I fell for this pitch once. It was 2005, and the game was Spore, SimCity creator Will Wright’s ambitious recreation of life from microscopic organism to galactic traveler level. I watched this whole 35 minute presentation (opens in a new tab) delighted, completely overwhelmed and convinced that Spore was the future of gaming. And I guess in a sense it was: 17 years later, Bethesda’s next great RPG is making the same mistake Spore did, making the mind-blowing scale an awesome feature. All I see is a red flag. Bethesda says Starfield will have 1,000 planets? I’d be shocked if 990 of them weren’t boring as hell.
“Spore promised us the Moon, and several years later came back with a big annoying rock,” Rick Lane wrote in a retrospective few years ago. It’s a perfect summary of what I expect from Starfield after today’s presentation: a truly massive galaxy, bigger than any RPG Bethesda has ever made, as long as you’re okay with the fact that it’s mostly filled with a bunch of annoying big boulders.
I thought of this Spore presentation when I first played Mass Effect, driving the Mako through ugly, bland procedurally generated planets. I thought of Spore when No Man’s Sky promised an infinite galaxy, although at least those planets could be quite striking. I thought of Spore when Mass Effect Andromeda promised this time he would have more interesting planets to explore (he didn’t).
And again, today. Who cracks this time? In Starfield’s big game debut, Bethesda opted to highlight a bland gray and brown moon, a prefab research lab, and enemies simply labeled “Pirate” in the stark UI. Starfield has no interest in knowing who these pirates are, other than the guys to take down. I’m sad to imagine that if this game had been made 20 years ago, there would be heaps of flavor text to drag me into this world. But instead: “Pirate”.
Bethesda has shown a glimpse of a craft town, and it looks like a true sci-fi utopia, the kind of center it will be fun to explore. Perhaps Starfield is full of these towns, and together they make for an adventure of a great RPG. Even if it does, the procedurally generated 1,000 largely empty planets will remain to the detriment of Starfield as a whole.
Just by being visitable, excess planets will make the number of fully designed worlds seem meager. Say Bethesda has created 10 crafting locations; this means that 1% of the total game will be substantial, while the rest is likely relegated to places where you wander around mining space rocks or fighting space pirates. “Well, the game won’t be Obligate you to visit all these planets,” someone will say. But scope will absolutely factor into how Bethesda designs Starfield’s systems, like resource gathering. And they will take substantial development time to create a smaller, denser set of explorable spaces.
Without an excess of around 990 planets, Starfield could shroud its mystery. Allow me to spend hours examining every little detail of some incredibly detailed planets; let me imagine and speculate what else is out there. Wondering what’s out there is the greatest thing about space travel and science fiction. The worst part is finding out that the answer, 99% of the time, is “another annoying rock”.
Maybe I’d be less pessimistic if Starfield’s aesthetic didn’t feel like a more grounded, far less colorful version of what No Man’s Sky has been doing for years already. The edit of the planets at the end of the Bethesda footage made me retroactively appreciate No Man’s Sky’s pulp sci-fi cover (opens in a new tab) even more artistic style.
Bethesda’s most famous RPG, Morrowind, spans around 24 square kilometers – you can cover it in an hour, but each location feels foreign, unique, and memorable in a way Bethesda hasn’t replicated since. With Oblivion, Bethesda more than doubled the size of the map to 57 square kilometers, but it felt like a generic fantasy world by comparison. The Elven ruins were particularly drab, full of procedurally generated corridors.
For a game about the jaw-dropping majesty of space exploration, Starfield has so far shown little that actually sparks the imagination. Procedurally generated planets I’ve seen before; assault rifles and shotguns fired at a bloated version of a base I roamed in Mass Effect 15 years ago; a user interface largely allergic to color or style. Maybe Bethesda is just saving the really good stuff for next year, or maybe the bits of story and dialogue it teases will be enough to carry the whole game on its shoulders. Great sci-fi has something new to say, but so far Starfield’s main idea seems to be go biggerand I’ve been burned by that one too many times.