Starfield surprised me. After Oblivion, Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls Skyrim, Fallout New Vegas, and Fallout 4, I expected the new version of Bethesda’s Creation Engine to be, somehow, buggier. The bugs, for me, have become a fundamental part of the Bethesda RPG experience – if the studio makes a new engine, in the same way it allows for better graphics, sound, animations, and all that other stuff, it should also come with better bugs. Glitches in Bethesda’s games – and FNV, which uses Bethesda’s game-making tech – transcend issues of annoyance or irritation. They’re so consistent and so vivid and unique, that they stop being flaws. It’s like the scratching on vinyl, the artifacting on VHS.
Our memories of various cultural items, our sense of them having a distinct identity, are ultimately rooted in their functional defects. But Starfield doesn’t have bugs – or at least, doesn’t have bugs in a way that makes it identifiably Bethesda. It sounds perhaps a little absurd, or even somehow ungrateful, but there’s part of me that looks at modern videogames – even the biggest, most-complex RPG games – and looks at how clean they look, and feels deadened.
Bugs and glitches, especially of the Bethesda variety, where you meet an NPC in Fallout and while they’re talking to you their head spins around like the hands on a clock, or a giant charges towards you in Skyrim, only to sink into the ground, reappear seconds later, and blast into the sky, create a jagged and strange kind of human connection between you and the game-maker.
There’s a mistake, there’s an oversight, there’s something gone wrong – you can reach out and touch the hand of human error. That moment in Star Wars: A New Hope where the Stormtrooper accidentally clunks his head, it’s fantastic not just because it’s funny, but because it makes the film and everyone in it suddenly seem fallible, which makes them feel real – relatable, even.
The cold and often uninhabited Starfield planets meanwhile, don’t have that detectable frailty and human comedy. It becomes a little uncanny. Instead of those practised, polished smiles and frowns, I want Starfield’s characters to bug out, as a reminder that behind all this smooth, production-line game-making, there is ultimately an actual person.
I also get precious about videogame aesthetics, or at least the idea that videogames need a better defined sense of what makes them look and feel different to other expressive forms. It’s probably, ultimately, a dead end – you can’t have a game that’s somehow designed around bugs, first of all because it likely wouldn’t work very well, and secondly because if it were designed around bugs, the bugs wouldn’t be bugs, they’d be there by design. But a lot of the images, moments, and memories that I have in my head that are uniquely ‘videogamic,’ and impossible to emulate and reproduce in other media types, are glitches.
The walking, talking, vaguely person-shaped collection of guts in Fallout 3 is a superlatively videogamesque apparition. The Fallout 4 human NPCs whose textures have been incorrectly assigned to the skeletons of Deathclaws and Super Mutants, so they’ve become hideously stretched and elongated, are an inadvertent but nevertheless pure and stark example of something of which only videogames are capable.
At some level, this type of absurdist imagery and comedy separates games from other media – in a videogame culture that is regularly derivative of movies and TV shows, glitches and bugs, especially of these fantastical proportions, are something we entirely own.
Fallout New Vegas, to me, is one of the great masterpieces of this particular, exclusive videogame aesthetic. As demonstrated in Starfield, while more sophisticated games and game-making technologies in some ways represent improvement, they simultaneously mark a new and less interesting aesthetic mildness – the replacement of flawed and extraordinary with functional and bland.
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