Saturday, November 25, 2023

Four Things I Hope I Experience In Starfield

(This post was started in August; I lost direction for a while, and obviously we've got some new information, a la the actual gameplay, but I wanted to get this finished and posted. Who knows, maybe I'll do a follow-up and we'll investigate how well Starfield measured up to my hopes!)

The year 2023 might go down as one of the most hype-saturated years in recent memory. As I've mentioned several times to my gaming friends of late, I hardly ever pre-order games, or pick up games at release. But so far this year I've already pre-ordered Diablo IV, and then purchased Baldur's Gate 3 right as it left early access (verdict so far: Diablo IV was okay, Baldur's Gate 3 was tremendous). And while I don't own a Nintendo Switch, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was a massive release as well.

But arguably the most hyped title is still yet to drop: Starfield. Starfield is the newest release by Bethesda Game Studios, the company that brought us The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a game that's featured prominently on any list of "Best Games of All Time" that you can find. I've got 320+ hours of time in Skyrim, and honestly, it could've been a lot higher if I didn't get so overwhelmed with mod options while trying to turn the game dirty.

Unlike the medieval fantasy setting of Skyrim however, Starfield takes place among the stars. Instead of imagining ways to incorporate Tryndamere from League of Legends into my Skyrim game (mission accomplished, by the way), Starfield invites inspirations from the great science fiction media of the past fifty years: Star Wars, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, Halo, and on and on. And the features that are purported to be available in Starfield sure *sound* like they're going to be an incredible amount of fun.

All of this hype, all the discussion, and the ideas I've had over the past few years of watching sci-fi TV shows and movies, it's got me super excited for this game to come out. And there are a few specific experiences I'm hoping to have as I play through Starfield. Let's chat about them!


I Hope I Fall In Love with My Ship

One of the tropes of any good space adventure is that somebody is gonna fall in love with their ship. They'll talk to the ship as if it's a person, coaxing the ship through tough times, pleading for help, "just one more time and I'll never take you for granted again." While I don't expect to anthropomorphize my ship in this game necessarily, I want to get emotionally attached to my ship.

Whether it's Han Solo whispering encouragement to the Millennium Falcon or Captain Jack Sparrow's refusal to acknowledge Barbossa's command of the Black Pearl, some vessels become more than just a useful tool to transport people and cargo from A to B. They become indelible parts of the fabric of an adventure, and a window into the way their captains treat the people they love. Han is willing to let the Falcon be put in harm's way, as long as someone (usually himself, occasionally Lando) is looking out for her.

So what do we have to look forward to in Starfield? Well, the customization options look to be extensive, with more than a dozen components and considerations, each of them impacting not only the look of the vessel, but how it functions in the world. Early indications are that ship customization is something that becomes more prominent deeper in the game, after you've accumulated some wealth. Does this mean that we'll have tens or maybe even hundreds of hours to get attached to an early model of our ship, to the point that we become reluctant to make wholesale changes? As anyone can attest who watched me stream Grand Theft Auto and stick with my black and orange armored delivery van despite acquiring tanks, hoverbikes, and rocket cars, I goddamn hope so.


I Hope I Run Away, and Have Fun Doing It

The second of two ship-based hopes for this game, this one is less about the emotional beats related to a long-term relationship with my ship, and more about the strategy of staying alive. I've been playing a lot of Baldur's Gate 3 recently, and while I'm loving it to the depths of my soul, there's one thing that adventure and role-playing games very rarely are able to capture: choosing to escape. There are plenty of situations in Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, and Assassin's Creed games where you encounter a set piece whose solution is to run away. But it's extremely rare to find a game that truly encourages you to see discretion as the better part of valor.

But this deprives players of unique and cinematic opportunities like those we've seen in popular culture. The aforementioned Millennium Falcon made its hay by running away from Imperial pursuers on multiple occasions. Thor:Ragnarok sees Heimdall working to help Asgard's people escape Hela's clutches, rather than facing off against her in what would no doubt be an epic clash. The entirety of Jurassic Park is built on seeing something you can't beat in a fight and getting the hell out of there.

I want to find myself confronted with impossible battles, ones that I have to work hard to escape. I absolutely love Skyrim. But there's very little nuance in trying to avoid a dragon or other dicey encounter. You basically run in one direction as fast as you can, pop potions when you need, and hope you're fast enough to make them lose interest. Space combat in Starfield looks far more complex. I'm hoping that, with speed and maneuverability being key factors in building your ship, evasive action becomes something meaningful in the gameplay. I look forward to deciding to high-tail it, and live to see another day.


I Hope I Feel Compelled to Do Bad Things

Listen, deep space is no place for the faint of heart. And it's also a place that you would expect to attract the most morally bankrupt sorts of folks you can imagine.

I spend most of my gaming time acting appropriately, heroically. My Baldur's Gate 3 experience so far has been about what you would expect: protecting refugees, standing up to bullies, rescuing damsels. Basically, if Captain America had a tiefling fantasy counterpart, that's who I'm playing in BG3. And that's a ton of fun!

But sometimes, you just wanna be the worst. You want to rebel against the system, you want to find angles to exploit, you want to maybe, maybe lose your temper and blast somebody who's giving you a hard time.

In Elder Scrolls games, this sort of behavior became problematic. You'd get caught doing a little crime in one town, and you'd incur a massive bounty. So your option became to either pay the outrageous penalty, serve some jail time, or reload your game because you lose your temper and resist arrest and murder the whole goddamn town...

...ahem.

I would like to see this game do a better job of accommodating moderate criminality. The far reaches of the galaxy should be places where a bit of bad behavior can get lost in the deep emptiness of space. Planet-specific bounties would be a small part of that, sure, but I'd like to see something more robust than just a segmenting of accountability. I'd also like to see a broader set of options for bad behavior. Smuggling, fraud, digital theft, give me some new age crimes for this intergalactic adventure!


I Hope I Lose A Companion, and It Fucking Hurts

My standard modus operandi in games like these is to leave any companions at home, "saving" them for a moment of dire need. But I never really get to the "dire need" moment, and in the end I just have some followers who never see the light of day. Is this a flaw in my own personal gameplay habits, a result of my aversion to expending resources, and a fairly common happenstance among gamers, who I know match my tendency to hoard and hold and end the game with twelve hundred potions? Yes, I'm sure it is.

But that doesn't mean it's all my fault!

I'd like to find the benefits of companions to be pronounced, both with combat and storytelling. I'd like the teamwork to be noticeable; let me and my companion become a well-oiled machine, a Cap and Bucky (or, if the aforementioned criminality works out, Joker and Harley) for this new interstellar environment. I want to feel compelled to bring a companion along on my adventures.

And then I want them to die.

Now, I don't mean that I want to lose companions in meaningless situations where they keep walking over the same pit of acid because the AI pathing system is flawed (BALDUR'S GATE I'M LOOKING AT YOU). I want to be in a pitched battle where success is not guaranteed, and my companion goes out in a blaze of glory. And I want to care that that happened. I want companions to feel powerful, meaningful, and vulnerable. I want a fight to go sideways once in a while, and for that to occasionally (but not always) end up with someone not making it out alive.

I'm looking for very rare cinematic sacrifices to be a part of my gaming experience, but not just in cutscene situations. I want it to happen out in the world. Heck, if you want to give companions specific lines for their dying moments, I'll eat that shit up.


I'm hopeful that Starfield ends up being the sort of Mandalorian-type adventure game that I've been hungry for. I want to have a cool ship, assemble a dynamic crew, and find myself narrowly eluding death, occasionally to the detriment of that dynamic crew. We'll find out!

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