"Realistic and grounded" is how Bethesda has described its approach to Starfield's aesthetic. Much of the look of its technology, spaceships, and even fashion is influenced by the look of present day space travel, an approach the developer has dubbed "NASApunk."
For the most part, it really works. It's a little dry and stuffy for my tastes—I'd prefer a more welcoming and colourful galaxy—but it's a coherent aesthetic that sets clear expectations of the kind of sci-fi stories Starfield is telling. Space travel looks weighty and convincing, and even its aliens feel like plausible extraterrestrial wildlife, rather than just monsters to fight. This is a sci-fi adventure where you'll discover strange and wonderful things, but with a loose foundation of real science and a clear throughline from the present day into this future.
So, er, why is it also a space western full of cowboys?
Bethesda's latest deep dive into the game was full of little "Huh?" moments like that for me. If this is a realistic setting, why am I seeing people fighting with swords and fists in spacesuits? Why are there full on wild west frontier towns full of people wearing ten gallon hats on other planets? Why did the presentation end with the character casting space magic?
I'm no enemy of weirdness—I love my games to get goofy, and especially in a big open world it's great to have all sorts of strangeness to discover. But here it's completely at odds with the tone that's being established.
Take the guns, for example. You've got this huge selection of very convincingly modern military style weapons, with endless attachments and mods to please any gun nut, but then randomly in the mix there's a minigun and a huge double-barreled shotgun, both of which look right out of Doom. Or character creation—you're going through all these very staid options for who your character is, with skills with names like "rifle certification", but then you get to pick if your character has alien DNA, worships a giant snake, or has a cartoonish fanboy following them around the galaxy. I just don't see how it clicks together.
The legacy of Fallout is clear, here. The apocalyptic wastelands of those games are a free-for-all—you never know whether round the next corner you're going to find a ghoul turning into a tree, a sword that sets people on fire, or a vault full of clones. But that goofiness, that wild shifting of tone, has always been Fallout's vibe. It works because those games are set in a bizarre retro-future universe inspired by sci-fi b-movies, not a realistic interpretation of a post-nuclear world.
It feels like Bethesda has deliberately moved to distance Starfield from Fallout, and take it in a very different direction—but it somehow can't quite shake all its Fallout habits. The moment I saw a posed skeleton come on screen as a developer said "environmental storytelling", it became clear that there are some grooves the studio may never climb out of. A certain level of goof seems to be baked into the studio's DNA.
To me, that's a shame, because it means Starfield feels a bit like the worst of both worlds. Sacrifices are made for its hard sci-fi ambitions. For example, the companion characters are far less visually or conceptually exciting than we're used to. It makes sense for this setting that we'd be hanging out with pretty blandly normal looking people rather than an android detective or a Tunnel Snake, but it's a harder pill to swallow if that realistic atmosphere is going to be regularly punctured by off-kilter nonsense like two himbos taking their goldfish to the beach. At that point, I'd rather Bethesda had just embraced the silliness and made a more exuberant, colourful game to match.
Obviously it's still early days—we've not been able to go hands-on with Starfield yet, and the proof will ultimately be in the space pudding as to whether all these elements do click together into a coherent setting or not. But for me, if after a 45 minute deep dive presentation I'm still left with more questions than answers about Bethesda's new galaxy, that's reason enough for concern.