But Rise Back Like A Phoenix
I am a member of the Bethesda RPG cult, and in God Howard, I trust. He has lied to me for ages, yet come every hype season I sing his hymns of praise with 16 times the volume. And the only reason being: no matter how much of his tiny saccharine nuggets of untruth he has tried to mix in their announcements, the core loop of those games have ended up hypnotizing me for
hundreds thousands of hours on end. They have had their fair share of hiccups these last few years, but then they got a buttload of those dolla’ dolla’ bills from everyone’s favourite sugar daddy, Microsoft, and here we are. In the year where nothing wrong can happen to the videogame industry – 2023 – comes their next big game: Elder Scrolls 6 Fallout 5
I took the proverbial arrow-to-the-knee and let me tell you: I am extremely concerned.
But before we broach that topic, lets talk about their last big venture.
Fuck Fallout 76. The groundbreaking Witcher 3 and the candidly disappointing Fallout 4 released the same year. 2015. While one received multiple GOTYs, the other languished in the libraries of gamers worldwide. What went wrong? Fighting in the same RPG genre, how did one provide such a sublime experience, while the other stumble around like a dinosaur from another era?
Suffering From Success
The best story in a 3D Fallout game was the one not made by Bethesda. Developed in less than 18 months, Fallout: New Vegas was a buggy mess when it launched in 2010, but boy-oh-boy could you see that glint of uncut conflict diamond amidst a metric ton of coal. The developers were later denied an additional royalty bonus for missing a contractual obligation of 85 on Metacritic by 1 frikkin’ point. Despite its flaws, Obsidian had crafted an engaging tale with nuanced grey characters with this one, and had sent it on its way to become a cult classic. And Bethesda, well. They never psychologically recovered from the ignominy that someone else had ended up making a better game in their franchise. Once lauded for bringing an isometric turn-based game to the 3D real-time RPG genre, and then creating the fantasy game to have released on the most number of systems ever, Bethesda was starting to give off the appearance of weak-sauce in this modern world of video games. A RPG world that changed with the launch of The Witcher 3.
The Witcher 3 project started with 150 employees, and eventually grew up to a staff of 250. More than 1500 were involved in the production globally. And Fallout 4? A crack team of 100. So am I essentially saying that its a numbers game?
Both yes and no. I mean, trust-me-bro and lemme explain. But for that, we need to take another detour to understand one more basic building block of this company. A spaghetti behemoth, that is at once its worst curse and its biggest blessing.
An engine so prehistoric that parts of its codebase can still be traced back to games two decades old. Once Gamebryo, then Creation, and now the added moniker of 2. With problems so arcane and deep-embedded, that it needed solutions like you can’t even imagine.
Did you know there is not one single climbable ladder in any Bethesda game? Why? Because the engine can’t handle that shit. Even if there is a ladder, you don’t actually climb one, or see your character do the action. You simply transition. It just works!
Remember the Broken Steel DLC of Fallout 3? The cutscene where you travel the Presidential Metro Train isn’t actually a train. It’s an arm piece automatically equipped to the player, who is then made to run at a high speed under the tracks, thus completing the illusion of a working train. Voila! [via PCGamer]
How about a mansion itself being an EXPLOSION? In Point Lookout, the developers had no way to toggle distant things off since they were all a part of a static set. But the script required the mansion to explode. Read it for yourself: I can’t even begin to explain this.
So then after the mansion ACTUALLY explodes that fake "explosion house" that is just a mansion then gets turned off.— Nate Purkeypile – The Axis Unseen 🤘🏹🔥 (@NPurkeypile) June 22, 2022
You read that right.
To make an exploding house work we had to use a "distant explosion" to fake a house and then NOT have that "explosion house". pic.twitter.com/r9ZUMW0pkZ
So, now you may have started to understand what I am hinting at. The reasons behind the ship gameplay and planet shenanigans being two different realities. Videogames were always smoke and mirrors. But Bethesda? They are masters of the craft. A Sorcerer Supreme, I daresay.
We Make The Systems. You Make The Game.
Us gamers have been here before. A promise of an in-game universe so vast that you will never be able to see every last bit of it in just one lifetime. 2016 – No Man’s Sky by Hello Games, headed by a man to match Todd’s roguish charisma – Sean Murray. Where Starfield pledges 1000s of planets, they delivered 18 quintillion.
And it crashed at launch. Hard. And it took quite a while to bounce back, and recover their honor and reputation. They tweaked their proprietary engine to generate better planets, flora, fauna and kept adding content for years to fulfill their E3 2014 promise. With 19 huge updates and counting, this procedural generation experiment of a game is a completely different beast now. A real-life Ship of Theseus.
And this is where NASA-punk Starfield might just win. It has the potential to become a testing hotbed for the ambitious among us to throw themselves into. With an overzealous fanatic community already prepping up for its launch, Bethesda might not even have to self-flagellate themselves over fixes, mods and updates. It will be Sean Murray’s wet dream come true. A game which the players make. Planets which they populate with cities and bases. And anime girls with big titties.
Out of the 380k files currently hosted on Nexus Mods, 235k files are from Bethesda games themselves – a whooping 62%. And they occupy position 1 through 6 on the charts. No other game even matches up in terms of sheer mod numbers.
Bethesda just needs to keep doing what they have always done. Craft open ended systems and experiences will be borne out of their emergent behaviour. From their dabbling in Radiant AI in Skyrim, to their another-settlement-needs-your-help from punchable-face Preston Garvey in Fallout 4 – Starfield is gearing up to take the next big leap.
The funny thing is that I don’t believe Skyrim was their lightning in a bottle. I think it was a product of iteration. Their tryst with procedural generation and open-ended sandbox environments started off with Arena on DOS in 1994. Compared to Skyrim’s 38.3 sq kilometres, Arena was over 6,000,000 sq kilometres [via TheGamer] You read that right.
Hi, I’m Todd Howard, Game Director and Executive Producer at Bethesda Game Studios. Here to celebrate Skyrim’s 10th anniversary, but of course, Ask Me Anything. Thanks!
Elder Scrolls perfected crafting. Fallout 4 showed the way with gun customization and settlement building. And Starfield adds ship customization, with FTL-style management. Todd’s Lego pieces are in place, and he is inviting you to build your own game in Starfield. A phaser from Star Trek? A spaceship like Normandy or Firefly? Or a world where you crash and wake up to “Hey you. You’re Finally awake.” on a horse-driven wagon.
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems?
Bethesda’s unquenchable thirst of ambition can only be fulfilled by Microsoft’s never-drying well of money. But will Phil Spencer’s hands-off approach pay off for Starfield? Will Xbox finally be able to get a console exclusive that others might be jelly about? The new kid on the block, Starfield, has a lot to prove.
While the thousands of planets were a red flag for some, many fans were overjoyed to hear that the game won’t have a voiced protagonist like Fallout 4. To many gamers this might appear as a negative. A
2022 2023 RPG protagonist with no spoken dialogue? Makes no sense!
Except to the hardcore sculpt-your-own-character-from-scratch community. To them, Geralt and Aloy are pre-made characters that they cannot imbue their own characteristics. To them, this is a welcome move. They want to not only create their own character, give it traits, and a tortured past, but also not want them to have the same voice in their multiple playthroughs, destroying the coveted sense of immersion. If they want their character to be a chef Steve Buscemi, they don’t want ronin Clint Eastwood to speak the lines. And with over 150k lines of dialogues for the NPCs, Starfield lords over the 60k line script of Skyrim. Now all that remains to be done on their part is to stop being a miser and employ more unique voice actors rather than the same five from Skyrim. Even then, the question remains: will Bethesda’s ambition for systems, and its struggle to stay relevant, be finally be its demise? How much of a difference will this ‘new management’ prove to be? And where are the ‘sentient’ alien races?!
This Is Crazy. Don’t Report Me!
The truth is, I can’t wait. I understand the industry-wide trepidation after Cyberpunk 2077 sank without a trace. I know that this is Bethesda’s first game after their acquisition, and they need to put out their best. But, I can’t wait.
Wait for Starfield to crash and burn. And then, rise from the ashes.
Y’all love a good comeback story, don’tcha?