It is refreshing to see a new IP from Bethesda. It’s certainly possible that we may not hear another peep about Starfield for quite some time. However, Todd Howard has planted the seed.
It’s an exceptionally exciting seed to plant, because Bethesda has been indulging a habit of puttering around within the comfort of their existing series. The choice makes sense; current franchises are known territory, and consequently carry a certain level of security in sales and reception. The proof is in the pudding: with three Wolfenstein releases in only four years, revamps and re-releases of Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls Online, Fallout 4, and even Fallout Shelter, Bethesda has leaned on the consistency of an established audience.
New installments in franchises like Fallout depend on a loyal fanbase, but loyalty comes hand-in-hand with certain expectations of a series. Bethesda has departed from previous installments in terms of mechanics, story structure, and content.
Changes to Fallout’s Signature Format and Ethos
Fallout 4 demonstrated a stark departure from the roots of the franchise, as did Fallout 3 when it was first released. Though in critical reception Fallout 4 did not enjoy praise quite as glowing as Fallout 3, and many die-hard fans of the originals and New Vegas were less than impressed by it, Fallout 4 earned accolades including not one, but two D.I.C.E. game of the year awards, and the BAFTA Best Game award. However, the fact remains that the fourth main title went in a very different direction than previous Fallout games.
Fallout 76, however, is dramatically different even from Fallout 4, which can safely be considered anomalous even when just compared to the post-Interplay titles. The most profound change, of course, is the transition to a totally online format, with no human NPCs. This choice practically cedes the role-playing aspect of a game. Bethesda will be fighting an uphill battle if they want to maintain the core genre, even, of the Falloutfranchise.
Settlements will likely play a larger role as “reclamation” gets going, so Fallout 76 will be leaning into some of the aspects of Fallout 4 that made it so very different from its predecessors. Choices to move further and further from what traditionally characterizes Fallout may threaten the reliability of the IP for the publisher and the consumer.
Aside from Fallout 76’s new mechanics and format, something I actually found quite concerning in Howard’s presentation was the game’s inclusion of nuclear weapons the player may use. Fallout was first created in part to highlight how nuclear war is a truly reprehensible and indiscriminately devastating form of violence, and over time that message has become less and less plain. The pre-war United States, as well, has been depicted as an authoritarian police state, but the tradition of anti-nuclear, anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy sentiment in Fallout narratives, expressed both solemnly and with dark humor, appears to have lost steam. The new game mechanic treats nuclear warfare flippantly, which is ultimately antithetical to the very ethos of the Fallout franchise.
That said, perhaps the game’s setting so soon after the war will provide an opportunity for the game to reflect and criticize this mechanic through narrative. This is the earliest Fallout setting so far, and the player will likely see a completely different wasteland than the one to which we are accustomed. That alone is enough to catch the attention of even disillusioned fans. Many of the drastic differences might threaten players’ loyalty, but that radical change is nothing short of intriguing, and full of potential.
Starfield: Promising and Overdue
A totally fresh franchise from Bethesda could be promising. Their studios have been refining the mechanics of settlements, more expansive open worlds, and exploring and developing proficiency in different functions for companion NPCs such as romance options, more character growth, substantial voiced dialogue, and personal quests.
One can only hope Starfield does not devolve into a debacle in the vein of No Man’s Sky, in which developers promise incredibly ambitious content and then fail to deliver. This is Bethesda we’re talking about, so it’s not too far beyond the pale to guess that we may see an open-world role-playing/adventure game. While a strategy game could be quite interesting, Bethesda has a signature style that has served them well so far. Their recent ventures into online gameplay with impressive content and beautiful worlds, between The Elder Scrolls Online and the new Fallout 76, could foreshadow an online spacefaring game.
Bethesda is definitely showing off their creativity and versatility with world design and creature design; aside from deathclaws and feral ghouls, every creature I saw in the trailers and previews for Fallout 76 was new. Of course, they could just as easily recycle these cool new creatures and rehash or splice them into Starfield, but seeing firsthand that Bethesda is branching out makes me hopeful.
It is a good time to introduce a new IP when installments of long-standing franchises are getting less and less recognizable. The risk of changing the hallmarks of a franchise with such a massive legacy may begin to outweigh the reward (i.e. Mass Effect: Andromeda), and the worst thing a publisher can do is alienate consumers. Announcing a brand-new franchise shows players that Bethesda has more to offer, and incentivizes continued loyalty to their games even when they take risks with their relationship with fans of existing Bethesda titles. There is clear evidence that Bethesda’s studios are coming up with fresh ideas and ambitious innovation for their games, so transferring those concepts onto a blank slate retains existing audiences while also opening the door to cultivate yet another loyal fanbase.