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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

‘Starfield’ Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

For the past five years, the YouTuber Bacon_ has been uploading funny video game clips, nearly all of which come from titles made by Bethesda Game Studios. With the release of Starfield this week, Bacon_ has new fodder. “Just trying to get through my shift,” which was posted four days ago, shows a Starfield NPC pounding a mining laser into his colleague’s crotch. “So Starfield is out, and it’s definitely a Bethesda game,” Bacon_commented.

For video games, technical difficulties come with the territory. Yet since the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in 2003, Bethesda—known affectionately, or cruelly, as “Bugthesda”—has developed a reputation for moments of glitchy chaos. No matter how generically predictable it may initially seem, at the core of any Bethesda game lurks an uncontrollable weirdness. If these games were embodied in a character, they would be the skin-stealing alien from Men in Black: a maniac trying to pass themselves off as normal.

The memes Bethesda games generate are, like their extensive mods, inseparable from their identity. Starfield is no different. Bethesda reportedly spent years of the game’s eight-year development testing its gargantuan solar system. Yet, as this video of Todd Howard pronouncements interspersed with Starfield glitches suggests, Bethesda cannot escape its bugs. “This is a 100-dollar game,” one steamer put it as a companion charged full speed into a wall.

And it’s true that Starfield’s systems feel creaky, particularly since we’ve had two years of ridiculously good open-world, RPG-ish games. Yet I can’t hate Starfield. I love that, in 2023, Bethesda is still Bethesda-ing. Because, yes, the bugs sometimes undermine the games, but the weird situations they lead to give them character. It’s their chaotic aura that brings us back to these worlds, decades after launch.

That weirdness is particularly important because Bethesda’s locales often feel generic. The company has now drawn on high fantasy, post-apocalypse, and garden variety sci-fi settings. But about one minute after touching down in New Atlantis, Starfield’s copypasta Apple Store-aping metropolis, my character, William Regal, entered a crowded square. Citizens bounced off each other like balls on a pool table, but a guy in a blue jumpsuit stood out. He was moonwalking, shopping bag and all.

Players have already found numerous other examples. One commonality between Starfield NPCs is that they have trouble obeying the laws of gravity. In one video, an executive at the Terra Brew coffee shop says “you can see traffic is good, the sales keep climbing” as a barista levitates through the ceiling. But it’s not just the bugs in Bethesda games that are weird. (And to be fair, there are far fewer here than in previous releases.) You also find this weirdness in Bethesda systems that are working “as they should.” Stroll through New Atlantis, and every citizen will turn and stare at you, googly-eyed. Many are “late for a meeting,” but follow them and they stop and gaze aimlessly out over the city’s blocky vistas.

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Or take Bethesda’s dialog. We’ve evolved beyond the days of Oblivion’s handful of voice actors. But Starfield, like most Bethesda games, has uniquely Bethesda-ish dialog: a now trademark camp genericism you might find in a hokey sitcom. “Well I’ll be, honey! We got ourselves a visitor! I’ll put the coffee on,” says your father. Your mother, face expressionless, responds “Wow, you just about gave me a heart attack.” These inspired lines combine with Bethesda’s stubborn persistence in having the camera zoom in on the face of the speaking character, who holds forth like they’re recording a webinar. Their mouths still move independently of their eyes. Their heads still twist to lock your gaze, even if you approach them while they’re facing the other direction. “Starefield” has been circling the internet. Characters in the universe give the strong impression that they’ve cheerfully lost their minds.

The effect of all of this is destabilizing,shattering immersion and distancing you from the world. A lot of game art and Machinma has employed this distancing effect to shock audiences, like Georgie Roxby Smith’s 99 Problems [WASTED], where the player’s female avatar repeatedly kills herself in Grand Theft Auto V.

Here, it functions in the service of surrealist humor. These incongruities remind you that the company’s games are just one big Truman Show, a mechanical charade populated by automatons.

This tightrope between the predictable and the unpredictable generates in-game sketch comedies, as seen on the subreddit r/iwanttoapologise. A typical video might start with a dialog-upending bug: Orc Shum Gro Yarag, for example, praising his neighbor’s tomatoes while merged with a stone wall. (Bethesda’s worlds have also proven a great template for memes involving Tony Soprano.)

Bugs can be enraging too. There are smart arguments to be made about the state of AAA games. But Bethesda, for all its faults, has one of the most supported modding communities. They also seem in on the joke of the sandbox chaos their community will cause: setting up sandwiches for players to steal from NPCs, putting a big timer saying “hours without incident” on Mars, or writing protests for the adoring fan when players beat him to a pulp (“were you trying to hit someone behind me?”). At the very least, Bethesda deserves some credit for its sheer influence on meme humor and internet culture—and the hilarity its mad games bring. I’m eager to see Starfield’s idiosyncrasies play out.

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