Starfield is a gigantic, choice and customization-driven Bethesda RPG game, and a true successor to the likes of The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Skyrim. The promise of Starfield is that, more than any videogame ever made, you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone – boundless opportunities await, in a universe designed to allow for any of your preferences and decisions. But there is another side to Starfield. What it proposes, that you may do what you want and the game will facilitate and accept this (within some parameters), represents how mainstream videogames, over the past 15 years, have become increasingly banal, empty, and without any type of vision. With Starfield, the mainstream videogame, as a cultural artifact, has reached its nexus point. The archetype of the triple-A game has to change or accept artistic oblivion.
Others – Grand Theft Auto, Morrowind, World of Warcraft, even Dungeons and Dragons – came before, but Assassin’s Creed 2, from 2009, is the game that set the model. Particularly with regards to triple-A, single-player RPGs, Assassin’s Creed 2 would cultivate a formula that other games would follow, iterate, and be based upon for the next decade and a half.
We’re talking collectibles. Sidequests. Customization. Choice. Your own in-game house. A variety of outfits, weapons, vehicles, and abilities. Freedom and, perhaps most importantly, quantity. All of these existed as game design precepts before Assassin’s Creed 2, but Ubisoft combined them to create an almost new genre – not just the open-world game, but the modern, Ubisoft open-world game.
Almost simultaneously came Oblivion and Fallout 3; a couple of years later we’d get New Vegas and Skyrim. The finer differences between these games are worth discussing – and have been discussed elsewhere – but broadly speaking, at the same time as Ubisoft was perfecting the formula that would shape triple-A games in the 2010s and 2020s, so was Bethesda. It feels like the output of both studios between 2007 and 2011 finalized a particular type of game that would come to dominate the culture for the next ten years.
And now we have Starfield, the sum total and the conclusion of that particular kind of game, a game composed of the same tropes as Assassin’s Creed 2, Oblivion, Fallout, and many others, the objective and philosophy of which may be singularly defined: we must let the player do what they want, or otherwise feel like they can do what they want, and everything must be channeled into creating feelings of freedom and innocence.
It seems irresistible, and like the perfect ethical star to lead videogames in new creative directions – if we follow the idea that players should be allowed to do whatever in games, the worlds, ideas, and things that games can explore will also be unbound. So long as freedom rules, creativity will be free, too.
But at the heart of this philosophy, which has come to predominate triple-A game-making, is a dark, depressing hypocrisy: in worlds designed to let players do whatever they want, we are all, after more than a decade, doing the exact same things, and the emotional, dramatic, and intellectual experience of playing these games never changes.
The modes of expression and scale may be different. In Starfield, rather than Renaissance Italy, I am free to explore the universe, and I do so not by horseback but spaceship. In Starfield, instead of feathers and codex pages, I collect planetary data. In Starfield, there are Starborn instead of Dragonborn – I propel objects using my hands rather than by shouting.
The psychology of these games also doesn’t vary. Every one of these games is about what you want to do as a player, and in the process of their proliferation, we’ve lost sight of the possibility for any other kind of game, and the appetite or ability to imagine a triple-A game that contradicts the principle that everything should be driven by player agency.
It has become absurd sounding, that a triple-A game may be designed around something other than player agency. But again, the paradox, apparent in both critic and player responses to Starfield, is that people are bored of this.
In a game where I can do what I want – a game like Starfield, which has taken this principle further than any game previous – there is inherently no reason, beyond exploration for exploration’s sake, and admiration of sheer scale, to engage. If I do something, the game will always adjust to permit my having done that something. If I don’t do something, the game will likewise adjust to my having not done something. And so what dramatic motivation, what emotional or narrative impulse, remains for me as a participant?
An example. I walk into Galbank in New Atlantis. The man behind the counter assigns me a mission to collect an outstanding debt from a customer living on an isolated and distant planet. “We don’t want him killed, we don’t want him harmed,” the man working at Galbank explains. When I confront the debtor, my Persuasion ability fails, he attacks me, and I have to kill him.
I return to Galbank, and the man behind the counter pays me a fee and offers me another job should I want one. This is Starfield allowing me to do whatever I want – the game bending to accept and incorporate me.
Although it’s admirable in a game design way, how Bethesda manufactures something that allows for such variations, that feels – after so many years of games that prioritize agency – less attractive than a game with narrative conviction, an inflexible voice, and its own ideas of morality. It’s as if agency has become a substitute for all other ideas in videogames, that the ruling maxim says so long as the player has agency, everything else is either less relevant or irrelevant.
In many FPS games, for example Half-Life, we have the mute protagonist, the idea being that we as players transpose on them our personality, and that this allows us to feel more like part of the game and its world. But this idea has always failed. Mute protagonists make games uncanny, strange, and unable to communicate anything coherent. In Starfield, we have taken the idea of the mute protagonist even further. We have created the mute videogame, and the result is an empty and constantly shapeshifting world where nothing matters and all there is to do is look at your reflection.
And what this creates is a vacuum. For game-makers, it is a vacuum because ideas that contradict the precedent of agency will always be rejected, because to contradict agency is now to contradict the market. For game players, it is a vacuum because when everything is permissible, nothing has meaning.
It’s the curse of the infinite money cheat. The value of your in-game expression is measured against how the game challenges you. When the game invites you to do anything and go anywhere, and assures you that you shan’t face any substantive moral, emotional, or even mechanical interrogation, there becomes, paradoxically, no reason to do anything.
We long for restraint. We miss the presence of an author. And we seek games that are attempting to say something – just anything – because that will always be better than what we have now, which are games meticulously, enormously, and expensively designed, by hundreds of people, to make sure they say nothing.
Ultimately, we want games that encourage us to play and engage in ways that heighten, emphasize, and make more consistent those games’ subjective outlooks. In Starfield, we have a masterpiece of neutrality and banal objectivity. It may not be in the way that anybody anticipated, but Starfield could still become an inflection point in the art history of games.
Take a look at our Starfield review for some further, in-depth analysis of Bethesda’s latest. You can also read about how the game’s exploration mechanics struggle to compare to those in Skyrim and Fallout.
Still looking for more? While a good Starfield wiki can be a handy source of information, our new Starfield Database goes further, offering you daily news, searchable databanks, and even interactive tools.