“These aren’t just backdrops,” Bethesda’s Todd Howard told game journalists while pointing to a mountain range off in the distance during an E3 2011 demo for The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. “You can go up to the top of that mountain.” That line and the promise behind it is infamous now, memed throughout thousands of Reddit posts. Yet Howard decided to return to it while showing off the first gameplay for Starfield, Skyrim’s much-anticipated sci-fi successor, which has invited unkind comparisons to the disastrous 2016 launch of mega-sized space game No Man’s Sky.
Instead of mountains in the distance being climbable, this time it’s entire planets throughout the galaxy being visitable. “You can also land and explore anywhere on the planet and it’s not just this planet it’s all the planets in the system from barren but resource heavy ice balls to goldilocks planets with life,” Howard announced breathlessly during Sunday’s 2022 Xbox and Bethesda Showcase. “And not just this system, but over a hundred systems, over 1,000 planets, all open for you to explore.”
From basebuilding to ship combat, Starfield’s ambition is daunting. (Last year, Howard touted the game’s more than 150,000 lines of dialogue.) And yet much of what it showed yesterday looked worryingly similar to a plethora of other sci-fi RPGs, just deadened and washed out in a color scheme full of grays and browns.
As open worlds like Horizon Forbidden West and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla trend toward icon chasing and inventory management, little in yesterday’s presentation made me feel like Starfield’s 1,000 worlds would primarily exist to explore character motivations and moral dilemmas rather than to get me a better upgrade for my gun or ship.
Bethesda in general, and Howard in particular, are no strangers to grand claims and overpromising, but in Starfield’s case the “1,000 planets” line and accompanying gameplay footage are already eliciting comparisons to Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky. Studio founder Sean Murray took to interview after interview, including with Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, to evangelize the endless possibilities in the 2016’s space game’s procedurally generated universe.
What launched that year was indeed sprawling, but also rather empty and feature incomplete, at least compared to the expectations built up in many players’ minds. It was a mess, one No Man’s Sky has since recovered from and transcended, but still a cycle no development team would willingly choose to repeat. And yet Starfield seems to be flirting with all of the same potential disappointments.
While we won’t know what Starfield is truly like until it’s out, Microsoft didn’t show fans 15 minutes of the game just to have them withhold all judgment until it’s released. It debuted the gameplay to build hype, and despite my inextinguishable desire to play Skyrim in space, I’m increasingly skeptical of games that lean on their sheer size and scope to inspire awe. Earlier this year, Techland gloated that it would take over 500 hours to experience everything in Dying Light 2. Much of it ended up being not very interesting. Cyberpunk 2077 promised an immersive, ultra-detailed future, but it turned out to be more broken and stilted than lifelike at launch.
More often than not, the excess content feels like filler, or invites developers to crunch to get a game out the door, and sometimes both. That was one of the lessons of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game that aspired to let you chart a far-off galaxy and instead left you to toil away at checking off familiar to-do lists across half a dozen different biomes.
In Starfield’s case, the fear is that Bethesda could sacrifice more memorable moments in favor of countless permutations of vaguely similar ones. “’Well the game won’t force you to visit all those planets,’ someone will argue,” wrote PC Gamer’s Wes Fenlon. “But the scope absolutely will factor into how Bethesda designs Starfield’s systems, like resource gathering. And they’ll take substantial development time away from making a smaller, denser set of explorable spaces.”
Kotaku’s Editor in Chief Patricia Hernandez made a similar point. “How many times we gonna have the scale vs. depth convo,” she recently tweeted. “If you can recruit people from the 1,000 worlds, how many of those people are going to have fleshed-out stories? And if they do, will they continue being meaningful in the settlements? Fallout 4 had unique interactions but also displayed clear, clear limits.”
There are definitely instances where pure scale and the hint of variation alone can infuse a world with wonder. The Witcher 3 is an overly big game bursting at the seams with weird side-quests and unique conversations (making it also required lots of developer crunch). Many of them are cut short or don’t really go anywhere, but rather than feel incomplete, the limits they place on the player’s own agency in the narrative help reinforce the sense of its fantasy world as one that was spinning along well before you showed up, and will continue on doing so long after you’ve put the game down.
Of course, what Howard is talking about is exponentially larger. The size will either help Starfield feel like a generation-defining open-world RPG the way Skyrim was a decade ago, or a game that again demonstrates the folly of going big and adding more just because you can. Maybe every one of Starfield’s 1,000 planets will contain at least one welcomingly bespoke detail, ranging from a lost audio log to a bustling city full of warring factions and dual loyalties. Hopefully the people making them are being treated better than in some of Bethesda’s past attempts at massive worldbuilding.