, but Starfield’s shooting is solid. The game is prettier than past titles, too, as one would expect considering it’s Bethesda’s first release for the current console generation.

Skyrim or Fallout with fewer bugs, a superior story, more kinetic combat, and souped-up graphics sounds like the foundation for a pretty good game. And Starfield is a pretty good game! But it’s not a truly transcendent one, as it aims to be, because counterintuitively, its colossal scale works against the sense of wonder and discovery it strives to instill.

My God, it’s full of Starfield.

Starfield, which takes place in 2330 after humanity has mastered faster-than-light travel and spread out across the galaxy, encompasses some 120 systems and 1,700 combined planets and moons, all of which can be visited. Long before its release, Bethesda’s boasts about Starfield’s size sparked fears that the game would be too big to be consistently satisfying. Not just because some players don’t have hundreds of hours to sightsee, but because almost by necessity, the sights in a game get less interesting, on average, the more of them there are. As a general rule (with some celebrated exceptions), the more massive the game world, the blander or emptier it is. Designing one well-populated, detailed, richly rewarding sandbox is challenging enough. Realistically, applying that process to hundreds or thousands of worlds doesn’t work without cutting corners, even with a big-budget, high-head-count game.

Consequently, the overwhelming majority of Starfield’s worlds are lifeless and barren; it’s lonely out in space. That’s certainly scientifically accurate, but to borrow Whitman’s words, it may still make some players tired and sick. (Presumably, the learned astronomer’s lecture was scientifically accurate too.) Even the livelier planets are largely procedurally generated—algorithmically laid out, rather than handcrafted, with various resources and repetitive, semi-randomly distributed activities sprinkled across the monotonous terrain. No wonder the game’s local planet maps are so featureless: Even if you can kind of go anywhere, you mostly won’t want to.

Even Starfield’s “go anywhere” aspect is somewhat less expansive than some players might have hoped. Although some publications praised the game as “boundless,” boundaries are a prominent part of the Starfield experience. The game doesn’t permit players to fly from the surface to space, or vice versa, a feature Howard has dismissed as “not that important to the player.” (The sensation caused by No Man’s Sky’s trailer takeoff in 2013, and the hype about surface-to-space travel in next year’s Star Wars Outlaws, argue otherwise.) Nor does it allow flight between planets, except in an illusory, superficial sense. And though you can, technically, explore entire planets, as Bethesda teased, you can’t do so seamlessly; invisible barriers surround regions on the surface, forcing players to take off and land elsewhere if they want to roam farther afield.

All of this is understandable from an engineering standpoint. Enabling truly boundless travel could impair the game’s performance and stability, and flying between planets, or running around them, would probably be tedious and time-consuming if environments were rendered to scale. Still, reducing the transition from surface to space, from space to space station, and from system to system to button presses and loading screens undercuts the cohesiveness of Starfield’s ostensibly unified universe, making infinity feel oddly confining. Because Starfield’s settings are so spread out, its gameplay loop relies on menu-based fast travel; you don’t see something in the distance and navigate to it so much as you select a quest and teleport to it.

I never fast traveled in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom because skipping straight to my destination meant missing out on the journey. Instead, I always took the scenic route, running or riding—the latter of which isn’t an option in Starfield—and delighting in unscheduled discoveries along the way. As enormous as the Tears of the Kingdom’s map is, it’s a speck compared to Starfield’s many moons and planets. But because it’s so dense and diverting, you organically grow to know its nooks and crannies in a way you won’t with even the most painstakingly laid-out cities in Starfield.

Complaints about procedural generation and the alienating effects of games that operate on galactic scales aren’t specific to Starfield; they’re pitfalls encountered by most of its conceptual predecessors (which date back decades). No Man’s Sky, which dwarfs Starfield’s size and seamlessness, overpromised and under-delivered, leading to critical pans, gamer rage, and some reserved judgment upon its release in 2016. Only years of free additions, expansions, and face-lifts restored its reputation. Mass Effect: Andromeda aspired to ship with hundreds of planets, slashed that target down to five, and still turned out to be the sequel fans of the sci-fi franchise don’t talk about. Star Citizen, the most massively crowdfunded game of all time, may never come out.

Other games, such as Eve Online and Elite Dangerous, have succeeded by incorporating massively multiplayer components and sticking solely to space. Still others have taken a more boutique, tailored approach to interplanetary travel and explanation. “We could have made a game where there are four cities and four planets,” Howard told the Times. “But that would not have the same feeling of being this explorer.” Fans of 2019’s award-winning Outer Wilds and its modest suite of six planets might disagree.

If you look like this, you’ve probably been playing too long.

So will you want to get lost in Starfield or tell it to get lost? If you can set aside the inflated expectations—some of them fueled by Bethesda and Microsoft, and some by fans’ fevered dreams—you’ll find plenty that makes it memorable. Even though I can’t quite fly Starfield’s ships where I want to, I enjoy adjusting their systems before battle. I love the lived-in look of the game’s crew quarters and the cozy Constellation Lodge. I’m into its retro-futurist “NASA-punk” aesthetic, its homages to the history of human spaceflight, and its core story, which is sold by more than 250,000 lines of voiced dialogue. (While the text-based No Man’s Sky has a story—maybe even an underrated one—it’s far less scripted and central than Starfield’s.) I’m still stumbling on some gripping side quests, such as the one where you deal with the colonists on a newly arrived generation ship, or the one where you come across a derelict cruiser whose crew has mysteriously perished. And Inon Zur’s magnificent score sounds like how playing the game is intended to feel.

Few of those highlights have much to do with Starfield’s vast assortment of planets. The game wants to wow you with the majestic immensity of space, but the bespoke content makes the strongest impression. When it comes to sweeping exploration, Bethesda may have bitten off more than it could chew—and its eyes may have been bigger than players’ stomachs from the start. In a historically stacked year for video games, Starfield’s futuristic skin over venerable bones doesn’t seem so innovative. Recent blockbusters with more “immersive sim” cred, most notably Tears of the Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate 3, have prioritized player choice and staked stronger claims to the “most important” title.

A scene early in Starfield’s main story speaks to the Whitman-esque struggle for the soul of the game—the way it tries to capture the universe’s awesome splendor but just as frequently forces you to stare at stats in menus or sit through loading screens. It’s a conversation between two NPCs, Matteo (the group’s theologian-philosopher) and Noel (who worships the scientific method), in explorers club Constellation. Matteo asks the player to settle a debate. “Science or dreams?” he asks. “Which is the true muse of space exploration?”

The game’s dialogue tree provides three possible answers. There’s the learned astronomer’s response: “Science. Without it, dreams aren’t possible.” There’s the one that sounds like Whitman’s speaker: “Dreams. Without them, science has no meaning.” And there’s the cop-out: “Oh no. I’m not taking sides between you two.”

The choice I wanted wasn’t there. The first two options offer a false dichotomy: As most any actual scientist would say, the best answer is obviously “both.” Matteo, Noel, and Whitman’s speaker sound closed-minded. We need dreamers and learned astronomers—who are often one and the same—if for no other reason than when we wander by ourselves in the mystical night air, we can see, at most, only a few thousand of the septillion stars in the observable universe. (In mystical moist night air, stars seem even scarcer—and light pollution hasn’t helped.) Without science’s assist, we couldn’t marvel at most of them. How would we know they’re there without those proofs and figures?

I appreciate the aspects of Starfield’s learned-astronomer side that do inspire awe—that the game’s gravity varies based on the mass of the moon or planet, that its lighting reflects the positions of celestial bodies, that its physics for small objects seem to work so well. But Starfield’s spine-tingling moments blend with the banal ones, alternately blowing and numbing the mind. When I found Whitman’s poem, I slipped the bound book into the nebulous space where video game characters store stuff. Then I opened the inventory to see what it weighed, to make sure I could carry it without violating the limit and slowing myself down. Yes, that settles it—this is Skyrim in space.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Microsoft bought ZeniMax Media in 2010; the acquisition happened in 2020.