[Ed. note: The following contains light spoilers for Starfield’s main quest.]
Starfield has been building toward one particular moment in its main quest: the culmination of the collection of the universe’s mysterious artifacts. I spent 20 hours working toward the final artifacts, and with two button clicks, I was able to persuade my way out of the entire scenario — suddenly, the main quest was basically done. The fight that the whole storyline was building up to just didn’t happen.
Without risking any further spoilers, let me just say that Starfield’s persuasion system is broken. Throughout dozens of hours, I've come up against dozens of persuasion checks, and nearly every time, the system has led the conversation in bizarre or situation-breaking ways; there are just some scenarios you shouldn’t be able to talk your way out of.
The mainline mission climax is one of them, but there are a bunch of others, too: One quest takes you and your companion Sam Coe to his father’s house, despite his reluctance. He’s been in a decades-long feud with his father, but we need a family heirloom, which his father won’t give him — not ever, the patriarch implies. But with the persuasion system, I was able to obtain it easily by arguing that giving me the item will stop my annoying persistence. I erased an ancient family feud by simply threatening to annoy the man!
Another, more minor instance happens in a little side quest where someone sends me off to kill a former partner — I’m to bring back her gun to prove I finished the job. Instead of killing her, though, I decided to try and persuade her to give me the gun, which she just said she’d never let go of. And yet, I left her ship with the gun in my possession, and its previous owner still alive.
These instances of 180-degree pivots make Starfield feel like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign led by a bad Dungeon Master, and they’re complete hindrances to Starfield’s role-playing.
In Skyrim, the persuasion system is tied to skill points. Dialogue options can lead to a persuasion attempt, at which point the game rolls an invisible die. In a sense, these checks test the choices you’ve made in your long-term skill point distribution. Starfield’s persuasion system, on the other hand, is more of a minigame. You can still increase your chance of passing a persuasion check by progressing through the skill tree, but you’ll need to choose dialogue options on a set number of turns to fill up a persuasion meter.
Say you’re trying to get a gang of bank robbers to let their hostages go. You’ll have a couple of dialogue options available to choose from, each highlighted in red, yellow, or green — like a stoplight. The red is the riskiest option, but fills up more of the persuasion meter on success; the green is a surer chance with a lower reward. In the main quest, these are tied to several canned phrases that will show up every time, but there are usually some bespoke dialogue options to suit the scenario. The Sam Coe storyline requires you to help out with a bank robbery, which has more nuanced dialogue options that make sense for the tense situation, for instance.
Starfield’s persuasion system is so opaque that I don’t fully understand it, even after Bethesda’s barebones tutorial. As such, I haven’t upgraded my skills in that area at all. But still, I’m able to successfully persuade even the most brutal of killers to my way of thinking.
I was optimistic that Bethesda would have improved upon Skyrim’s effective but ultimately rudimentary system. What’s more, my co-workers have been raving about the impact of conversational choices and persuasion dice rolls in Baldur’s Gate 3. But playing with Starfield’s persuasion system too often feels like playing Dungeons & Dragons with a DM more concerned with the dice rolls themselves than with telling an interesting wider story. In Starfield, character motivation goes out the window on a whim. With so many compelling side stories and compelling adventures to take part in, it’s a shame that the main quest bows down to the dice so easily.