This article contains some details from later in Starfield’s plot.
One of the first things to do in Starfield is to open up the space travel menu and select Earth, just to see how it’s getting along in the game’s far future setting. You do that and learn, very quickly, that things aren’t great. The planet is barren, a series of windswept desert plains with boulders dotting the landscape. Visiting a hidden outpost at some point later in the story, you learn that humanity accelerated the destruction of our home in a Faustian bargain for the technological ability to better explore the cosmos. We traded our planet for the stars and, in Starfield’s vision of the future, that trade seems like a fair one.
Landing a ship on Earth and looking around to see nothing but a vast wasteland might put a pit in the stomach of most players. The desolation calls to mind the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse or, more familiarly, lake beds, rivers, and reservoirs dried up and made inhospitable through climate change. Even within this context, though, Starfield seems optimistic about the future. Through fantastical plot beats exploring the concept of multiple realities and a premise that sees humanity explore beyond the limits of our solar system, the game suggests that our species’ best days are ahead of us. It unfolds, ultimately, in a pre-credits splash of the universe’s enormity, swirling away eternally, that suggests that annihilating our planetary home will eventually bring us into direct contact with grand, endless cycles of destruction and rebirth, maybe even induct us into the impossible mysteries of some version of the godhead itself.
Sheared of overt religious comment or an intimate connection with any but the most cursory of human feeling, this reads as a cold and lonely future. From a rational, scientific perspective, this may seem a hopeful vision: life will go on in whatever form, maybe even with humanity persevering for many centuries or millennia longer. All the same, it also makes the death of Earth seem like a major but ultimately understandable tragedy, a loss on the scale of the death of a loved one. A pain to be borne for a handful of generations before being relegated to an earlier chapter of our history.
This is a difficult viewpoint to endorse, especially toward the end of a year of wildfires, flooding, and extreme temperatures. A future built like Starfield’s feels like a thought exercise from a robot. How can a work about such devastation be so emotionless? Every feature of Earth, obliterated. My favourite scenery and yours,’ blasted away forever. The greatest works of humanity—our artistic heritage, our architectural feats—all washed away in an expanse of sand.
To be fair, Starfield does acknowledge that this is sad. Its story motions toward what’s lost when humanity chases technological innovation at the expense of our home. Crucially, though, the plot beats that establish the above are drops in an ocean otherwise consisting of a future where human life is thriving (maybe doing better than ever) across new planets filled with unique cultures and bustling with activity.
There’s a quiet insidiousness to this framing—a kind of technocratic callousness—that’s enhanced by several of the game’s aesthetic reference points. Bouncing between planets, the player will hang out in a far future tribute to America’s westward expansion, complete with ornery sheriffs, stick-up gangs, and cowboy hats. They’ll join up with Constellation, a sci-fi recreation of a 19th Century British explorer’s club. The prevailing look and sound of the game evokes bright eyed 1950s and ‘60s space age idealism. The common denominator here is symbolism that works, at least within a Western consciousness, as a shorthand for the colonial spirit. Starfield presents the cosmos as a space as wide and ripe for intellectual and material plunder and subsequent expansion as imagination itself. (It’s no mistake that the game opens with the player cast as a miner who strikes, in a certain manner, metaphysical gold.)
If the point is to suggest that the frontier spirit of imperialist expansion and competition is meant to inspire optimism for the future, it’s hard to ignore what history has to say about the result of prior competition over resources, even those that are positioned as “unlimited.” The game’s outwardly forward looking while wishing simultaneously for a renewed past where empires could imagine the existence of a never-ending terra nullius just waiting to be exploited, its citizens filled with the energy that comes from looking out on a vast terrain able to provide psychic and material riches beyond anything a single planet could supply. The Old World smoulders, dead and neglected, while the New Universe beckons, never requiring humanity to grapple with the worst aspects of itself, those that drove—and, in reality, are driving—the Earth toward ruin.
Starfield is never quite focused enough to indict it entirely on these grounds. (Just try to keep anything but the most immediate plot beat in mind while being bombarded by new quests, new characters, and new sights to see.) But it suggests a view of the future far rosier than that which most of us, feeling very consigned to our own death on a dying Earth, might believe in. Its space utopianism promises potent escapism. It’s a technologist’s dream of a future where our existential problems can be discarded in favour of the eternal continuance of human greed, where we can look to the stars to place our hopes for the future while ignoring the real ground crumbling beneath our feet.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Polygon, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.