Starfield’s bullet points are meaningless if the narrative fails to inspire

The reveal of Starfield, the jewel in the crown of Xbox Game Studios’ 12-month release calendar, fell a bit flat during this weekend’s Xbox & Bethesda Games Showcase. Many critics have noted that its cast of characters looks like the same dead-eyed creeps that shipped with The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. Some remain unimpressed with its base building and resource gathering, things that other games have done much more capably than Fallout 4. Still others have gently warned that getting spaceship combat dialed in is as much an art as it is a science, as evidenced by the Star Citizen projects’ many, many revisions thus far.

I tend to agree on all points. Bethesda may be overreaching a bit this time. But what do you expect from their first new IP in more than 20 years? However, more bullet points rarely add up to more quality, and I too wonder if 1,000 planets simply means 1,000 places in which to get lost and bored. But there’s one part of Sunday’s presentation that really struck a chord with me: The narrative attached to the game’s main quest line seems bold, if not downright inspiring.

If I’m picking up what Todd Howard and company are laying down, Starfield is as much an ambitious single-player video game as it is a commentary on the state of modern space exploration. Our society seems to have lost a bit of its sense of wonder since the Space Shuttle was retired, and Starfield could be a kind of balm for our jaded outlook on life, the universe, and everything around us.

The trailer opens on a quote from Anatole France, a French journalist, novelist, and poet. His Le Jardin d’Épicure (The Garden of Epicurus) begins with a few paragraphs that set the tone for the ponderings that follow, all of which make careful reference of what we now consider to be fairly modern scientific concepts — the speed of light, the spectral analysis of distant stars, and the scale and vastness of the universe itself. The English translation, achieved here by Alfred Allinson, feels like it could easily have been the inspiration for the end of Men in Black.

Here’s a bit more of that full quote:

Nor is there anything absurd in supposing that centuries of thought and intelligence may live and die before us in the space of a minute of time, in the confines of an atom of matter. In themselves things are neither great nor small, and when we say the Universe is vast we speak purely from a human standpoint. If it were suddenly reduced to the dimensions of a hazel-nut, all things keeping their relative proportions, we should know nothing of the change. The pole-star, included together with ourselves in the nut, would still take fifty years to transmit its light to us as before. And the Earth, though grown smaller than an atom, would be watered with tears and blood just as copiously as it is to-day. The wonder is, not that the field of stars is so vast, but that man has measured it.

I don’t read this as haughty or high-minded. I read it as sarcasm. If the universe is so large as described above, man has yet to grok even a tiny fraction of it. There is a lot more left to discover than what we have yet perceived with our eyes, or our most fabulous telescopic and radiographic instruments. France was, above all else it seems, a skeptic. His quote boils down fairly simply in the language of the present day: Humanity ain’t seen shit, but we keep on acting like we know it all anyway.

I think that one of the unstated design goals of Starfield is to bring us all down a peg.

Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Take the factions introduced so far in the 15-minute Starfield presentation. There’s the Crimson Fleet, a band of criminals that doesn’t follow the rules set down by the UCSEC, which polices the Settled Systems. Hardworking “dusties” keep at the day job, extracting resources along the fringe of civilized space. Capitalism is doing what capitalism does, exploiting humankind and its resources for profit. Meanwhile, only Constellation — a walnut-lined league of exploratory gentlemen — remain the last true explorers.

The major players in Starfield all sound an awful lot like the major players today. While Elon Musk hopes to monetize near-Earth orbit and beyond, the United States Space Force and other major global powers just can’t wait to airlift the first load of guns and bombs onto the moon and plant a flag on Mars. Meanwhile, a trillion trillion worlds still cry out for exploration beyond the fringes of the Milky Way. Hell, it was only just last month that we got the first semi-clear view of the black hole in the center of our galaxy. While everyone is fighting over how much of the hazel-nut they can choke down, the rest of the trees and the forests and unimaginable biomes beyond go unseen.

An indoc ceremony. In the background, while two Guardians raise their hands to take an oath, stands a stormtrooper, two biker scouts, Darth Vader, and Palpatine’s red-robed guard,

Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, Combined Force Space Component Command commander, is sworn in to the U.S. Space Force by 2nd Lt. Wellington Brookins, a U.S. Space Force officer assigned to the 533rd Training Squadron, during an International Space Day celebration May 7, 2021, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Image: Michael Peterson/U.S. Space Force

Here’s the rub: As far as video games go, players of all stripes have been there and back again, to the edge of our own galaxy and beyond. In my time playing Elite Dangerous, for instance, I’ve traveled more than 150,000 light years and visited nearly 3,000 star systems, personally discovering hundreds of new worlds. All it took me was three weeks of in-game time. The same can be said for fans of No Man’s Sky, a game also teeming with complex virtual life. But both of those games are, to a large extent, randomly generated. It’s all just disconnected bits of background fluff. The next step for gaming-kind, therefore, isn’t about the pixels or the frame rates. It’s about whipping that fluff into something more substantial, and telling a story that can genuinely inspire wonder.

There are a few tidbits of Sunday’s trailer that have gone overlooked, I think — things that tell me that Bethesda is heading in the right direction.

While my eyes rolled out of my head at the lockpicking minigame and my stomach flipped when an up-armored astronaut started chucking grenades on an exoplanet, I gasped when I noticed that players will be free to choose their own in-game religion.

Raised Enlightened, an optional trait, is available to those who “grew up as a member of the Enlightened.” Raised Universal, on the other hand, notes that your character “grew up as a member of the Sanctum Universum.” Meanwhile, pan-galactic paganists seem to prefer the Serpent’s Embrace as they all “grew up worshipping the Great Serpent.” How these sub-factions and beliefs riff on existing religious and political views will be excellent fodder for critics and players alike, but they may also offer a foundation on which our individual human souls can get their footing in-game. With luck, that RPG footing could lead to some players even changing their perspective.

Howard said you can “be who you want and go where you want.” Maybe that means traveling in a spiritual sense as well. “The biggest question of all,” said one of the characters in the trailer, is “what’s out there.” But what you think is out there has a lot to do with what you see inside yourself. “Whatever lies at the end of this road will change humanity forever,” that same character said. Maybe it’ll change some hearts and minds about the space program as well.

Or it will fail miserably. The story will be garbage, its esoteric conclusions vented into an uncaring atmosphere filled with jaded, miserable Earthlings. That’s the real risk as I see it — not the quality of the base building, and not the depth of the weapon crafting. Will the game stir my soul? That’s not something I’ve been able to wonder about my GameStop pre-order in a long, long time.

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