Every time Vasco says my name aloud in Starfield I can't help but stop and smile. It's involuntary, I can't help myself. Is this a sign that I'm just too easily pleased, or conditioning from a wasted youth of watching Lost in Space and wishing I was Will Robinson? Whatever it is, there's something undeniably fun about the entire setup.
I'm exploring new frontiers of the universe, fighting pirates across the stars, piloting a ship that I engineered, and I'm doing it all with a robotic best friend who knows my name. If that isn't the dream, then you didn't grow up aspiring to be an astronaut in Hollywood's vision for outer space.
Bethesda Game Studios has pulled this same trick before. In Fallout 4, you're accompanied by Codsworth – a Mister Handy robot who survived the Great War. It was neat at the time, although not quite as effective. When I think about the post-apocalypse, being followed around by a mechanical butler who calls me "Mr. Josh" as I'm fighting to survive radiation plumes isn't exactly high on my list of fantasy scenarios. But the concept makes perfect sense in a far broader science-fiction setting, and has ensured that Vasco is one Starfield companion who is always assigned to my ship.
There's no better feeling than spending a couple of hours exploring one of the hundreds of inhabited Starfield planets, returning to my ship exhausted and over-encumbered, only to be welcomed at the entry-ramp by an enthusiastic Vasco. "Captain Josh" he says aloud, a reminder that I have a purpose in this universe, and other business to attend to across the starfield. It's such a small detail, but it has this monumental capacity to sell the fantasy faster than anything else Bethesda could have included in this sprawling RPG.
The thing with Bethesda-style role-playing games, where you're free to imprint your own character onto a mannequin, is that the facade is easily broken. Take the way that you interact with characters who inhabit the world. NPCs will say a lot of things at you, but rarely to you. It's a limitation of the form – every single element that goes into a video game is made with intent, requiring time and resources and iteration. Would an experience like Starfield have stronger world building and immersion if every NPC you encountered addressed you audibly by name and rank? You bet it would, and it would be awesome. It would also be a horrendous amount of work, for both developer and voice actor. It's an unreasonable expectation, but one that I still hope will be further scrutinized for future console generations.
Generating greater immersion is perhaps the next great frontier for the RPG. Developers have become adept and building frictionless progression systems and comfortable in companion design, and the ease in which we as players can be led between points of interest across massive planes is impressive. The genre has come quite far in such a short stretch of time. But I do wonder whether the focus on scale over sense of place is becoming more difficult to navigate. Starfield is gargantuan, and having such freedom is undoubtedly liberating, but there is a trade-off – interstellar hubs aren't as bustling as you might expect, and dialogue can lack personality.
Would a denser playspace, filled with more intimate and unique interactions, provide a better sandbox for role-play? Perhaps. But for now, we have Vasco. Like Codsworth before him, Starfield's robot is likely drawing from a database of over 1000 names to bring this little, excellent feature to life. It means that there's a moderate chance that you too can be made to feel like a space captain, and if you're anything like me you'll forget that Vasco has this function – and feel a rush of endorphins every time we pass each other by. In life, I am Josh, the journalist who is all partied out, man. But in Starfield I am constantly reminded that I am Captain Josh – the entire universe at my fingertips. I wouldn't want it any other way.
In our Starfield review, we praised Bethesda for creating an "expansive and beautifully crafted open world experience full of endless discovery and opportunities."