Video Games

Starfield Is a Vast, Sprawling Video Game About the Fragility of State Power

The latest RPG from Bethesda Studios chronicles the unexpected ways that private, non-governmental power steps in to fill the gaps and voids left by state actors.


Few producers of popular entertainment have delved so thoroughly into the world of libertarian political ideas as Bethesda Game Studios, the video game studio behind a handful of enormously popular role-playing games, including this year's much-hyped, much-delayed Starfield

The studio's Fallout franchise, for example, drops players into a bleak, satirical post-apocalyptic United States where the American government as we know it has been replaced by competing factions, each of which espouses their own values and ideals. Some believe in freedom and democracy while others focus on strength and security. Ordinary settlers, meanwhile, erect their own systems of subsistence, trade, conflict, and cooperation. 

A fantasy franchise, The Elder Scrolls, tasks players with navigating complex feudal political systems, even as local holdouts engage in their own quasi-governmental activities—some peaceful and productive, some cynical and selfish—apart from the official state. The series' most recent installment, 2011's Skyrim, allows players to participate in an epic war between two sides: rural Nords who want to practice their religion in peace (but who happen to be racist against elves), and urban, educated elves who advocate for a diverse, cosmopolitan society (but who want to use state power to squelch the Nordic religion). Could that possibly be a metaphor? 

These games are vast, taking dozens of hours to play, and giving players nearly unlimited freedom to explore large expanses of elaborately architected virtual territory, from rugged mountains to built-up cityscapes. Those territories are packed with people and stories, from shopkeepers and farmers to local warlords and rulers or wannabe rulers of every stripe, many of whom the player can speak and otherwise interact with. Those interactions are largely scripted by the game's designers, and at times the dialogue options can be limited. Yet what comes through from even the most basic in-game conversation is a sense that every character is driven by some sort of ethos or ideology—a politics of some sort—but also that every character is, somehow, a unique individual, with quirks and predilections that exist outside those political commitments. 

A Bethesda role-playing game is best understood not as a linear series of pre-determined events with some player interaction but as a place, a territory, a country—or, given the political divides one encounters, countries. It tells not a single story, but a series of interlocked stories in the same sprawling setting; playing through one of these games is something like reading a massive volume of short stories set in the same universe. 

All of this is true for Starfield, but even moreso. At heart, it's a game about the fragility and contingency of state power, competition between forms of government, and the unexpected ways that private, non-governmental power steps in to fill the gaps and voids left by state actors. And, too, it is a showcase for the influence of individuals—their quirks, choices, and tradeoffs, some of which prove more powerful than the systems in which they are embedded. 

Starfield is set in the far future in which the Earth has been decimated but humanity has moved to the stars. After a bloody war, two rival states formed: The first is the United Colonies (the U.C.), which is centralized and bureaucratic, but safe, shiny, and rich. The second is the Freestar Collective, which is rough and tumble, more loosely governed and prone to lawlessness, but which allows merchants and entrepreneurs greater freedom to go about their business. 

The game frequently highlights the differences between these two styles of government: One of the first snippets of dialogue the player hears after starting the game is a swipe at the U.C.'s bureaucratic burdens. As you walk through a deep space mining operation, the crew boss turns to another character and remarks: "Know what I love about working in Freestar Collective space? Fewer regulations. A job like this for the United Colonies would mean reams of red tape." From the outset, the game emphasizes ideas of political and regulatory competition and the effects of that competition on the marketplace. 

But Starfield doesn't slot everything into a simplistic political binary. There are always other forms of governance, or quasi-governance, hovering at the fringes as well, many of which are more loosely organized. Early in the game, the player encounters LIST, the League of Independent Settlers, a ragtag group of settlers who find even Freestar's political structure too overbearing. They've struck out on their own, but without security infrastructure, they've found themselves beset by attacks from lawless rogues. As a LIST farmer explains, "The promise is freedom. True freedom. If you can fend off all the spacers and pirates the settled systems can throw at you." 

Over and over again, the game raises the question of freedom. What does it mean? What does it entail? What costs does it impose? In Akila City, the capital of the Freestar Collective, players encounter an in-game information kiosk with a self-regarding retelling of the founding. It explains that the Collective's founder was an explorer who wanted to join with other like-minded explorers to travel and settle the stars. But the U.C. resisted. "Exploration was seen as aggression," the story goes. "Freedom, as defiance." Akila City was founded on a "commitment to freedom." 

That commitment is reflected in smaller ways as well. The game allows the player to purchase property in Akila City. There's a realtor involved, and when you first encounter him, he's speaking with another prospective buyer who asks whether the property "is zoned for commercial use?"  The realtor dismisses the idea of zoning entirely, saying, "This isn't the UC." 

Both the U.C. and the Freestar Collective, meanwhile, hire what amounts to contract labor to bolster their security forces, sometimes dismissing formal training requirements that made staffing their police and military operations too difficult. 

Beyond the main governmental entities, there are large corporations that sometimes seem to have governmental power, especially in the commercial city of Neon. Neon is run by a corporate council, and one of the game's more extensive series of linked missions allows the player to take a job as a corporate operative for Ryujin Industries, the city's most powerful corporation. 

Yet even Neon's monied corporate overlords have limits: The streets of the city's poor neighborhood are run by gangs—and even in gang warfare, competing ideologies prevail. One group, the down-on-its-luck Ebbside Strikers, prides itself on a kind of business-like competence, in contrast to what they see as the near-psychotic violence of its rivals, the Disciples. The game treats these gangs as existing on a continuum, not only with each other, but with the governing corporations and political institutions above them; in the world of Starfield, political power always has limitations, and powerful institutions and ideologies almost always have rivals. 

The main storyline, meanwhile, revolves around Constellation, which its leader describes as a "private organization dedicated to self reliance." The organization's chief financial backer is a space-hardware industrialist named Walter Stroud who spends part of the game trying to one-up a rival shipmaker. When he first introduces himself, he explains, "I'm a fan of self reliance." Later on, he expresses glee at the wildness of the "free market" in Neon City. 

Not all of the game's social institutions are dedicated to power and violence. In the slums of New Atlantis, the capital city of the United Colonies, a woman named Kay runs a charity service for the downtrodden. The game features multiple religions, one with a bizarre theology and violent streak, another with a more peaceful outlook. There's even a sort of humanistic non-religion, the House of Enlightenment, dedicated to boosting humanity through peace and cooperation. As one of the organization's representatives says: "Belief is the problem, okay? We don't need a shared narrative or theology. We need to help each other, in practical terms." 

If all of this sounds complex, well, in some ways that's because it is. The game's sheer sprawl and scale prevents easy summary or succinct analysis: Tellingly, the game's play counter keeps track of time in the game by number of days: As of this writing, I have nearly four whole days sunk into this game world—just shy of 100 hours—with hundreds of planets and quests and stories left to explore. I'll be playing this game for days and days to come. 

That vastness, however, is what allows the game to explore such a wide range of governmental bodies and non-government systems, people and places, idiosyncrasies, and ideologies.

Players can choose how to move through this world, what sort of character to play, and what sort of stories and opportunities to pursue; I haven't even mentioned the game's ship and settlement-building systems, which add layers of resource management and habitation design on top of the more conventional story and action elements. 

The sheer range of choices available to the player at any given moment is, in some sense, the point: Constellation's members spend much of the game waxing enthusiastic about the joys of exploration, the limitlessness of human potential, the lure of the stars. 

But even more than that, Starfield, like Bethesda's early games, simply insists that people are different—delightfully and terribly and bizarrely and amusingly different. And those infinite, irreducible differences are what ensure that any putatively comprehensive system of human organization or political control will have gaps and limitations. Whether it's a democratic government, a pirate clan, a settler collective, or a monied corporation, no one system can capture and organize it all. But Starfield, like all of Bethesda's RPGs, comes about as close as anything.