I’m Playing Starfield.
I’ve spent 20 hours in the compromising tunnel of space and here’s how I feel (so far).
I love Fallout 3. I love Skyrim. And when I look at those two bright and stunning entries on Bethesda’s resume, a vein of nostalgia glows in me like unmined mineral, tracing from my brain to my fingers and then to my dorky, gaming heart. There’s a love there for those two games that runs deep. Not only because they’ve been video games that I liked to play at multiple points in my life, but also because at their core they somehow represented more than just the systems and the maps that populate and comprise them. I’ve played Fallout 3 at two distinct chapters of my life; one being when I lived in my first NY basement apartment, still figuring out independent life after living in Miami and trying to balance coming home with a new full time job, somehow lucking into managing my own store. I committed to that game, one in a style which I had never tried before and ended up getting completely obsessed with. I had a 60 hour playthrough where I got my legs under me. Then started over completely and did a 90 hour playthrough. The second part of my life in which I played through it, I was here in this home in Charleston, South Carolina, looking for a game to play through where I could simultaneously enjoy myself by lucidly venturing through a game that didn’t require too much intrinsic thought on my part, but also gave me enough real estate to focus while writing about my favorite records of the year of 2018. Both experiences were captivating, memorable in different ways, defining to the internal fictions that wax and wane in my mind. The world, the aesthetic is forever ingrained in my mind, from the way that the American Promise was equally uplifting and alienating to the way that the irradiated future had preserved the worst of Us, and mutated the rest into a festering and distant place that never felt like home no matter how familiar the landmarks that they placed would be.
Skyrim is a far nerdier, far more esoteric experience that doesn’t wash over me with its aesthetics the same way that Fallout 3 does, but there was something wonderful about how diverse the many experiences my friends and I were having while playing it when it first came out. It was a game that stole my life directly out from under me in 2011. Three of us living in the same house at the time were all playing it concurrently, though each of us didn’t speak, didn’t look at each other’s game, didn’t compare notes, but all tacitly knew that at any given moment, any of us could have been Skyrimming. The doors to our rooms closed, the windows to our social coexistence sealed just as tightly, each of us finding dungeons, towns, dragons, shouts and magics to wield in a fantasy world that continued to thrive and continued to give the deeper we allowed ourselves to burrow. Most recently, I dove back in this year shortly after picking up an Xbox Series X and wanting to see what older games really were able to put the new hardware to good use. To be honest, I didn’t do a ton of research, I just knew that Skyrim was big and it allowed itself lots of big places, big skies and big experiences. I think I put in 40+ hours on a new character and walked everywhere, seeing all of the bounty that the land could yield. This year has been extraordinarily stressful, and while I often “go to” games for entertainment, this year I have been going to games as a form of soma, something that has really calmed my nerves and allowed me to detach from the past and futures that I’ve allowed myself to become enslaved to. They’ve kept me pretty grounded in The Now and while I never really thought I would be prone to heaps of anxiety, this year has challenged me in new ways that I look forward to growing from, and really Skyrim was the first one that I sought out to turn my screaming brain off. It isn’t perfect, but it has worked.
The company really won my heart with those games. And when one of them finally got a sequel from Bethesda Game Studios, I set time apart to play it. I got overly excited. Promised myself the world in my primal brain, automatically assuming that this release was going to consume my life with the same verve that the first console one did for me. Fallout 4 was supposed to be my new obsession. Even though The Witcher 3 came out the same year, Fallout 4 was supposed to become something new in my mind. It was supposed to craft new memories within the same aesthetics. It was supposed to dominate me. In short, without tearing too deeply into it, Fallout 4 did none of the above. I didn’t continue to repair and bolster settlements for Preston Garvey. I got lost trying to find the passageway to The Railroad. I spent hours trying to do a questline for The Brotherhood of Steel only to later find that it was a radiant questline that would never end. I turned the game off in early 2016 and never went back. So deep was the cut of this game, I remained steadfastly agnostic about the newest franchise that Bethesda Game Studios was creating in Starfield. Even though it followed the type of aesthetic I wanted, even though it suited my current interests (somehow I’m on a deep science fiction kick right now), I barely bristled at the release of it.
But did I preinstall it about a week before it dropped? — Oh yeah.
Did I get a little Christmas Morning exhilaration the day it came out? — Oh yeah.
I was cautious, tentative as the days lead up to it, but when the baby was finally in my hands, I was ready for it. Hungry for it. Willing to allow it to wash over me. I wanted to explore space in exactly the same way I had waded through post-nuclear DC, the same way that I crusaded through Scandinavia. And now that I’ve spent about 20 hours in the deepest reaches of various solar systems in different ships with different weapons and different companions, I have a few thoughts about the game which I wanted to share in a way that might not have been as clear in a few conversations I’ve had with others.
My initial impressions of the game, and one of the most freestanding impressions that I continue to have, is that the aesthetics of the world in which we exist in Starfield are gorgeous. The post-VHS artwork aesthetic is on high impression here, with long stripes and chevrons adorning many pieces of in-game furniture, buildings and clothing. Even massive government buildings (or at least the ones I’ve seen so far) forego the option of being massive brutalist structures and instead have the characteristics of bright and progressive architecture. There must have been something about the species’ great creative minds that felt deeply inspired by colonizing new planets which caused a great renaissance of limitless design.
Even on the tech side of things, it feels to me like most of the aesthetics of computer consoles, office spaces, space ships, work terminals, locker rooms, etc. all follow a timeline that celebrates the utility and analog [d]efficiencies of the VCR. There are so many buttons and panels and sections of levers and nice, chunky rectangular buttons that all seem descended from a time when our home theater systems had the least amount of streamlining possible. On top of that, it looks like everything feels like one of those mall playground jungle gyms, or the outside of 90’s refrigerators, or chunky McDonald’s childseats. None of these are complaints. I love the glow that comes off of wall-sized panels of buttons and sliders, the muffled crunch of hollow plastic appliances that feel like my childhood and my teen years. They have managed, somehow, to take something I know deeply and intimately and make it feel settled and rooted in a future that I will never see. This goes beyond Future Design and Aesthetic. It feels like ‘home’, like I could have produced this with materials I have in front of me right now.
Scaling back a bit, I still feel like a lot of the people from this game (from the NPCs to the main characters) all suffer from a bit of Video Game Actors’ Guild repetition. I don’t believe the people that I’m seeing in front of me. Some pedestrians look randomly generated and ugly, a modge podge of sliders and color wheels which in their randomness should, perhaps, give a sense of organic reality and unmanicured humanity, but most of them feel like discarded mutts. And I think that it adds to how forgettable some of the cities feel (which I’ll get to in a bit). The main characters don’t feel polished enough, and this is only to begin by talking about their visual dimension. While the anatomy and structure that the game is able to pull off is utterly astounding (animation, skin-feel, overall look), I have yet to find a character that I felt like someone hand-crafted and breathed life into. Now, I’ve long been a person who hasn’t “believed” in graphics, even as a metric by which we should judge or anticipate games, but I think some of these people feel a bit forgotten. Blonde Woman. Cowboy. Doctor. Lab Coat Research Lead. Tycoon. All of these characters feel fleshed out in their archetypes when I share dialog with them (dialog is a whole other construct I’d love to talk about a bit later) but the way they look feels dreamless, simple, crude.
I believe the cities (or at least the ones that I’ve seen so far) suffer from the same immense strokes of color which serve not only to distinguish but also to alienate the senses equally. The city we begin in feels like the one with the most pedigree, something that echoes the shine and gloss of something like Disney’s EPCOT theme park, with its spacious open streets which all curve in on themselves via mass transit. This is where many of the government buildings seem to reside, where we are separated from most of the consumerist bindings, open mostly to A Progressive Future and Organized Humane Bureaus. I sprint from office to person from person to building from building to transit and collect quests and have conversations that further my story. The next town that the story took me in was something that I called Cowboy Town, better know as Akila City which so far, to be honest, I haven’t explored much, but feels a little bit akin to a mix of Woody’s Roundup and the movie set that Rick Dalton has a mental breakdown on. It’s dusty and empty and for some reason in the wild future has connections to the American West circa 1868. I sprint from office to person from person to building from building to transit and collect quests and have conversations that further my story. A mining outpost exists on a red planet where I first get some mining quests along with ways to understand the commerce of the Outer Systems. I sprint from office to person from person to building from building to transit and collect quests and have conversations that further my story. The personality of these places fills various composite palettes, but I don’t think it ever sets itself apart enough to engage me with its makeup. These places feel about as real as sections of Universal Studios can feel, where the Marvel stuff is where the Marvel stuff goes and the Harry Potter stuff is where the Harry Potter stuff goes, but it feels like my journey from or to these places has such little blood to spill and such flippant and disposable exposition to arrive upon that they feel like different puzzle rooms in a funhouse instead of massive and diverse planetary ecosystems across light years. Especially considering that the Space Battles feel more like mobile-game shooting galleries, there is so little at stake from locale to locale that nowhere feels more important than the most recent beacon I’ve placed that aligns with the most recent quest/mission I’ve engaged with.
With all of the progress which Bethesda is able to take advantage of over the past nearly two decades of creating iconic open worlds, I must say that its attention to detail has become even more astonishing, populating and creating office spaces that feel organic and lived in. They feel like workspaces, from chalked up white boards to cluttered desk spaces (with lots of notebooks) to empty takeaway containers, these places feel real. Apartment buildings and the rooms within them are a bit more sterile, but most times that I’ve entered offices, medical rooms and even smaller space ships, the Things that comprise the detritus of those spaces feel organic and curated. That being said, the sheer volume of Things that exist on desks, in between walkways, littering the very ground and even on felled enemies feels so copious and bothersome to the degree that having to parse between what I can pick up and what I should can feel more angering than impressive. It’s a feature that I understand the Hows of it, though I can’t agree with the Whys. It’s to the point where I can believe this is my own fault, whether it’s the time I have on my hands or the attention span I allow myself to apply or the personal filter I solicit as I encounter these things, but I do believe it hinders my experience in the game as I perpetually have to choose to ignore over 70% of the objects I can interact with.
Weapons suffer from nearly the same sense of all-or-nothing fare, wherein finding gear on enemies early on felt exciting and bountiful, until I ended up with eight or nine guns, eventually a dozen weapons, none of which felt distinct or empowering or identifiable. The closest comparison I can draw is the rapid-fire roulette that seems to come with the Borderlands series where you can get married to one type of gun for a good stretch until a gun comes along with stats that seem so much more competitive than the ones you had only just been married to. Ammo varies in a wide degree, so I’ve come to believe that regardless of the gun I’m using or the style that it employs, I’d much rather enjoy the feast than bear the famine, so I’ve come to tossing guns that feel more cumbersome at any given instant to make way for guns that respond when I pull their trigger. With encumbrance feeling more like a number that I’m fighting against rather than a metric I’m trying to strategize, I’ve given up on trying to find a weapon that matches my core gameplay style and instead embraced the rotating gamut of finding firearms that will slay what’s in front of me in that moment without experiencing any of the stress of finding ammunition. As I’ve played this game more and more, I’ve taken it to be an action shooter with RPG elements over the inverse and thus far that philosophy has treated me just fine.
Nothing. No one. Not in a cool Charles Manson way after a hundred pantomimes of vaudevillian faces, indicating that we are everyone and no one, the end of a big bang that created a massive pantheon of chaos that reigns and exists and manifests in 8 billion people on a miracle planet, somehow able to sustain life so that we become both the sum of everything and the focus of nothing. No. Not that. Instead, we are just as anonymous as what lots of internet dwellers deem “walking simulators”, despite what we wear, despite what we shoot, despite what we choose to say in claustrophobic dialog trees. No matter what choices you make or what the voice of your character sounds like in your head, no matter the reputation you believe precedes you or the way that your character’s posturing for the dozens (or hundreds) of hours has established you as a certain type of hero or brigand, you are nothing. No one. All there ends up being is an open string of pearls that contain open worlds and in those open worlds is stuff and if you decide to pick up or engage with that stuff or complete those tasks or kill those beings, you yourself have given it meaning through your own intimate monologic stageplay. Nothing more. While you are no one, you are also the only thing in this game which is barely alive. All but the set pieces list along like wooden ducks waiting to be pegged like cheap carnival fare.
What keeps me on the precipice of the uncanny valley here is uncertain, but I find that playing this game, far more than any game in the Bethesda Game Studios roster, feels the most like I am simply Playing A Video Game. I spend a great deal of time in menus. I fall at the mercy of a half dozen systems that allow or disallow me to truly venture forth in the great expanse of our galaxy/universe/planet. I stand outside of true immersion because just as I feel the wanderlust which this game (and other games of its type) intends to nurture, I am hampered by either pure content and closure at the end of these small journeys or am inclined to Fast Travel there by means of those very menus which break that forth wall. I am neither a vast pioneer of the stars nor am I a maverick with sharpshooting skills untold nor am I a silver tongued rogue, min-maxed into any wayward class or category. I am instead a courier of all trades, and by that, I am become a master of none.
I’m sure I won’t say it better than anyone else on The Internet, but the biggest crater which I feel needs to be filled is the lack of an organic world which I intend to explore further than the impetus which brought me there. The magic of Fallout 3 rested in the way that all of DC’s locales felt haunted by a pre-nuked past, buildings and vistas spreading far before me with the horizon dotted by small beacons of ruined hope. If I saw a toppled skyscraper stripped to its skeletal rebar, I wanted to go there to understand its story. I wanted to trudge the extra miles, I wanted to brave whatever insurmountable odds were before me simply to get there. I wanted to tame what was wild, even if that which I’d deemed interesting was only the dogma which my mind built from its distant trace. The same mystique exists in Skyrim, except in the stead of broken and melted cityscapes, it was immense stone ruins that would jut out of the wilderness. It was massive tombs carved deep into the impassable mountain ranges. There was a joy in setting out towards a limb of the compass, knowing my final destination was at the farthest possible reach of this headlong route, but in between The Here and The There were hours of other encounters I could engage with, were fathoms of depth to explore and succumb to. Starfield’s journey feels traversed by menu options and holding my X button to travel to, to land on, to set course for any and all destinations that fall over a stretch of a mile’s journey. And I think this is what I was hoping for in this game moreso than anything. I wanted to be able to fly along the crest of a planet’s orbit and be able to see the cry of a dying star’s burgeoning glow, and decide that there was something worth touching on the other end of a jump to warp speed simply to discover what Could Be. After roughly 20 hours, I’ve found that there is nothing.
I’d hoped for planets that were smaller in scale than maybe the reaches of Fallout 3’s DMV. Of Elder Scroll’s Skyrim. But ones which rewarded or at least fed me with trace fictions as I traveled through these vast and populous landscapes. Having the freedom to go to so many star systems, to “explore” 1000 planets is wonderful, but like the library of Babel if 900 books have 900 forms of gibberish, there are only 100 tomes worth opening your mind to. The others, at best, are celebrations of possibility.
With cities that scream archetypal retreads, guns that have personalities as robust as their nuanced statistics, characters that struggle to emote beyond rote and locales that stifle the slightest drifting from the path, I struggle to treat this like the massive open world RPG that the game was lauded as in the first place. For me, I’ll continue to play through the game in hopes that it expands in ways I am not currently expecting. I am only 20 hours in again, and as of this writing the person who has played it the most on my friends list has about 101 hours in, and I’m sure there’s a lot to explore. I’m sure things start to roll out a bit more as I play more of it. In fact, there was a spoiler given to me by a podcast which ultimately shined a lot of light on an aspect of the game that seems like it may or may not be a big deal. That being said, I wasn’t compelled to do any more of the main quest than I was to engage in so many of the side quests and secondary/tertiary aspects of the game that continued to populate my storyline.
I haven’t scraped much of the surface of the main quest, and that’s mainly because the draw of the main quest has been non-existent. As the hero, I was chosen to be This Person simply because I was in a mine at this moment in time and ended up cutting into a mineral deposit that contained an artifact. Shortly thereafter I was sought out by A Man, given His Ship and told to join His Collective who immediately embraced me as a prodigal son. A theme of the earliest conversations seemed to focus a great deal on the experience you had while touching The Artifact, but it almost felt like… nothing? A montage? But from the cues of conversation, it seems that it was meant to feel like a bit more, so I role-played as if it was more than it was, though you did have options to say that it barely impacted you.
As of right now, I would say this is such a perfect Game Pass game, one which I am happy I didn’t spend any money on and one which lets me jump in, sate the little science fiction thirst which has been tapping on my shoulder and dip out. It hasn’t clawed at me and it hasn’t made me ponder and get that feeling where I can’t wait to jump back in and see what’s next. I’m hoping the next 20 hours (if I even get that far) start to light the wick a bit and create a fire that glows a bit brighter, but at this stage, it feels like a bit disappointing. Not a bad game at all, just a game that will be remembered more by me as wash with opportunity instead of one which had potential to be another wildly expansive and memorable entry into the open world lexicon.