Starfield, a Science Fiction Video Game, is Strangely Anti-Science

Starfield, a Science Fiction Video Game, is Strangely Anti-Science

6 min read

Starfield boasts over 1000 planets, which is a lot by any measure. Most of them are barren, bleak expanses punctuated by a couple of close-ish map markers that are just far enough away to be annoying. You can jump from one end of the galaxy to another in a blink of the eye, but traversing a mile of terrain takes several minutes, and even longer if you are weighed down by random crap you think you need but actually don’t.1 My kingdom for a buggy, hoverboard, or Segway.

Many of these locations are abandoned scientific facilities. Research labs. Pharmaceutical plants. Derelict space stations. The first time I came upon such a location, I was filled with the sort of wonder only stories can impart. What happened here? Why was it abandoned? Poised on the edge of space, did the scientists stare into all that nothing and lose their minds?2 Did they run out of funding? Did they have a change of heart and join the circus?

Turns out, the place wasn’t really abandoned at all. It was under new management.

Mercenaries had moved in and systematically killed everybody inside the facility. Fairly recently, too—they hadn’t even cleaned up the bodies when I arrived. So unlucky I wasn't there; I know exactly the gun that could’ve spared them.

I did what needed doing. This involves a gameplay loop the developer perfected in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series: Kill everyone and take everything. You can be good or bad in these games, but even if you are the hero, the developers quietly encourage behavior that would be reviled in polite society.

And so it went: Jump to a new system, either randomly or to complete an errand; get distracted; come upon an outpost literally in the middle of nowhere; find myself drawn inexorably to the outpost because of the intense curiosity such a remote location inspired; find every scientist inside murdered, often quite bloodily; try to piece together what happened, and why; shrug after looting the tenth body and chalk it up to greed or the evil of men.

After a while, the sheer repetitivity started to irk me. It felt lazy, like seeing the same character model recycled endlessly. There is definitely some of that. As I said, this is one of Bethesda’s core gameplay loops.

But because my mind likes to fill in the blanks—consider this example, in which I provide an explanation for the karate-crazed Valley of Cobra Kai—I started looking for in-world explanations. It was not a serious looking, because despite whatever gravitas we impart upon them, these are not serious games. It was the sort of thinking one does in the shower: casual, idle, with no real goal in mind. Sometime after clearing out an abandoned mining facility that had delved too greedily and too deep and unearthed a horde of giant demonic crickets that killed all the miners, I realized the world of Starfield is one in which science is denigrated.