Finally, finally we got some gameplay of Starfield, Bethesda's long-awaited space RPG. We're all weighing up opinions on how it's shaping up. Some members of our team love the scale of the exploration while others are waiting for evidence that the planets are worth the fuel to visit them. But from the new trailer, I'm most excited about the return of Bethesda's silly NPCs.
Skyrim is my favourite Bethesda game by a mile. It has something to do with it being my first, of course, but I loved exploring that wilderness and meeting its inhabitants. Though the environment was grand, especially the cities whose blueprints will always be committed to memory, the things about Skyrim that I truly love are its weird NPCs and their stilted dialogue.
Skyrim memes have never died. How many times has an internet joke landed on the topic of sweet rolls or taking an arrow to the knee? We groan, but those lines stuck. We're not all reminiscing about the shouts the Dovahkiin used, we're still joking about Lydia's unwillingness to carry our shit around. Those are the things we collectively remember best about Bethesda games: The weird, disturbing NPCs and their inhuman conversation style.
Skyrim isn't the only game in Bethesda's arsenal with distinctly eccentric characters. Fallout 4's Preston Garvey's "another settlement needs your help" rings in my ears years after putting the game away. And perhaps the pièce de résistance of Bethesda's weird NPCs are in Oblivion (they certainly include some of the ugliest). That disconcerting steer to look into the eyes and soul of the random NPC you've clicked on is iconic. It's so funny every single time it happens and no matter the conversation's topic, it adds to the drama.
That's the funky flavour I want from Starfield. That's all I ask, Bethesda.
With games making technical advancements all the time I fear we'll lose this kind of unintentional weirdness in NPCs one day. Sometime in the not-too-distant future games will pride themselves on NPC performances being almost identical to behaviours you see in real life. As neat as that is technically, real people are boring. I can people-watch all I want on a park bench. I want game characters to be oddballs. I want them to bump into the bench, glare at me, say something about an underground thieves guild they've heard of and then aggressively clip through the bench into the nearby river. Is that so much to ask?
As I watched Starfield's big reveal, I feared that Bethesda's incongruous companions would be lost with this generation's technological advancements. But alas, as the action began an enemy NPC pirate screamed "Hey, there you are" in a New Jersey accent and quenched my fears. Man, you've only just seen me, what do you mean "there you are". We have just met.
I giggle in delight knowing this is just the beginning. Another NPC yells, "move move move" while not moving and staying exactly where they are to be blown up by a grenade moments later. Brilliant. I have never been on a battlefield before, but I'm pretty sure few soldiers bellow "you're mine" while taking cover and cowering without a weapon. And that's just the way I like my Bethesda games.
While lots of people will be exploring the 1,000 planets in the galaxy, I'll probably stick to the main quests. I just prefer the bizarre interpersonal politics of games. It's why I love Mass Effect or Disco Elysium. Lots of words, lots of thinking about how Jess likes her tea and how Paul saw the fall of the Toriloquilin...en...eck, or something, empire. And so I'm far less concerned about all those planets waiting out there. I want to know why Peter is having a hard time talking to a robot in the next room.
When our silent protagonist wandered into the space explorer guild Constellation's headquarters and a very serious blonde woman put the weight of the universe on our shoulders, I really got excited. Not because of the implications of a massive space quest, but because of the weirdly close proximity of her face to the screen. And because of how dangerously agile her eyebrows were. Bethesda, your NPCs are still weird. What a blessing.
As we were told about the "biggest question of all" (it's "what's out there" not "what's for tea"), we finally got a good look at Starfield's NPC face models and motion capture. They're polished and have far better skin tones for darker complexions than Skyrim or Fallout 4, but their stilted expressions yet extremely elastic faces are a sign that these people are still going to have a good helping of oddness to them. Seriously how do Bethesda's character models have so much movement in their mugs yet cannot get sincere emotion across, it's a mystery.
And then, like, whomst the fuck is this guy, eh? Like what is this guy's story? His hairline has seen a war or two, and yet he keeps his 'tache in ship-shape. He's fantastic and I want to know what the inside of his jacket hood feels like.
The voice acting of Starfield seems better than ever. Stoic, sincere, serious. Not a smile in the house, just business, no pleasure. That might dampen some of the room for sniggers here and there, but I can't tell you my relief when I saw that Starfield was shaping up to be, despite all its futuristic pomp, a Bethesda game. Weirdly stiff, undoubtedly buggy, full of extraterrestrial beings just posing as humans.