The allure of an open-world RPG like Starfield is the promise of becoming someone else. On this earthly plane, I’m the humble Cass Marshall, but Starfield takes place among the stars. I rolled a scoundrel called Joyce Bishop, and chose a starting condition that put a bounty on my head. Joyce isn’t all bad; she has loving parents, and at least one (1) adoring fan. I set off on my adventure, eager to flesh out this rogue through the simple act of role-playing.
Unfortunately, I found that Starfield takes some time to ramp up on that front. The game begins with my character taking on a dangerous mining gig. That’s not a deal-breaker in and of itself, but it would have been nice to have a couple of conversation options that referenced my past. Maybe I’m lying low because of the aforementioned bounty, or maybe I’m broke after a failed heist. All of these options exist in my head, but I don’t have a way to express them in the game.
Before long, I’m off the mining station and chasing a galactic mystery alongside the organization Constellation. This is where Starfield becomes more of a sandbox, and there are plenty of action set-pieces and puzzling conundrums to discover. I chat with all the members of Constellation, and learn more about an enigmatic set of artifacts. I find an injured researcher on a desolate planet, the sole survivor of her post, being hunted by a fearsome alien. I have to route it through a gauntlet of automated guns in order to survive, and get a sample from the beast, which is thrilling. I go and visit my mom and pops, and make sure they’re doing OK. I spend a lot of time doing what you’re supposed to do with a game like Starfield: exploring.
But I never really feel as if Joyce Bishop, space scoundrel and profit-loving smuggler, is a critical part of any of those adventures. I start with a few helpful skills, like proficiency with pistols, and the ability to pilot a ship. I also have a silver tongue, with which I can talk my way through certain encounters in order to avoid combat. However, this doesn’t translate into organic role-play. I don’t feel like Joyce’s path matters; things are happening at her, and she has a limited range of reactions in response.
Whenever I talk to someone new or find another quest, my conversation options often feel like they boil down to “I’d be happy to help,” “I’d be happy to help... for a profit,” and “I don’t care; go perish in a gutter.” In a game that’s about a far future where humanity has transcended so many limits, it’s awkward to feel so constrained in conversations.
This is common in Bethesda RPGs: Fallout 4 and Skyrim both have similar limits on role-play. Starfield is also a new intellectual property, which means that Bethesda has to spend a lot of time laying down exposition on this universe’s history, factions, and conflicts. But that means that Joyce Bishop takes a back seat; she feels like a passenger who’s along for the ride, as opposed to a proper protagonist.
This feels especially rough after playing Baldur’s Gate 3, which offers tons of choices in each conversation. I also find myself longing for the dialogue of The Outer Worlds, which is a much smaller game in scope, but one that prioritizes the protagonist and their agency. Starfield is a different beast altogether, and I’m hoping that as I keep playing, Joyce feels more like the star of the show. So far, she feels more like a stagehand.