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An explorer talks to Naeva in the Crimson Fleet faction in Starfield. Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

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Starfield’s best side quests emphasize deception and discovery

Don’t miss out on Starfield’s faction stories

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

There is no shortage of things to pick up in Starfield — lots of curious little items that serve no other purpose than to decorate and delight. United Colonies scientists neatly stack research materials in cabinets and drawers, research binders lining shelves on the wall. Down in The Well, in a restaurant called Kay’s House, everything’s a lot more dingy; empty bottles and dirtied plates sit idly waiting to be picked up. There are pens on desks, forgotten tools tucked into corners, and half-eaten sandwiches abandoned on tables. Everything hums with electric possibility: Pick me up!

And so I do. I don’t like to steal — I crave the approval of my Starfield companions — but it’s so easy to grab things that it’s near impossible to resist the temptation. That, readers, is how I landed myself in United Colonies jail very early on in my Starfield journey, taken hostage by the government military in exchange for the theft of a literal piece of trash — a Styrofoam cup.

[Ed. note: This story contains minor spoilers for several of Starfield’s faction quests.]

Instead of being sent to a regular jail cell, I landed on the UC Vigilance, where I was interrogated and then coerced — by the threat of jail time — into an undercover operation to infiltrate the infamous Crimson Fleet band of pirates. Very quickly, things spiraled into a complex storyline that took me across several galaxies in order to gain the pirate captain’s trust: I led a heist aboard a luxury spaceship before uncovering the secrets of a legendary Crimson Fleet pirate, and even made a few friends along the way. It’s not easy to walk the line between space narc and actual pirate, and I’ve already had more than a few slips back into a life of crime.

This quest is called “Deep Cover,” and it’s the beginning of the Crimson Fleet storyline that progresses throughout eight quests in total. It stands out for the way it emphasizes discovery in an organic way, sending me to far-off planets for the sake of something meaningful — to build a relationship or steal a ship part, for instance — rather than the repetition of the artifact collection in the main quest. (There is repetition in the quest occasionally, too, but it’s easy to overlook.) There’s so much to balance within this nested story — friendship marred by deceit, tough decisions, and the allure of so many credits. The decisions I make while following this quest not only impact my companions’ perception of me, but the future of one side or another, where I ultimately must choose between the United Colonies or the Crimson Fleet.

The best parts of Starfield are when I’m able to explore these nuanced relationships and make impactful decisions while being guided out to the depths of the game’s vastness. It’s both a compelling journey in and of itself, but also a catalyst for finding Starfield’s other interesting stories. The game’s best narratives, ironically, are within these grounded side quests rather than out there in Starfield’s emptier planets.

A civilian walks down the streets of Neon to join the Ryujin Industries faction in Starfield. Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

While undercover as a Crimson Fleet pirate, I stumbled upon a kiosk that pulled up a job application for Neon’s big corporate entity, Ryujin. I filled out the application and went on my way, forgetting about it until I was sent to Neon as part of a Crimson Fleet task. I was already harangued into role-playing as a space cop, so I might as well take a swing as a corporate shill, I thought. Similar to the Crimson Fleet story, the Ryujin line of missions means scaling the corporate ladder at a tech company with immense influence over Neon’s government. It stands out for the same reasons that the Crimson Fleet quests do — it weaves a diversity of objectives with a dynamic social system rife with espionage, murky morals, and lots of backstabbing. It lets you be a different shade of bad guy than elsewhere in the game, moving from shooting and killing to the insidious, systemic violence of capitalism.

These two quest lines are worth finding both because of their stories and the rewards for completing them. Starfield has several different factions to join, and the good news for people that want to check them out is that you can join them all; you don’t have to pick and choose.

Starfield is at its best when it funnels you from exploration to discovery to moral complications to relationship-building and back to exploration. That loop doesn’t happen smoothly all the time, but when it does, it’s wonderful.

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