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Starfield’s “explore the galaxy” premise is hard to beat, but it’ll be even harder to deliver on

“Get in a ship, explore the galaxy, do fun stuff”: that’s Bethesda’s Starfield in a nutshell, according to executive producer Todd Howard. The first time I read that neat little triptych in yesterday’s Washington Post interview, my brain skated over it. It’s one of those broad, sweeping statements that promises something so big you end up disregarding it by default. But then I went back to it, and after forcing my mind’s eye to hover over the words like a fat hawk, the words really sank in. The middle three, in particular.

Explore the galaxy. That, right there, is a premise that space games have always tended to fall short on over the years, and I’d forgotten how badly I wanted it fulfilled. Speaking bluntly, science fiction is one of the biggest things in my life. Exploring the galaxy is a big deal to me, and yet, the experience space games have delivered in the past has never quite been the one I’ve been after. Now, I’m daring to ask myself how I’d feel if this time, it was.

Yes, I have played No Man’s Sky. And yes, recently. It’s not bad! But it’s not for me. There’s too much harvesting and crafting for my liking, and the sense of wonder quickly dried up when I realised I’d seen enough combinations of things to know pretty much how the infinite space sausage was being made. I could give you similar synopses for why I bounced off Elite Dangerous, EVE Online, and any other “what about?” you care to mention. Again, they’re not bad games. It’s just that what I’m after is basically impossible. I want… well, I want a galaxy to explore. And I gather they take quite a long time to make.

Every space game, or at least those that offer freedom of movement, wants to promise you the galaxy. Usually, though, there’s an inevitable (and quite reasonable) compromise in order to deliver something practical and achieveable by any given dev team. No Man’s Sky, as an example, offered virtual infinity in spatial breadth, but at the cost of depth. A game like good ol’ Knights Of The Old Republic, on the other end of the spectrum, offered marvellous depth, but at the cost of functionally redefining “galaxy” as “several towns”.

Unless Todd Howard has acquired some sort of terrifying captive god, Starfield will make compromises, too. We already knew, back at the tail end of last year, that it will have a map – albeit one much bigger than Fallout 76’s. But since Fallout 76’s map was, at 120 square miles, just smaller than the Dublin metro area, one would hope so. That raises the question of how this map will be split between space and planetary surfaces. From the “get in a ship” bit of Howard’s synopsis, it sounds like there’ll be at least some sort of space flight. But how big will the planets be? Will you be able to land anywhere you like?

Ah, duct tape and pass-ag notes. I’m a sucker for a lived-in sci-fi universe, and Starfield’s sure looks to be one of those.

These sorts of questions go on and on, and I’ll be happy to wait to see them answered. No doubt some will have answers that get me really excited, while others elicit more of a, “Shame, but fair enough,” response. My hope for the finished product obviously isn’t “the perfect space game”, which I’ve already explained can’t really exist. But I’m hoping this will be the one that scratches my lifelong itch, at least for a goodly chunk of hours, until the illusion wears off.

“I do not want to play as an astronaut who shouts people off mountains.”

The reason for that is, crudely, because Bethesda have shitloads of resource to throw at the project – and presumably even more, since Microsoft became their dad. Starfield is the next big games egg the Bethesda ostrich will lay. It will have a yolk absolutely rammed with coins. And while not every egg can be a winner – Fallout 76’s hatched with a reek of sulphur, to reveal an extremely ill vulture – some, like Skyrim, are capable of taking the imagination for a right good flap.

The words, “Skyrim, but in space,” were also uttered by Howard in that WaPo interview. And while it’s not hard to imagine why he thought that might be a good thing to say, hypewise, I’m willing to take it at face value. To qualify why “Skyrim in space” excites me, I should point out that I’m not thinking about direct mapping of mechanics from one game to the other. I do not want to play as an astronaut who shouts people off mountains. But that sense of freedom, and sheer atmosphere, that I felt when I first played Skyrim… apply that to space, and we’re golden.

Yes, I know Skyrim isn’t perfect. Far from it. The alchemy system is total shit. But it packed such a punch where it counted that I and millions of others fell hard for it anyway. When it occasionally came home drunk and shat the bed, we were too in love to care, and put such incidents down as “endearing quirks”. If Starfield can hit me just as hard as those giants did when Bethesda send me to space for the first time, I’ll be a happy little spaceman.

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