Inside the making of Starfield — one of the biggest stories ever told
It's a Wednesday night, and I've found my way to Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Its surface is harsh and uninviting. If I were to remove my spacesuit, I'd die. But inside an airlocked space station, a small colony of human settlers call this place home.
Bill, a cheerful tour guide, greets me at the kitschy museum, full of artifacts from Earth. He explains that in 2130, Titan was the first place humans colonized after they left the blue planet. Down a flight of stairs, there's an industrial-looking set of rooms filled with rusty shipping containers. This, we soon learn, is where some of Titan's inhabitants live.
"Space is extremely limited," Bill remarks. "So you'll notice some overflow here."
A woman nearby sees this area differently, suggesting things might be a bit more complicated than Bill has let on.
"The crates are what we call the living quarters of the poor people," she says. "Like me."
Welcome to Starfield, a new video game decades in the making. The studio behind it says it has 3 million words of dialogue and includes more than 1,000 environments players can explore across multiple galaxies.
It's no exaggeration to say this might be one of the biggest stories ever told — in any medium. It also has real life consequences for the developers who are banking on the game's success being as grand as their vision.
What sets video games apart
Starfield's story shoots for the stars, but it was born right here on Earth.
At Bethesda Game Studios in Maryland, a trophy case starts on the first floor of the building and extends upward to the third. It's a monument to how deeply the studio's games have resonated with people.
It's also where NPR meets Starfield's game director Todd Howard just before the game's release. Inside that trophy case, Howard points to a row of boxes made up of every video game the studio has released. Of particular interest to him is 1988's Wayne Gretzky Hockey.
"My girlfriend gave me this game for Christmas, and I saw the address on the box," Howard says. He was attending William and Mary university at the time, not far from the company's headquarters.
"So I drove by the office," Howard recalls. "And I just knocked on the door and said, 'I want to work here one day.'"
It's the kind of origin story that doesn't seem plausible in 2023, but Howard would go on to not just join that studio but help grow it into one of gaming's most influential. In the years since, Bethesda has garnered a reputation for creating ambitious role playing franchises like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls. Players have fallen in love with the richness of these worlds and the complicated moral decisions they have to make in them.
Starfield follows that playbook, but tells a different kind of story. Space is the great unknown: a frontier that still asks more questions than it answers. For Howard, it's the search for answers to these questions that make up the soul of Starfield.
"What's out there? Is there alien life out there? Where do we come from?" he ponders. "You know, people forget ... that every element on Earth, every element in our body comes from an exploding star."
It's hard to say when Starfield was first truly conceptualized, because space is a fundamental piece of Howard's story. His brother was born on July 20, 1969, the day that Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. He also regularly visited family in Cape Canaveral, a reminder that space travel isn't just some kind of pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
"Humans really do this," he says. "This is, like, part of who we are."
Starfield is Bethesda's first original IP in 25 years. But the sci-fi space opera is such well-trodden ground that it's worth asking what kind of story is left to tell. Making Starfield stand out from its many inspirations — Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and The Martian, to name just a few— meant understanding what it is about video games that allow for a different kind of storytelling.
"There are many great movies where they kind of affect you, and make you think about yourself and your life, or how you would react to a situation," Howard says. "But in the game, you're actually doing it. And when you accomplish something, it was you, and you feel this moment of pride. Like, look what I did."
Design director Emil Pagliarulo, who oversaw much of the game's lore and quest design, understands that with a video game like Starfield, fun comes first.
"We're making a video game," he says. "We're not making Anna Karenina."
So Pagliarulo and the team made it their mission to create an "escapist fantasy" where everything fun that could conceivably happen in space is possible: smuggling cargo; getting in your spaceship and defending the Federation; being a space pirate.
Embracing 'NASA punk' and the tiny details
The game takes place in 2330, after humanity has ventured beyond the solar system. A group of space explorers are seeking rare artifacts that could hold answers to the mysteries of the universe.
With such a heady sci-fi premise, the team took care to make sure its ideas had roots in the real world. Visually, Starfield draws from the nostalgia and imagination of 20th century space travel.
Art director Istvan Pely refers to the game as a kind of period piece, despite it taking place in the future. For example, the moody noir-ish lighting was inspired by the TV show Peaky Blinders.
It's a fusion of future and past, a style the team calls "NASA punk." The idea is that everything in Starfield's future world feels tactile and real. Buttons on spaceships are not mysterious; there are labels detailing what they do. Spacesuits look like they were dreamt up in the 1970s.
"We wanted this to be hard science fiction," Pely says. "This is technology that people can look at and relate to."
Of course, 2330 is the future. And that's where Pely's punk ethos comes into play: the stylized and exaggerated technology that doesn't exist yet here on Earth. There's an industrial robot companion named VASCO, and a feature on your spaceship that "bends and folds space" allowing you to travel across the galaxy in seconds.
In Starfield, like all Bethesda games, it's the smaller details that reinforce the big ideas. Inside the game's first spaceship, which is owned by a daring and impulsive space traveler named Barrett, there are photographs taken from across the galaxy on the walls, a space rock on the shelves, a handwritten sign that says "Status: Tired" above a small bed, and a sandwich on the table. In the not-so-distant future, humans are still humans.
"It was really important to avoid the sci-fi environments that are cold and clinical and don't feel lived in," notes Pely. "People still have rock band posters on their walls, or little toys that remind them of home, or things like that ... don't assume human nature has dramatically changed even though we're in a different time period."
Much of Starfield's ambitious storytelling is reliant on just that: understanding human nature. Because the team is creating a universe you can live in — not just a two-hour story — questions of how the denizens of this massive universe live and think matter.
Take religion, for example. How has humanity's journey to the stars affected their feelings about God? In Starfield, there are two competing schools of thought. Sanctum Universum adherents believe space travel has brought humans closer to God. And The Enlightened are atheists who believe in a doctrine of humanism.
Much of the theological text for the Sanctum Universum was actually written by a former Bethesda employee, Shane Liesegang, who is now studying to be a Jesuit priest. Pagliarulo recalls that the religious doctrine in the game was so convincing, when Howard looked it over he was concerned it was plagiarized.
With so much attention paid to existential thought, it follows that for Pagliarulo, his work has prompted personal reflection.
"When you look at a model of the universe, and all the galaxies, and then you feel so insignificant — but then you look at your life and how significant you are to the people that you love..." — Pagliarulo searches for a definitive end to that thought, but doesn't quite find one —"...it puts things into an interesting perspective."
A rare miss followed by a big swing
Back on Earth, how players respond to this ambitious story will have real consequences for Microsoft and Bethesda. Both have something to prove with Starfield.
Bethesda's last big release, Fallout 76, was panned by players when it was released in 2018. While the community generally agrees the game is better now, it was a rare miss from the company.
Microsoft, meanwhile, purchased Bethesda for $7.5 billion in 2021. It expects Starfield to be a hit.
"Games like Starfield only come along every couple of years," Xbox chief marketing officer Jerret West told GamesIndustry.biz. Microsoft is hoping the game draws new players to its Game Pass subscription service, looping them into the Xbox ecosystem.
The game is out now in early access, and the initial critical response has been positive. But in the world of video games, narratives can change fast, and fans are quick to turn on developers. And this game is a big swing for Bethesda – a bigger story than they've ever told that comes with an inherent risk: What if it's too sprawling and ambitious for players to grab onto?
"I wouldn't say I worry about it," Howard responds. "I do think the ending of the game might be a little controversial. We ask a lot of questions. We don't provide a lot of answers. Because I think we want a lot of those answers to be in you."
Starfield is available now in early access on Xbox and Windows. The game will launch for all players on those platforms on September 6.
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