On the Novo Theater terrace, an old song by Lionel Richie played its soothing strains as the artist sang, “It’s easy like Sunday Morning.” It was indeed a Sunday morning. As Bethesda’s Todd Howard walked by, said ‘Hey!” and shook my hand, he looked chill as well. But putting together the mammoth Starfield presentation couldn’t have been an easy experience.
As I sat high above the action in the cheap seats at the Nova Theater, I was kind of stunned to witness the sheer variety within the outer space world that is Starfield. When Bethesda gave me a world exclusive for The Washington Post for the game’s premier announcement, it was clear making this brand new thing from scratch would be a difficult undertaking. In fact, the deadline for release was extended to September 6, 2023. Yet it was only when I saw the vastness of play and of the world that I realized it was more than a game, more than an adventure.
It appears to be your virtual place to live an alternative life as you game. That means you’ll spend a ton of time exploring a great number of planets. It’s not like No Man’s Sky, however.
As the lights went down and a video played on the movie theater-sized screen like a documentary at a film festival, the audience learned more about the interplanetary nature of Starfield. It began with a countdown and friendly introduction by Howard, who is so comfortable behind the camera, he could easily work at a national media network. As he did with me when the game was announced, Howard talked about the long history of creation “a space game.”
What’s compelling about many Bethesda previews, is how they feature stories from employees who are seen as family in the video. That’s hard to do when you’re no longer a small business (Sims creator Will Wright bemoaned the fact that he no longer knew everyone when Maxis grew bigger). But the trope quite worked well for the presentation, which began with a swell of wonderfully dramatic music and a space-suited explorer placed in a deceivingly earth-like environment. Yet there were dinosaur-like creatures in the distance.
But it isn’t just one world. “It’s over 1,000 worlds,” said Howard as the explorer was shown in a montage featuring a dozen planets, rendered extremely well to induce wonder – all of which you can visit. This montage was stunning to me. My immediate feelings were: how can they even do that? How can they do that well? How do I make time to explore these worlds? I mean, 1,000 worlds!
As the video progressed, one thing seemed to stick with me. And it was a small thing. There had been talk about how the lighting makes these worlds filmic, still a prime goal for game makers. I saw resources being collected and surprises being offered for looking in nooks and crannies. The Databank? That’s your hub for all the space stuff you ardently collect from weapons to an Anthony Bourdain-like obsession and appreciation of the various food you find.
And then it happened: as the explorer returned to the ship, a robot, with a small wave of his left hand, greeted Howard with “Welcome back, Captain Howard.” Calling me by my name would be enough. But saying “Welcome back” adds the essence of closeness, even of family. I’m looking forward to hearing “Welcome back, Captain Goldberg” because it’s something that will let me feel that this is my game, not just me with a crew, but me kind of like with my family. It won’t be real, I know that. But it’s fiction that will give me a reason to keep playing. It’s a small thing that will be a big thing to me.
All this information was presented in just the first five minutes of a 45-minute presentation. I think Bethesda’s main goal was to look at space exploration the way someone as old as I am looked at first Apollo moon landing when I was a kid sitting in front of a black and white TV. In awe, I watched Neil Armstrong set foot on an environment that is 250,000 miles away. I was excited. My mom was excited. The country and the world was gobsmacked.
Not many game players were living during that time so many years, and Starfield isn’t simply a recreation of a moon flight. But Bethesda needs to engender that once-in-a-lifetime excitement of feeling something completely new and unusual. Goosebumps and chills created by wonder are essential for Starfield’s success.
For me, it’s narrative that’s moving. That subject wasn’t really discussed with any depth but was alluded to by one of Bethesda’s employees. In a segment in which workers were asked what they liked the most about Starfield, someone replied “the ending.” That made me think, “What is the story like?” It’s not dealt with here in the graphics-rich presentation. When I interviewed Todd Howard for The Washington Post, he suggested that the game deals with what may be out there far beyond us here on Earth.
Howard didn’t say the word “God,” but that’s what I felt he meant. In any case, the question is part of an age-old inquiry, probably a mysterious conundrum that predates history, certainly history that has been written down. As we all look at the sky, perhaps even as our ancestors looked to the star-filled night sky before there were houses and civilizations, we asked, “Are we alone?”
Unknowable to humans in the world we live in now, the fictionalized answer could be the core of Starfield. Are they friendly? Are they enemies? What do they think of us? What do they think of you, as the explorer? And finally most importantly, does the fantastic journey in Starfield provide the fascinating bits of story you need to keep going, almost as a page-turning novel gone interactive and intergalactic?
Author/journalist Harold Goldberg is the founder of The New York Videogame Critics Circle and The New York Game Awards.