Imagine a game. Its soon-to-be hero, of unknown but mutable name and gender, awakens with a start, only to suddenly be thrust into a grand adventure in a larger world. The budding hero doesn’t miss a beat, quickly becoming powerful, joining various factions, and solving mysteries and completing quests across the land. Along the way, they explore a massive open world filled with enemies to kill and loot as well as cities that contain guards, peaceful NPCs, merchants, and taverns. Also weirdly, a lot of the time, this extraordinary individual never accomplishes what they set out to do, instead getting lost building settlements or grinding out their cooking skill.
What game did I just describe? Basically, every Bethesda Game Studios RPG ever released.
The studio’s latest massive open-world RPG is Starfield, out now on Xbox and PC. This giant space adventure, the first new IP from Bethesda in decades, is set in a fully explorable galaxy that contains hundreds of planets and quests. This isn’t a fantasy RPG like Skyrim or Oblivion. Nor is it a post-apocalyptic wasteland survival sim like Fallout 3 or Fallout 4. Instead, Starfield is a large-scale sci-fi game heavily inspired by NASA, Star Trek, and countless other space-based movies and TV shows.
Yet while Starfield is filled with aliens and spaceships, it’s still a Bethesda RPG. You can almost feel the ancient bones of Morrowind and Fallout 3 poking through bits of the scenery and menus as you play.
For example, as in most previous Bethesda-developed games, you can still pick up and collect nearly every mundane object you see, including all the worthless sandwiches you can carry. All of these things have physics, which can lead to wild piles of trash.
Players can also still find a random chair, sit down, and quietly wait for 24 hours like a meditating monk. Likewise, beds still heal you when you sleep, characters still stop you in your tracks to discuss quests via oddly zoomed-in conversations, and every group in the galaxy will let you join their ranks regardless of your other alliances.
Bethesda’s games revolve entirely around the player
Another big Bethesda RPG trait is also prevalent in Starfield, and no I’m not talking about bugs or sweet rolls: Starfield, like Fallout 4 and Skyrim before it, is completely and utterly focused on making sure you, the player, are at the center of everything.
In Bethesda RPGs you are almost always the most powerful, skilled, coolest, fiercest, smartest, sexiest, noblest, and legendary-est hero in the world. Everyone needs your help. That random bartender who is in debt will ask for your help. That guard looking for a murderer will ask you, yes you, to help them solve the case. In Starfield, I couldn’t help but laugh when early on I bumped into a scientist studying a large, alien tree. This guy didn’t know me, had no idea what I was capable of, and had zero clue about my education or science background. That didn’t matter. Turns out that I still could help him with his scientific endeavors.
Everyone in Bethesda RPGs needs you. Not only that, the world or even the universe needs you because only you the player can save the day. Nobody else has a chance. And weirdly, it seems like everyone in these games knows this and will pester you for all their problems big or small. Even if you tell them no, they’ll just wait around until you change your mind or need some more XP and come back, ready to solve their problem.
Bethesda’s RPGs focusing so much on making sure the player is catered to, treated well, and served up all the adventure they want isn’t a mistake or a glitch in the system. It’s part of the design ethos of the company, as explained by Bethesda game director Todd Howard during a 2012 GDC talk.
“Make the player proud when he’s playing your game,” explained Howard. “Make yourself proud that you made it. Make your player proud that he bought it.”
The studio behind Fallout 3 and Starfield doesn’t want you, the player, to get bored or feel forgotten in its vast digital worlds. And when you keep that quote from Howard in mind and look at how similar every Bethesda game ends up being, it makes sense.
Of course you can control time by sitting in a chair. Of course you can pick up anything and steal it. Of course you can build your own ship or village. Of course you are the hero of the world. Of course everyone needs you and whatever skills you happen to possess. It’s your world. It’s your game. This is all for you!
And Bethesda really wants you to be proud that you bought the game and played it. It’s willing to bend and break its own games and rely on its tried and true formula to make sure you are truly and completely satisfied.
It’s unlikely Bethesda RPGs will ever change
For some this is frustrating. I know people who desperately want Bethesda to create a game in which guards aren’t always randomly giving you quests. In which the world doesn’t revolve around you and your special hero. A game that has the same vastness and detail of a Bethesda RPG but isn’t built entirely around merely killing and becoming more powerful.
The reality is that after decades of Bethesda developing and releasing games, it’s clear that the studio has no plans to change. You ain’t getting The Witcher 3 or Baldur’s Gate 3 from this studio. Sure, it might make future games bigger, add co-op, shake up the setting, or even add better graphics. Yet, Bethesda won’t risk not catering to the player or failing to let them be “proud” of the game they purchased.
So we end up where we are with Starfield, a game that visually looks like something from this era, but still plays and operates like a game from 2005. For me, a self-described Bethesda RPG sicko, this is what I want. I like a nice bowl of oatmeal, even if it’s not the most creative or fresh meal in the world. I find Bethesda’s RPGs comforting to return to. They all have tutorials, but I don’t really need them. I know how to play this game. Millions of other people do as well.
Ultimately, many of us sickos just want more of what Bethesda has been making for 20+ years now, and the company seems more than happy to provide it. I admit that even though I know Starfield is built to cater to me at every turn and make me feel powerful, I find that comforting to sink into. It may not be the best game of 2023 but it will likely end up being the one I put the most hours into.
Will the formula still work 10 years from now? I don’t know. I’ll admit that the usual siren call pulling me back to Bethesda’s RPGs isn’t quite as strong this time around as it has been in the past. But for now, Bethesda has me right where it wants me.
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