You leap through time to the year 2330 to discover humanity has mastered faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity, fusion, and has spread across the galaxy . . . yet everyone still needs to get a job—including you.
This is the tedious universe that one of the world’s premiere video game studios, Bethesda, has created for their long-awaited blockbuster Starfield.
I played the game for more than 30 hours and half-way through a mission I rage quit and deleted the game and my save file. Why? I have a lot of problems with Starfield, but ultimately it’s just bad sci-fi.
Science fiction explores what it means to be human. What can humanity become when technology solves our material needs? What happens when we merge ourselves with our technology? Starfield answers: We’ll just do the same old shit, but in space.
It’s a bleak and tragic take on the future of humanity and the more I played the game, the more it ate away at me like a cancer. Spoilers ahead.
In Starfield you always start as an asteroid miner, despite creating a character with a unique background and traits. My character was a Chef (official title) who was Wanted (again, a game character attribute), an Extrovert, and had an Adoring Fan. I named him Guy Fermi’s Paradox and in my mind he was a famous chef who was wanted across the galaxy for food crimes. Despite this brilliant backstory, I still started the game as an asteroid miner. I guess Guy ran out of cash and took the only job he could get.
In the mines Guy discovers an alien artifact that gives him a pretty humdrum hallucination—a sort of zoomed-out view of the galaxy. This is apparently a huge deal and a guy from a mysterious organization called Constellation shows up to investigate. The Constellation guy hands over his spaceship and asks Guy to deliver the artifact to a group of scientists on another planet.
But I began to have questions. Guy is introduced to an intelligent humanoid robot with a seemingly limitless power supply that would be a much better miner. Later the game presents “extractor” machines that suck elements out of the ground like magical mining straws. Why are there human miners?
And Guy’s new spaceship has a compact fusion reactor, artificial gravity, and can warp the fabric of space itself to leap across vast distances instantaneously. And it doesn’t need to fuel up. The ship always had fuel, somehow continuously siphoned from the ether itself. It’s all end-game technology that seemingly solves humanity’s material needs.
Yet the universe of Starfield has things like menial jobs, corporations, hierarchies, scarcity, and even money. You quickly discover that the shiny sci-fi capital city is built on a literal underworld of impoverished people struggling to make ends meet despite having access to endless resources and energy. There are space pirates who maraude across the galaxy in spaceships that have unlimited energy onboard. They could just set up on any old moon or planet and gleefully sing sea shanties in luxurious space habitats until the heat death of the universe, but instead they go around killing for no reason. It’s a deeply nonsensical and disturbing dystopian world that Bethesda has created, one of oppression and toil for no good reason.
Everything in Starfield is toilsome and oppressive, from travel to crafting to managing all the stuff you pick up during your adventures. It’s the same game engine Bethesda built for the Fallout games and it’s a micromanager’s fever fantasy. There’s an endless number of objects and materials to collect, some of which are valuable and useful, most of which aren’t. It’s easy to collect too much and become encumbered (slowed down to the point of making the game unplayable) and it’s impossible to sell it all because stores have a limited supply of credits—in a universe with limitless energy and resources.
Let’s dig into it a bit. The game features a starbase building feature. But if you want to build something like a chair, you need to collect or buy aluminum, steel, and fabric. Fair enough, but in a universe of intelligent robots and magical element extractors, why should you have to do any of that? In addition, you need to research how to build a chair on a little specialized computer on your ship. Is there no internet in the year 2330? Have we lost the mysterious and ancient knowledge of how to build a chair? Are there no 3D printers that can print me a chair?
Here’s how space exploration, a foundational part of the game, works: Find a planet, scan it from orbit, then click on a spot and land. You get what you get. No flying over the terrain to see where you’d like to land. You just land randomly and get out to explore on foot. In this world of unimaginable technology and starships there is no ground transportation or helicopters or hoverboards and you are forced to walk across unexplored planets like Shakleton after he was forced to shoot his starving sled dogs.
None of it makes any sense in the futuristic world Bethesda has created. Why wouldn’t robots mine for us? Why can’t we 3D print a Beetlejuice art chair of our wildest dreams? Why don’t we have moon buggies or helicopters for exploring planets? (There are jetpacks, but they just let you jump higher; you can’t actually fly with them.)
And the gameplay is also nonsensical and arduous. Go there, fetch that, deliver this message, report back, kill these guys, kill this monster, rescue this person, get the bad guy, report back, collect your reward, gain experience. We’re constantly zipping across the galaxy to deliver messages in person as if there’s no email or phone or automated mail robots. It’s all a slog and none of it is any fun.
There were interesting stories sprinkled throughout my 30 hours of gameplay. Once I encountered a slower-than-light colony ship that had been traveling for 200 years. Faster-than-light travel was invented during the ship’s voyage, so the colonists arrived at a planet that was already colonized. Had to solve that conundrum, which was fun. Once I found a galaxy-jetting grandma who invited me and my crew aboard for dinner so she could tell us about her adventures. I gave her some money so she could enjoy her retirement. Another time I helped some homesteaders fix up their communication satellites. Randomly I found the Juno spacecraft, which had become self aware like V’Ger in Star Trek, and set it free to explore the universe.
But those pleasant interactions were few and far between, and none of them were very thought provoking or unique. They felt stale and only stood out because they didn’t involve me killing a bunch of guys and looting their corpses. The most interesting part of Starfield is probably House Va’ruun, a group of colonists who went mad in the depths of space and invented a deity called The Great Serpent. They returned from the outskirts of the galaxy to wage holy war on humanity. Unfortunately they have very little to do with the game’s main storyline.
What is the game’s main storyline? Collecting pieces of alien artifacts that give you superpowers that make killing and looting guys easier. And if you collect them all you get a cool spaceship and you get to play the game over again, but now with superpowers. That’s it. Do the same things again, but now with superpowers. According to reviewers, the game changes and gets more interesting after you’ve completed it 10 times. Yes, Starfield gets good and different after you’ve finished the entire game 10 times. It’s sadistic and Todd Howard (head of Bethesda) should be tried for war crimes at The Hague.
In the end, Starfield is supremely disappointing for its lack of imagination and for being dull sci-fi. But it’s also crushingly sad because it’s honest sci-fi. Sci-fi is often a reflection of current society. We live in a time of marvelous technology and abundance that has the potential to automate work and deliver creative freedom, yet we’re stuck doing spreadsheets, surfing social media, and performing countless other meaningless digital tasks to create the illusion of meaningful work. And of course we can’t forget the real-life military missions to kill and loot guys.
What’s heartbreaking about Starfield is that even when we’re given the power to create a limitless world with technology beyond imagination, when we literally open up the universe to exploration, we fill it with mind-numbing tasks and violence. We create artificial scarcity and barriers to creativity and self expression. Bethesda created a universe in which I can do and see anything, and then asked me to kill a bunch of guys and mine aluminum so I can build a chair.
Starfield is the first new universe the billion dollar studio has created in the last 25 years. It even says so on their website:
The year is 2330 and humanity has mapped the stars.
In Starfield – Bethesda Game Studios’ first new universe in 25 years – you will explore a massive open galaxy. Create your character and tell your unique story as you explore the field of stars.
But your story won’t be new or unique. It’ll be the same meaningless and monotonous thing, maybe even 10 times. And if you do want to create something new and unique, you’ll have to mine for it, earn those credits by killing guys, and research those chair schematics because that’s life, even in our wildest digital dreams.