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Todd Howard talks Starfield's "hard sci-fi" approach in new developer video

"A hard science-fiction video game would be, you die in space cold".

A Starfield screenshot showing a pilot in their spaceship cockpit, mountains visible in the distance through the glass.
Image credit: Bethesda

With Starfield's hugely anticipated 2023 release growing ever-closer, Bethesda has launched a new Q&A video series, and episode one sees director Todd Howard responding to a number of community queries - including sharing some thoughts on traits, dialogue, and whether Starfield can be described as a "hard sci-fi" game.

Howard began the chat by detailing a few of Starfield's inspirations - 1984 space sim SunDog: Frozen Legacy and pen-and-paper RPG Traveller, if you're wondering - before moving on to tackle the "hard sci-fi" question. This, he said, was a little tricky to answer insofar as different people will likely have different definitions of "hard sci-fi", but for Bethesda, "It is more hard to us, where you can draw that line from, okay, here's how man explored space, and [then] look at our ships and say, alright that has some visual identity back to that".

However, he also called the question a bit of a trap, "because it's a video game. Like, a hard science-fiction video game would be, you die in space cold."

Constellation Questions: Talking Starfield with Todd Howard.Watch on YouTube

As an example of how hard sci-fi doesn't always translate well in gaming, Howard revealed how the team was initially "really into fuel and how the gravity drive works, and I'm reading papers on like quantum physics and bending space in front of you". But when Bethesda attempted to implement some of these more realistic systems, it "became very punitive for the player."

"Your ship would run out of fuel and the game would just stop," Howard explained, "you just want get back to what you were doing. So we've recently changed it where the fuel in your ship and the grav drive limits how far you can go at once. But it doesn't run out of fuel." This could perhaps be changed by a future update or mod, he added, "but that's what we're doing now."

Elsewhere in the chat, Howard revealed a little more on Starfield's customisation and traits system, calling the game's current traits "super fun". Each one, he explained, comes with "some sort of a negative", but these can all be removed for the duration of a playthrough by completing an activity or quest in-game.

Bringing the brief Q&A to a close, Howard touched on Starfield's dialogue system, reiterating that it sees the return of what he called a "classic Bethesda-style dialogue" where players are looking at a character, seeing how they emote, and can pick from a series of choices.

"The scope of the game, the amount of content that we're making, is a bit more than we've done before in terms of quests and things like that," he added. "With the dialogue, we just past 250,000 lines". By comparison, Fallout 4 is said to have featured 111,000 lines of dialogue, while Skyrim included 60,000. "That's a lot of dialogue," Howard continued, "but we've gone through it and the impact is really there. And that includes my favourite speech persuasion system. It feels like it's part of the dialogue, but you're spending points to persuade them. It feels natural, not like I've entered some other mode where I'm not doing regular dialogues".

And that was everything Howard had to say in this first Constellation Questions instalment. Expect plenty more from Bethesda in the run-up to Starfield's Xbox and PC launch next year.