September 21, 2023

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From Elder Scrolls to Starfield: How Bethesda Defined the Role-Playing Game

In late 2001, the dot-com crash struck ZeniMax, and a team of thirty-some developers in the company’s basement feared for their jobs. They were late delivering their new role-playing game, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, to Microsoft; their board of directors had begun having doubts about the whole videogame enterprise. People were pulling seven-day workweeks on something none of them were sure would ever see the light of day. Morale was in the toilet.

When project leader Todd Howard called an off-site meeting, mere months ahead of launch, most of his crew thought they were being laid off. In fact, it was to be the most important moment in the studio’s history. Howard had sent out emails to everyone on his team days earlier, asking them, “If you could have any title in life, what would it be?” In a dim-lit hotel conference room in Rockville, Maryland, he handed out a personalized business card to each Morrowind dev, complete with their chosen honorific, and gave a brief speech. It was a rallying call that saved the game and, according to those who were there, probably the entire company.

“It was a bad time,” Howard told me in 2019. “Morrowind was a very difficult crunch. There was this sense that if we don’t get the game done, and done well, we would be in trouble.” It had been six long years since the developer’s last big hit, 1996’s Daggerfall. “For me, it was kind of a no-fear moment: ‘Well, it can’t get any worse, right? We’re about to go out of business, and now we have a lifeline, so you better take advantage of it.’”

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was the game-changer for Bethesda’s role-playing games.

And so they reached for the stars. Morrowind became the first Elder Scrolls game to land on consoles, roughly six months into the life cycle of the original Xbox. It sold millions on Xbox alone, rivaled only by the likes of Halo, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, and Fable. Howard refers to that period as “the recreation of Bethesda.” Its story spans nearly four decades, from humble beginnings in sports games and movie tie-ins to blockbusters like Skyrim and Fallout 4. But so much of that journey would never have come to pass without Morrowind — and that fateful meeting they remember so vividly.

“Morrowind was kind of this galvanizing, make-or-break moment,” says Skyrim environment-art lead Noah Berry. “It was the crucible by which the modern Elder Scrolls, and the studio as a whole, evolved and was shaped.” Look at Bethesda’s single-player titles from Oblivion on, and you’ll find more or less the same formula Howard concocted for The Elder Scrolls III, a game that changed RPGs forever.

Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Introduction of Tamriel

Years earlier, in 1994, The Elder Scrolls: Arena became a cult success thanks to its playful spell-creation system and effectively infinite fantasy world. But some folks at Bethesda weren’t satisfied with the somewhat generic look of that first game, its limited number of memorable locations, or its derivative story, which began in a weekly Dungeons and Dragons campaign. For the sequel — originally called Mournhold and set in the province of Morrowind, where Arena’s story had ended — the devs had a new sense of vision for what their dungeon-crawling series could be. Its first-person 3D perspective led them to push for a greater level of detail, which came in the form of their new XnGine technology, as well as a more literary style of storytelling.

Arena had been a fairly standard D&D adventure, albeit one set in an original world called Tamriel, with nine large provinces. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall would center around two of those regions, High Rock and Hammerfell, and take inspiration from sources like French literature and Vampire: The Masquerade, another tabletop game known for its gothic setting and rich mythology. Some of what Daggerfall’s designers wanted to achieve proved untenable at the time; the team didn’t manage to implement dragons the way they’d hoped, for example. But its procedural world-generation system was a landmark achievement, allowing for more than 15,000 unique locations. (For comparison’s sake, the original Diablo, released the following year, had 16 levels.) The sequel became a huge triumph for Bethesda, selling over 100,000 copies in just 48 hours.

Arena’s procedural world-generation system was a landmark achievement, allowing for more than 15,000 unique locations.

After Daggerfall, the development arm of the company — eventually rechristened as Bethesda Game Studios, to differentiate it from the publishing division — would adopt a fairly different game-design philosophy, particularly under Todd Howard’s direction. And yet much of the studio’s history reflects the awesome ambition of those early Elder Scrolls games, including this year’s Starfield, which leverages procedural generation and boasts more than a thousand explorable planets.

As audiences and tech alike headed for a new millennium, the teams working on the Elder Scrolls series thought constantly about ways to make their next game better, and more like the dense, sprawling fantasy epic in their imaginations. A pair of spinoffs, Battlespire and Redguard, underperformed commercially, but Redguard in particular set a new standard for the Elder Scrolls’ world-building. The game’s print manual included The Pocket Guide to the Empire, an in-world lore bible containing references to gods, goddesses, a “Dragonborn,” and “the disappearance of the Dwarves,” along with an extensive history of the various peoples of Tamriel.

The Elder Scrolls: Arena was the first game to introduce Tamriel, a world we've come to know and love.
The Elder Scrolls: Arena was the first game to introduce Tamriel, a world we’ve come to know and love.

When lead designer Ken Rolston came aboard the project in 1996, Elder Scrolls III was meant to be set in a place called the Summerset Isles, home of the High Elves. But some people on the team, including concept artist Michael Kirkbride and writer Kurt Kuhlmann, were passionate about the volcanic island of Vvardenfell. So the idea for a game set in the land of the Elves, ruled by a Tribunal, was transplanted to Morrowind.

Noah Berry recalls seeing early documentation for The Elder Scrolls III that described a sequel encompassing the entire territory of Morrowind. “That was an initial plan, if not the initial plan,” he says. But eventually the scope of the game was whittled down to the island of Vvardenfell itself, and the surrounding areas were cut during the preproduction phase. With Rolston and Howard steering the project, the team sought to trade Daggerfall’s vastness and cookie-cutter environments for a more detailed and believable world — one with several thousand lines of voice-over.

“Morrowind was a healthy steering away from what Daggerfall had done,” says Berry. “We consciously pivoted to: ‘Let’s hand-build the world.’ And so Morrowind had very little to no procedural generation, if I remember correctly.” Part of the reasoning for this was the team’s love for immersive-sim games like Ultima Underworld and System Shock, which took advantage of the first-person perspective by giving players a greater degree of interactivity with objects in the world.

One of Morrowind’s greatest innovations was NPC scheduling — the illusion that non-player characters live full, human lives

The Elder Scrolls III took a more kitchen-sink approach to game design, favoring density, character behavior, and artfully arranged “clutter” over scale alone. It’s an approach that’s stood the test of time, and helped define later Bethesda RPGs like Skyrim and Fallout 4. One of its greatest innovations, inspired by Ultima VII: The Black Gate, was “NPC scheduling” — the illusion that non-player characters throughout the game world live full, human lives, working and eating and sleeping at designated times. “We wanted it to feel like this simulated, detailed space that persisted and existed after you had shut your computer off at the end of the night,” Berry explains. “And one of the ways that came to life was this idea that NPCs were not just talking dispensers for quests, stuck in a static spot saying their lines over and over again. They were real entities doing their own thing as much as possible, as much as was allowed by the crudity of our pathfinding system and their ability to know where they were in the polygon soup.”

According to Fallout 4 lead producer Jeff Gardiner, it was Morrowind’s sequel, Oblivion, that really put these systems to the test. “When you do a simulated AI, they use a lot of CPU cycles, and that’s where you get a lot of limits in terms of creature density. Even frame rate is oftentimes affected by that,” he says. “But the designers at Bethesda are big proponents of making NPCs feel as real as they could within the technical limits of the time. When you play a lot of modern open-world games, they’re still very scripted. Over time, things have gotten a little better, but they don’t have these eat-and-sleep packages and desires and all these things that they would wake up and do — where you see some of the most amazing interactions, and you also see some of the ‘jank.’ But jank comes with the territory. I’m a big fan of RimWorld and other games that do this, but they’re doin’ it in like two-dimensional, top-down views, so they don’t need quite the graphics horsepower.”

"If you pick up a cup and put it two inches to the right in a Bethesda game — when you come back 200 hours later, it’s still there in that spot you moved it to."
“If you pick up a cup and put it two inches to the right in a Bethesda game — when you come back 200 hours later, it’s still there in that spot you moved it to.”

“A lot of big open-world games are very cleverly resetting things behind your back,” Berry adds. “But as a player, if you pick up a cup and put it two inches to the right in a Bethesda game — when you come back 200 hours later, it’s still there in that spot you moved it to.”

As with Daggerfall’s missing dragons, there were ideas the Morrowind team would’ve loved to implement, like real-time boat travel or Silt Striders that moved naturalistically through the world, that just weren’t possible given the constraints of the time. In game development, every feature comes at the cost of another. “There’s a phrase that the Bethesda studio likes to bandy about,” says Skyrim lead designer Bruce Nesmith, “and that is that we can do anything, but we can’t do everything.”

“Everyone always dreamed big about the worlds. I think that’s probably what drew a lot of us together,” Morrowind world artist Mark Bullock observes. “Growing up, I was never that much into video games, but I loved tabletop games. I was playing D&D with my friends, and I’d be like, ‘But the picture in my head is so much better.’ So that’s where we started seeing the possibilities: ‘How can we move toward these open worlds that we played in pen-and-paper campaigns?’ Whether it be fantasy or sci-fi. I think everyone just wanted it to be more convincing, with that sense of joy and discovery of moving through a space. And have a good driving story, but with the freedom to pay attention to it or not pay attention to it. That’s been the backbone of Bethesda, even going back to Arena’s side quests. As the worlds get bigger, and the players get to have more opportunities to express themselves, that’s still the core.”

Into Oblivion

Although wildly different from Daggerfall, The Elder Scrolls IV offered another example of Bethesda Game Studios going big in response to the game that preceded it. If Morrowind could be described as “Alice in Wonderland meets Dune meets The Dark Crystal,” as Berry puts it, its sequel would be the Elder Scrolls series’s answer to the Lord of the Rings films. The fourth entry would aim for a wider audience, more approachable writing, and some familiar iconography — yet not without taking advantage of the fact that the roman numeral IV could be found dead center in Tamriel’s name for hell: Oblivion.

Given the Xbox 360 era’s higher polygon counts and the addition of pixel shading — but still being a scrappy studio of fewer than 50 people — Oblivion returned to procedural generation for things like rocks and trees. It also added a number of quality-of-life features absent from the launch version of Morrowind, including a full-fledged quest journal, waypoints, a horizontal compass, and fast travel.

“We added in things to make the user experience more palatable — things we learned from other games or we wanted internally,” says Gardiner. “And I think that there are some games today that have gone too far with that, where it’s too convenient. I get to a new zone, and there’s this big list of chores. For me, I like a sense of discovery, which that stuff totally kills. Two, I’m also OCD when it comes to gaming; I’ve been trained my whole life to do all the stuff in every zone before I go on to the next one. And I’ve had a lot of these big open-world games where I actually stopped 70, 80 percent of the way through because I can’t not do everything. And then by the time I get toward the end, I’m burnt out. I’ve sucked the marrow out of the bone of the game. So that’s the magic of Elden Ring — because Elden Ring didn’t do any of that. Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t doing a lot of that. You need to find a balance.”

Oblivion was a challenging project for Bethesda for a number of reasons, not the least of which was Microsoft deciding, late in the development of the Xbox 360, to ship its new console without a hard drive

“Audience expectations continued to change over the years,” Nesmith says. “I was a game developer for decades, and if you go way back, you find that games are extremely unforgiving — lack of save games, and the fact that you could die really, really easily. They were difficult; in those early days, what was celebrated was mastery. It was me against the machine. As the audience matured, and the industry matured, it became more about telling fun stories and less about the fact that I had to be better than the software. It became, ‘Let’s have an experience together, and it doesn’t have to be something that’s nearly impossible. It can be something that’s fun in and of itself.’ And that goes, too, for things like waypoints and fast travel. In the early days, you had to walk everywhere. Well, where’s the fun in that if you’ve already been there?”

Oblivion was a challenging project for Bethesda for a number of reasons, not the least of which was Microsoft deciding, late in the development of the Xbox 360, to ship its new console without a hard drive. “Which is quite a nightmare for an open-world, streaming game,” says Gardiner. Still, Howard’s notion of capitalizing on the success of Peter Jackon’s Rings trilogy proved out. It became another bottled-lightning moment for Bethesda, and, for some, The Elder Scrolls IV remains the sweet spot. Oblivion might lack the handcrafted, richly imagined quality of Morrowind’s ashen landscapes. But the tools it gave players for navigating its own province of Cyrodiil have endured ever since.

And where Morrowind had relied heavily on dice rolls and under-the-hood statistics for its combat, Oblivion strove for a more intuitive and tactile style of swordplay.

“It sucks to swing a sword and miss,” Gardiner reflects. “When you’re standing in front of something, you’re swinging madly, and you’re hitting every third time, it feels like a bug. It works in top-down tactical games because you see the dice rolls and you understand it. A lot of those early games were an attempt to mimic Dungeons and Dragons, so they used these mechanics. But we thought, ‘No, it needs to be more skill-based, where you actually have to hit the thing.’ Even through Oblivion, I believe we had a ray-cast system where you did the attack, there was a ray that cast out, and if the enemy was within the cone of that ray, it registered a hit. So it had nothing to do with collision spheres, or any kind of collision on the sword. We struggled with that.”

Oblivion ditched the dice-roll combat from previous games in favour of something more skill-based.
Oblivion ditched the dice-roll combat from previous games in favour of something more skill-based.

Dropping Morrowind’s dice-driven combat in favor of a more hack-and-slash approach to the action was the right move, but it presented its own unique set of problems that persisted through the two games that followed. “Stun-locking” was a popular complaint among players, who found that your character’s hit reaction, or stagger animation, could leave you vulnerable for longer than it took for an opponent to start attacking again. “You just get locked, especially if two of them are hitting you,” says Gardiner. “So what we had to do in the end — and why the combat never felt as good as I thought it could — is because we never got those timings down. And we had to randomize the hit reactions. That stopped the stun-lock problem, but it also made it feel weird, because sometimes you’d swing a sword and hit, but you wouldn’t see the guy flinch. So there was this weird disconnect; the combat didn’t feel very responsive.”

Oblivion also made use of smaller bits of downloadable content players could pay for to modify their game, even on Xbox and PlayStation. (Its widely criticized “Horse Armor Pack” has become something of a meme.) If you look at Bethesda RPGs that followed, these decisions still reverberate through the Elder Scrolls series today, as well as in the franchise the company acquired in 2007: Interplay’s Fallout.

Oblivion's infamous horse armour. C'mon, own up - who bought it?
Oblivion’s infamous horse armour. C’mon, own up – who bought it?

Fallout and Reinventing RPG Combat

Fallout 3, Bethesda’s open-world, fully 3D entry in a series known for its old-school isometric RPGs, had a lot to live up to — and some significant problems to solve from a design standpoint. Players knew and loved the world that Interplay and Black Isle had created. Thankfully, so did Bethesda, dating back to the studio’s Redguard and Morrowind days. Not wanting to make only Elder Scrolls games, Howard once toyed with the idea of a game series called Apocalypse Road, along the lines of the early Fallout games, with the same immersive open-world design that had helped make Western role-playing games like Morrowind viable on consoles. He and the rest of the company fought hard to get out of ZeniMax’s dusty warehouse basement and break out into the mainstream. With Fallout, they had a chance to do it again.

The move from Tolkienesque Tamriel to the irradiated rubble of postnuclear Washington, D.C., meant figuring out how to make first-person gunplay feel at home in a Fallout sequel. “We were operating under the tagline that this would be ‘Oblivion with guns,’ and that’s kind of how we approached it,” Bruce Nesmith recalls. “We wanted all the best things about the Elder Scrolls games — the open world, interesting character creation, lots and lots of loot and things to pick up — but with the Fallout background.”

VATs was an attempt to make Fallout 3 more palatable for people who weren’t into twitch combat

Bethesda’s solution was VATS (“Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System”), a slow-motion mode you use to target specific body parts on a given enemy, without having to react as quickly as you would if you were playing a shooter like Doom. It didn’t require you to aim so much as make decisions, which fit with the turn-based combat of the original Fallout. Similar ideas had been used by BioWare, with its dice-based Dungeons and Dragons combat for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Action would play out in real time, but the player could pause, evaluate the battlefield, and issue commands.

“We were afraid we were going to make the RPG too action-focused, and turn off the RPG people,” Gardiner says. “That’s where VATS came from. It was an attempt to make it more palatable for people who weren’t into twitch combat. First-person shooters were in their heyday back then, but not everybody played them. People were coming from Baldur’s Gate II and other role-playing games, so it was this big conundrum. That combat evolved quite a bit. First-person melee is very difficult to pull off. Some games have done great at it, but you can’t see three-sixty around you. You might get little reticle indicators and stuff, but it can be a chaotic experience.” Ironically, he says, Bethesda largely perfected melee combat for the sequel, Fallout 4, a game in which people tend to avoid melee weapons.

Fallout's VATS was the first step towards introducing action-based shooter combat seen later in Starfield.
Fallout’s VATS was the first step towards introducing action-based shooter combat seen later in Starfield.

“With Fallout 3, we were very concerned. I think the whole team was,” says Noah Berry. “It was a dramatic tone shift across the board. There were some things that translated very nicely, in a gameplay-loop kind of manner, but we were extremely self-conscious about how to go from our more colorful, atmospheric fantasy — that Alan Lee, Lord of the Rings, brooding fantasy world — into Fallout.”

“We weren’t used to writing with modern dialogue. We weren’t used to writing with something as simple as cuss words,” Nesmith says. “And some of our early attempts at it were positively dreadful. Emil Pagliarulo, who was the lead designer for Fallout 3, really helped us get into the modern vocabulary and how to make all that stuff feel right. Because that was trickier than we had anticipated.”

From a world-building standpoint, Fallout 3 was also a great challenge for the art team. Improvements in graphical fidelity had led to a huge increase in workload, so they were doing more hand-painted textures than ever before, putting in more hours per area (or “cell”), and struggling with the limited kit pieces used to construct the environments. “They were like chunks of rooms,” world artist Nate Purkeypile remembers. “This is a corner piece, this is a wall piece, and it has the whole floor and ceiling. Whereas by the time we got to Fallout 4, going through Skyrim, that started to break apart more and more, so you could have all this destruction, and every dungeon was a lot more custom that way.” He compares the process to putting together a LEGO kit, which he grew up loving to do.

Enter the Dragonborn

After the artistic and technical hurdles of Oblivion and Fallout 3, Bethesda Game Studios hit another high point with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, one of the most beloved games ever made. Skyrim combined the team’s love of Norse mythology, “low fantasy” like Conan the Barbarian, and the snowy, pine-laden mountainscapes of the Pacific Northwest. They sought out native Scandinavian speakers to lend authenticity to the game’s considerable voice-over cast, which included Christopher Plummer, Max von Sydow, and series mainstay Lynda Carter. And they pushed their tools and engine to new heights, crafting the franchise’s most lifelike game world to date.

Nesmith and Kurt Kuhlmann collaborated on a new kind of dynamic procedural content they dubbed the Radiant Story system, which introduced emergent quest lines based on how the player behaved in the game. The idea being that players could never truly run out of things to do in Skyrim. Where Morrowind and Oblivion had emphasized NPC scheduling as a way to add verisimilitude to their respective worlds, Skyrim would stretch things even further, with characters that reacted to the user in more meaningful ways.

“Kuhlmann and I worked really hard, on Skyrim, to redefine procedural content — to try and make it feel less rote or mechanical or bland,” Nesmith recalls. “And I think we had a decent amount of success in that. But there’s been a couple of times throughout all of Bethesda’s games where the realization was kind of slapped in our face that, you know, totally procedural content is not what the audience wants. There’s a certain amount of procedural processes that can be acceptable and can enhance the game, but at the end of the day those elements are tools in a very large toolkit for creating fun for the player. And they are not the end-all, be-all.”

You could more or less do what you wanted on Skyrim. [We] basically snuck in Blackreach, which is kind of a big thing to sneak in when it’s not on the schedule!

This was a point in Bethesda’s history when folks could focus their passions on specific things they wanted to see in the game, as with earlier titles, while also taking full advantage of better hardware and a better understanding of what their Creation Engine was capable of. Nesmith pitched Todd Howard on the idea of overhauling the magic system, and was given a lot of leeway — along with programmer Steve Meister and some others — to revamp the way spells worked, and how elements like lightning, fire, and ice behaved.

“You could more or less do what you wanted on Skyrim,” Purkeypile says. “Me and Joel Burgess and Daryl Brigner snuck in Blackreach, basically, which is kind of a big thing to sneak in when it’s not on the schedule.” Blackreach stands as one of the things players remember and cherish the most from Skyrim — a vast subterranean region filled with bioluminescent flora and fauna, hidden laboratories, and interconnected Dwemer ruins. “That’s part of why I liked that era of the studio the most. There’s a lot of trust that you’re putting in people. Like, ‘Hey, go make something cool. That’s why we hired you.’ And not just checking off another thing on a list.”

Todd Howard had wanted dragons in Elder Scrolls since the early games, but it wasn't until Skyrim that his dream was realised.
Todd Howard had wanted dragons in Elder Scrolls since the early games, but it wasn’t until Skyrim that his dream was realised.

Skyrim’s crowning achievement, perhaps, was its implementation of dragons — the return of the Nords’ world-destroying gods of legend, long thought dead forever. It was a herculean technological feat, with its own “strike team” dedicated to making the noble creatures work as intended. But it was also the realization of a dream dating back to the Daggerfall days. “Todd was all over dragons. That was something that he very much wanted to shepard,” says Nesmith. “And it was a big lift. It was a lot harder than we thought it was going to be.” Like the VATS system, Skyrim’s dragons took years of steady work, right up until the moment the game shipped.

“Things are very broken for a long time, like dragons flying backwards and shooting up from the ground,” explains Purkeypile. “That’s really true for any open-world game with all these systems at play. It worked out in the end, but you have to kinda have faith for a long time that it’ll be fixed. Just not too much faith.”

“At one point, for the Giants, one of the values that imparted momentum upon a strike got set wrong. It’s akin to somebody putting an extra zero on the end of that number,” Nesmith recalls. “And so when the Giant hits you, you went flying. And I mean up above the clouds, you’re looking down on the entire map, and you can see stuff you shouldn’t really be able to see. Todd and the other leads, including myself, thought that was just absolutely hysterical. So it’s like, ‘We gotta keep that in.’ We dialed it back to where it was a little more reasonable, but to this day, you get hit by a Giant, you go flying through the air and rag-doll to an insane amount. Because it was just fun to watch that happen.”

How Fallout 4 Was the Guinea Pig for Starfield

Before Skyrim went out the door, a small team was already hard at work on Fallout 4. Their concept art depicted a post-apocalyptic Boston, with its colonial U.S. history and MIT-driven science community inspiring the retrofuture Commonwealth in equal measure. Purkeypile flew into the city and took countless photographs of Fenway Park, the real-world basis for the location he’d be spending most of his virtual time in for the next few years: Diamond City, “the great green jewel” of the Commonwealth.

“With Fallout 4, we took an important step toward not shying away from color,” Noah Berry explains. Where earlier Bethesda RPGs had favored muted colors and selective palettes, the art team wanted Fallout 4 to be recognizable as a 20th-century coastal cityscape, the atom bomb notwithstanding. They studied artwork from the period, and it’s probably no accident that the game was in development while Mad Men aired. Naturally, it came out looking like an Edward Hopper painting.

Despite its apocalyptic setting, Fallout 4 had a lot more splashes of colour compared to previous Bethesda RPGs.
Despite its apocalyptic setting, Fallout 4 had a lot more splashes of colour compared to previous Bethesda RPGs.

A new generation of hardware allowed for huge improvements to Bethesda’s level-of-detail system, or LOD, which players can see in the long-distance vistas when standing atop a tall building, aboard the Prydwen airship, or along the harbor. It’s certainly one of the best-looking games Bethesda Game Studios has made, down to technological leaps in performance capture, facial animation, saccadic eye movement, and lighting. Upwards of 40% of the game’s 111,000 lines of dialogue were recorded by the two actors voicing the player character, Courtenay Taylor and Brian T. Delaney — quite a change from Skyrim’s silent hero.

One of the pie-in-the-sky ideas Todd Howard had for Fallout 4 early on was a settlement-building system, a Sims-like diversion for players to fool around with when they’re not off adventuring. It seemed likely to be too difficult, and many thought it would be the first feature to get cut. But after some experimentation, a team led by Steve Meister managed to get the building mode working, and it’s a large part of Fallout 4’s magic. So much so that it became the basis for Fallout 76, an online multiplayer spinoff.

The Final Frontier

Looking ahead to Starfield and its emphasis on customizable spacecraft, it’s easy to spot the creative lineage. “And if you look throughout all of Bethesda’s games, you can start to see that,” says Bruce Nesmith, who worked on the starship systems before retiring from the studio in 2021 to write novels. “It started with being able to buy and own a home, which we did in Oblivion, and then slowly it got better and better. One of the DLCs for Skyrim was something I personally worked very hard on, which was the Hearthfire expansion, and it just got taken further and further in Fallout 4 and then Fallout 76. So building bases, and being able to customize your spaceship, is just a natural outgrowth of that.”

For years, Howard daydreamed about Bethesda’s “space game,” and would talk openly about it with others in the studio, but the timing had to be right. You couldn’t just knock out something of that scale, with a thousand planets and interstellar travel, alongside a Fallout 4 or Elder Scrolls VI. In the mid-to-late ’90s, Bethesda went so far as to announce a collaborative project with Centropolis Entertainment, called The 10th Planet, which was delayed a handful of times before ultimately being canceled. Nesmith and others worked for years on that first attempt — which had its own in-depth system for starship customization and space combat. But it would’ve been closer to Bethesda’s version of TIE Fighter, the popular Star Wars dogfighting sim of that era, with Earth fending off an alien invasion.

For years, Howard daydreamed about Bethesda’s “space game,” and would talk openly about it with others in the studio, but the timing had to be right.

The team at Bethesda is full of Star Wars fans, Howard chief among them, but Starfield has more in common with the grounded, dirt-under-the-nails futures of Ridley Scott’s Alien and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It poses a fascinating question: If space is the final frontier, so to speak, for open-world games, at what point do all those pixels and planetary bodies begin to lose Bethesda’s signature “cluttered” feel? Sure, Starfield looks to fit with the studio’s long tradition of single-player RPGs, from the procedural dungeons of Arena and Daggerfall to the glittering horizons of Skyrim and Fallout 4. But what’s the essence of that tradition? What keeps us coming back to the worlds of The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, year after year, to make a new character and step out into that harsh light of a dawning adventure?

“The big word would be freedom. Freedom to make your character the way you want to make them,” Nesmith says. “You’ll notice that we don’t really have classes. From Daggerfall on, characters are a conglomeration of whatever attributes you want to assign them. That’s true in the Fallout series, the Elder Scrolls series. Freedom to go where you want. Todd’s very fond of saying, ‘If you can see it, you can go there.’ And you don’t have to follow a storyline the way we present it to you. Coming out of character gen, if you want to go left rather than straight, hey, go for it. That freedom is probably the number-one thing that defines a Bethesda game.”

Like every other Bethesda RPG, one of Starfield's core facets is freedom - to let the player decide what they want to do and how they want to do it.
Like every other Bethesda RPG, one of Starfield’s core facets is freedom – to let the player decide what they want to do and how they want to do it.

“The first thing that comes to mind is world simulation and persistence. The level of detail,” says Berry. “Presenting the world as though it’s a real place that the player can interact with to increasingly complex degrees, and in ways that also tie back to and influence the moment-to-moment gameplay. And how big a bite they take off of what they’re trying to chew — we’re gonna go for it. I can picture everybody’s faces that I knew, and conversations along the way, and they loved what they were doing and sharing that with people. Gently pulling other people into that love, that explorative interaction in a virtual space.”

With the release of Starfield, Bethesda’s first new universe in decades, there’s a palpable excitement among a certain kind of player. Whether or not it lives up to its promise in the minds of fans or the folks who made it is not something that will be decided in a matter of days. But it’s a welcome reminder, some eight years after the launch of Fallout 4, of why we care about these games so much. Characters like spymaster Caius Cosades, Piper Wright, and Preston Garvey illustrate how a Bethesda RPG is defined not just by its vast environments but also the people who live there.

And that includes the user, from the casual role-player indulging their vampire-lord fantasies to the hobbyist game designer building their own custom modules with the Creation Kit. A new Bethesda game is only the start; countless stories await that the developers themselves can’t possibly foresee. More than any dungeon or spell or starship, the player is the key ingredient.