Physical confrontation, financial responsibility, emotional insecurities–these are things I run away from in life. So why wouldn’t I default to role-playing as the coward that I am in Bethesda’s latest epic, Starfield? Unfortunately, space doesn’t seem all that welcoming to conflict-avoidant people, as Starfield forces me to fight more often than not.
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Bethesda has not advertised Starfield as a potential space pacifist sim (it was made perfectly in clear back in August that a no-kill run is not possible), but I wanted to jump in and see just how much freedom I had to play the game at my own pace and with my own approach. Can I outmaneuver and outwit violent situations? Can I strive to be above aggression and explore the game holding to the ideals of pacifism? Frustratingly, no.
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Look, I love a shooty game. Probably to unhealthy degrees. And I love a shooty game in space. Especially with big explosions. But Bethesda’s first-person action is not what I come to these games for. Fallout 4’s point-and-shoot mechanics were a massive improvement, for sure, over Fallout 3’s, but it still didn’t compare to the likes of even Borderlands, let alone a dedicated shooter of the kind we’re all familiar with.
There I go killing again
Everything I saw in the trailers for Starfield promised me the fantasy of video games: Shoot stuff! Blow shit up! Isn’t this so freaking awesome?? But I wanted something different, quiet, contemplative, with risk of death for sure, but also an opportunity to be my own character in this world. Something more like what I’d find in an Ursula K. LeGuin novel instead of John Wick in space. I wanted to gaze into the abyss of “the blackest sea,” marvel at the celestial bodies above, and try to avoid getting riddled full of bullets as best I could without returning the aggression.
Starfield didn’t care for my desire for peace in its early moments; and thus far that doesn’t look like it’ll change much. In drawing me into its combat, it broke a sense of freedom I was after and reminded me why I loathe gunplay in Bethesda games. Yes, Starfield has the best-feeling guns to aim and shoot in comparison to previous releases from the studio, but the RPG mechanics under the hood shatter my immersion and its confusing ammo management immediately frustrates me.
In Starfield’s opening moments, I emerge from some space mines where my character has a little Commander Shepard-esque vision after touching a spooky space object™. A dude comes down from the sky and says “yo, you’re special, let’s go talk to people.” (I’m paraphrasing.)
My pacifistic and somewhat skeptical gal doesn’t want to go anywhere with this stranger. She wants to stick to mining. But then pirates show up and start shooting people. Just another day in the galaxy.
The HUD prompt reads “Hold off the pirates” and “(Optional) Grab a weapon.” Cool, I think, I’m not doing either of those things. Remember, I’m a coward and so is my character.
I run into the ship. And it’s locked. That makes sense. Gunfire echoes off in the near distance and I figure I’ll just park myself here while people shoot each other. Maybe the pirates will win and I’ll be fucked. Could be a short end, but that’s the price of trying to play this way.
The gunfire continues. I get bored, so I start walking around the perimeter of the firefight. Occasionally, a pirate catches sight of me and fires off a few rounds, but they rarely pursue me. I am content with parking myself on the roof of a space building, or hiding behind random objects, and just letting these people kill each other.
That takes just over 10 minutes as the AI struggles to find each other–when they do land their shots, it matters little, as characters in this game are immersion-shattering bullet sponges.
It took well over 10 minutes for the AI to finish this fight on its own.Gif: Bethesda / Kotaku
I get it, this area is meant to be a space for you to get a sense for how the guns feel and the overall pace of Starfield’s action. But it fails to provide the opening moments I was looking for, it fails to let me roleplay my character the way I wanted to.
After the pirates die, I once again try to insist that I don’t want to go anywhere. No one will listen to me (even in space I can’t catch a break, apparently), and so I took off in this guy’s ship, only for some pirate ships to show up and start firing at me.
I managed to get out of the previous skirmish without firing a round, maybe I can do the same here? Nope. Absolutely not. It would seem that your first voyage into the void necessitates a dogfight.
I try everything, flying off to another planet, flying back down to the planet I came from, trying to put space between me and my space assailant. None of it works. Unlike No Man’s Sky, you can’t just dive down to the planet’s surface and keep burning your engines until you lose someone. Starfield really wants you to engage in space fights.
The planet just won’t get any closer!Gif: Bethesda / Kotaku
That’s how my girl has to kill her first pirate. Not because a scenario emerges that sparked such violence, but because the game won’t let me past a sequence without it. Guess I’m a murderer now?
Relentless combat, sparse resources
The next two gun fights I get into further remind me that Starfield wants me to play a very specific way, and that’s largely by interacting with the world through violence. That can be fun, don’t get me wrong—I mean, I happily play Call of Duty regularly for god’s sake and you should hear the things that come out of my mouth when I’m caught in a frustrating game of cat and mouse with someone in DMZ—but it’s a bit disappointing that this enormous RPG that seems to promise a depth of choice is often so invested in railroading you into shootouts in corridors.
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So I relent. Okay, I can work with this for my character concept: The pirate encounter forced my girl into violence, but that is never her first option. She now begrudgingly carries a pistol with the words “no gods, no masters” inscribed on it by its previous owner, a painful reminder that, yes, this galaxy is a cruel place, and hopefully she can preserve her humanity as she follows the Constellation organization to try and figure out what the hell is going on in her own mind.
I want her to only carry pistols, choosing to stay away from aggressive military weaponry as she isn’t a soldier and doesn’t have the fortitude or skill to be using a high-powered weapon. Preferably just one (and that’s a build I’m still hoping to zero in on). But as soon as I get to a space station orbiting the moon, following what feels like a narratively urgent situation, Starfield makes it clear that it wants more violence out of me, and of varying kinds. Upon entry, I discovered two opposing groups of folks shooting at each other. And when they catch sight of me? They shoot at me, too.
So I return fire with my pistol. Bang, bang, bang, click! I’m out of 6.5 caliber ammunition. Where do I get more? The enemies I’m fighting don’t carry it. They have Grendel SMGs with a different caliber. I decide to rely on a melee strike with an ax, but that gets me killed as I’m out-personed and outgunned. I die.
Reluctantly, I switch to the SMG, take out a few more folks before swiftly running out of ammo again.This time I grab a shotgun. Cool. I’m now a walking arsenal (seriously, I could just be playing Halo or something if I wanted this), but at least I have powerful weaponry. Well, powerful weaponry is always kept in check by Starfield’s levels and stats, so point-blank-shots of shotgun rounds don’t result in death or debilitating injury, just a little chunk off enemies’ health bars.
In games like The Last of Us, I love the pressure and intensity of making each shot count; but in Starfield each shot is only worth as much as a damage value, so it kinda doesn’t matter how well you place it. Starfield has smooth gunplay with none of the benefits of being skilled in aiming. It’s all in the numbers.
One of these bullets will kill you. Eventually!Gif: Bethesda / Kotaku
Right now I’m still stuck on this moon base. And no amount of firepower I’m capable of can get through this scenario. It’s feeling like I need to fall back and grind out some quests to gain better power, or find other ways of dealing with this situation.
Either way, the inability to find non-violent solutions to problems and the burden of Bethesda’s first-person-shooter action have made for an abrasive early experience. Starfield is otherwise appealing, from the bold presentation of the environments to the inviting and intimidating sense of scale. Hopefully I find my stride, but my aspiration of being a pacifist space traveler looks to be as dead as the people the game pushes me to kill.