Nearly two dozen hours into Starfield, the latest action role-playing game from Bethesda Game Studios, I stumbled upon a side story that was far more thrilling and formally inventive than anything else in the main plot up to that point.
In it, the player is forced to work undercover within a vicious gang, becoming something like a government mole who has to gain the trust of their new colleagues while avoiding becoming the kind of bloodthirsty criminal they’re trying to take down. There are heists, gunfights, daring escapes, and spots of moral intrigue along the way. It’s one of the most compelling bits of the sprawling sci-fi RPG and, because of the game’s design, it seems like it would be very easy to miss.
To get it started, the player must happen to speak to a character they’ve likely sprinted past many times before. They have to have ignored the demands of a main plotline that begs for attention and the innumerable side stories that pop up when walking the streets of Starfield’s sci-fi cities. It’s a diamond hidden deep in the rough that illustrates a major problem with the game’s design: There’s simply so much packed into it that it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s worthwhile.
All artists, from filmmakers and novelists to musicians and gamemakers, have to make countless small editing decisions in their work. Which parts of a character’s life need to be depicted to tell their story? How should multiple instrumental and vocal tracks be mixed to create the best version of a song? Which features and storylines should be included or cut in order to maintain a video game’s pace and overall coherence?
Starfield presents itself as if very few of these kinds of tough choices have been made. In some sense, this isn’t exactly a fault—many players will be more than happy to lose themselves aimlessly in the game for years to come—but it does make it difficult to recommend it to those less likely to be so committed. For many years, in games from its Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series, Starfield creator Bethesda Game Studios has warranted attention for the sheer size of the worlds it makes and the breadth of activities contained within. The promise of the studio’s work comes from the allure of enormous environments where the player, guiding a character whose morals and physical abilities they develop over time, can interact with the unexpected events that emerge from exploring massive buildings and rural landscapes dotted with roving enemies.