Did you know Starfield is going to have over 150,000 lines of dialogue? I did, and I honestly wish I didn’t, because it’s crushing my hopes that this upcoming sci-RPG will be anything other than Bethesda by the numbers.
In case you missed this Starfield claim from Todd Howard, it took place at the Tokyo Game Show, and while he was likely referring to Japanese-language dialogue, the English-language numbers will be comparable — so that’s over twice as many words as in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and a good chunk more than in Fallout 4.
However, while boasting about the quantity of dialogue an RPG or action RPG has is nothing new, it’s not a great look for Bethesda. Yes, Skyrim’s “arrow in the knee” line will live forever in memedom, but when it comes to Bethesda’s post-Morrowind first-party games, the bulk of its dialogue is serviceable at best.
Don’t believe me? Try thinking about Fallout 3, Fallout 4, Oblivion, Skyrim, and so on, preferably one of those you’ve not played in a while. Which memories fill you with joy? Shouting someone off a cliff? Shooting the Institute’s leader in the face just to show you’re nobody’s lapdog? Slaughtering your first dragon? Uncovering the horrific experiments Vault-Tec inflicted on the people they claimed to be saving?
Because chances are that few, if any of those memorable experiences hinged on dialogue. Murdering people in a mansion was fun, but my victims’ paranoia could just as well have been conveyed through their behavior. Yes, I got and still get a major kick out of Fallout 3 and Skyrim, and I’ve ploughed hours and hours and hours into them. But their dialogue is rarely what makes them worth my time.
In fact, there have been plenty of occasions where it’s damaged their respective immersion, whether the lines in question were overheard or directed directly at me. Take an utterance like, “The Gray Fox sounds like a dangerous thief.” It commits the dual sins of being clunkily written and existing only to impart information to the player. What’s wrong with the latter, you might wonder? What’s wrong is that a) there are Gray Fox posters all over town, and b) you’ll hear the same information from a hundred different NPCs.
Even if NPCs aren’t screaming, “HEY, REMEMBER THAT MINE FULL OF BANDITS?”, their “casual” conversations often revolve around your deeds, giving you the impression you’re in a fantasy-themed version of The Truman Show. And if Skyrim were played for comedy, that wouldn’t be so bad, but this is a series that takes its lore seriously. At least Fallout 4 lets you voice your exasperation.
Wonder why I’ve not mentioned Fallout: New Vegas? That’s because, while Obsidian’s not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot better at nailing natural dialogue and dialing down conversations that exist only to elevate you. When I think back to its contribution to the Fallout series, I remember Mr. House getting exasperated as I tried to justify my loose interpretation of his orders, the conversations with Benny, Yes Man, Caesar, and others. Those were just as much a source of joy as the post-apocalyptic mayhem New Vegas let me engage in.
So Todd Howard’s boast of over 150,000 lines of dialogue for Starfield fills me with a sense of impending doom for what, on Bethesda’s part, is a huge gambit. As big as Fallout 4 and Skyrim’s maps are, they still feature one single realm. Starfield, on the other hand, spans an entire galaxy and will feature alien races, but based on Bethesda’s recent work and coupled with this emphasis on dialogue, I have my doubts that we’ll get something truly galactic.
You can compare Mass Effect’s Krogans to Star Trek’s Klingons, but it was the way they’d been sidelined and then sterilized that made them interesting as a species; Wrex’s dialogue was just the icing on the cake. It doesn’t matter how many mediocre mouth-words Bethesda injects into Starfield if its characters and worlds fail to convince.
Bethesda has teased that, in Starfield, space travel is still risky, which should lead to human colonies developing in near isolation; even if alien races aren’t front and center, each world should have its own unique character and, preferably, its own accent and dialect. You just need to look at the whole chip barm / butty / roll /bap debate to see how, even on the same planet, language and culture can differ. So what Starfield needs is for you to be able step onto a world and have it feel truly new — not just in terms of the scenery (though it could take a leaf out of Morrowind’s book in that respect). And that, Todd, means not just having NPCs regurgitate the same dialogue.
I understand it would be astronomically expensive to hire a different voice actor for each NPC; I can live with Claudia Christian voicing Aela the Huntress, Legate Rikke, Uthgerd the Unbroken, and more. It was mildly off-putting hearing Lost Judgment’s Tak Yagami turn up in Squid Game, but a couple of minutes in it was a non-issue. But what I do dread is turning up on the planet Neon, hearing someone complain about space lobsters in their basement, crossing half the galaxy to another planet, and listening to a different NPC, with a different voice, spit out exactly the same words.
I really hope I’m wrong. I’d love Starfield to be a sci-fi smash, something to eclipse the endless Skyrim re-releases and prove that, going forward, Bethesda truly has grown as a developer. As the credits roll I want to sit there in awe, unsure whether I’ve truly “won” (taking a leaf from Obsidian’s book), but knowing the trip and all the diverse, naturally written conversations I had were so, so worth it.
But unless the company has seriously turned things around for Starfield, 150,000 lines of dialogue is not a big win, and it’s cause for concern that Todd Howard seems to think it is. When it comes to putting words in its characters’ mouths — quality, not quantity, needs to be Bethesda’s byword.