Gaming enthusiasts around the world are just hours away from stepping foot into the wondrous world of Starfield. For many, it’s been a long five-year wait since Bethesda first teased the title at E3 in 2018. Now, it’s set to arrive as the first new IP from the revered studio in 29 years. Known best for both The Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, Bethesda is facing expectations that far exceed that of any other game released this year.
Leading up to its monumental release, the science fiction title has been described by director Todd Howard as “Skyrim in space,” with the player joining Constellation, a group of galactic explorers, in pursuit of mysterious artifacts spread across space. Made up over a thousand planets to visit, the expansive universe challenged the game’s art team to bring captivating visuals to enhance each player’s unique journey across the galaxy’s diverse landscapes and uncharted territories. Ahead of the game’s highly-anticipated launch, Hypebeast connected with lead artist Istvan Pely who offered insight into the game’s artistic evolution, its points of inspiration and the team’s design approach.
You’ve described Starfield as having a “NASA Punk” style. What does that mean to you?
Creating a sense of familiarity while designing a new science fiction universe was important for us. This allows players to draw a line from contemporary space technology to the game, keeping it from feeling like magic. Even in the future, space exploration is complicated, difficult and dangerous. For the NASA portion, there’s the over-engineered functionality present throughout the game that backs the element of survival. As for the punk aspect, you’ll find that we’ve been able to tap into the wild side of things with Starfield’s cultures and cities.
It’s been over seven years since development officially started on Starfield. How much has the artistic approach changed since day one?
We crafted an aesthetic for the game’s art style that we’ve managed to stick to since its infancy. At the same time, with so many people working on it, the personality of every artist, designer and programmer manages to come to life in its actual execution -- pushing it to evolve over time. Seeing the game take on a life of its own is always exciting and with Starfield, the results have surpassed what we initially hoped for.
What points of artistic inspiration did you draw from in crafting the game’s visuals?
There’s countless aesthetics to take in that draw from various sources. Looking at the cities in particular, there’s Akila City, which has a frontier feel to it that involves building out a settlement and a heightened sense of hostility. Whereas a place like Neon has been reimagined from a fishing platform to a pleasure city that is comparable to Las Vegas. With each of these, the influences go beyond the architecture and layout as well: the personalities and styles of the characters found in each unique destination ensures that they’re distinct from one another.
"It’s easy to get lost in the superficial idea of making something look cool but by centering ourselves around the why, an important level of cohesion is created."
How do you ensure that the countless settings feel distinct from one another?
When designing a location, we start by thinking about why it exists. It’s easy to get lost in the superficial idea of making something look cool but by centering ourselves around the why, an important level of cohesion is created. Take the Crimson Fleet Pirates [a band of space raiders] for example. We asked ourselves, “What is life like for a pirate? How do they live?” As a result, their corresponding locations have a distinct feel to them that reaches beyond the surface.
One approach that guides us through designing games like this is, rather than consider it a work of science fiction, we see it as a period piece that happens to be taking place in the future. When considering historical works, there’s a sense of authenticity ingrained in them that we sought to recreate with Starfield. This also helped us in dodging the common clichés and tropes that often limit the creativity of science fiction. Ultimately, it was about finding what feels appropriate for the story we’re telling.
Is there a particular environment in the game that you’re most excited for players to visit?
It’s all about the spaceships. They’re the point you always return to, and the modular ship-building system offers a level of customization that keeps the experience fresh and personal. It’s a mix of both transportation design and home design. Touching on the romanticism of exploration again, to be drifting through the galaxy with nothing but your ship, it evokes an excitement and connectedness to your surroundings.
How do you hope players feel when they boot up Starfield and explore the in-game universe for the first time?
I want players to embrace the sense of wonder that the game offers. I’ve worked on the game for years and to this day I still don’t know what exactly I’ll run into each time I play. There’s a level of freedom and complete openness that offers a special experience for all to enjoy in their own way.
How far are players able to go in creating personal looks for their in-game characters that fully capture their imagination?
The initial character creator is pretty in-depth. [Editor’s Note: This is a humble understatement] We’ve always put a lot of emphasis on customization when it comes to physicality, but we go even further with this game with elements like different character animation styles entering the mix. On top of all of that, we love designing outfits and Starfield lets you explore this in many ways. Whether it be futuristic or utilitarian, there’s lots to discover. A fun feature we included is that when wearing your space suit and walking into a [hub] city such as New Atlantis that doesn’t require armor or protection from the elements, you can have the game automatically hide the suit and highlight the outfit you’ve put together instead.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in the game’s development?
From an artistic perspective, the more square footage you have to cover, the harder it is to pack it with detail. Environmental storytelling was crucial to supplementing the core gameplay throughout the game’s development. Due to this, we’re able to reward players who slow down and peek into each and every corner. One of the things you’ll find is that while backdrops may change, human nature doesn’t and there’s a consistency that connects the present day with this science fiction world. This immersion is backed by everything from the reminder notes stickied on a table to posters decorating a room. Its grounded relatability helps you believe that this is all happening and that these characters are real. Since we made this a priority from the start, it was a challenge I believe we overcame.
Are there any ideas that could not be explored yet with current technology?
It’s inevitable that technical limitations exist, that’s the nature of the game. However, we have an ace tech team that was able to back the artists to accomplish all of the things we wanted to do. From upgrading our lighting system substantially with real-time global illumination to providing a foundation for every asset we want to exist. Basically, they didn’t say no and always found a way to make things work.
You’ve spent decades at Bethesda now. What about Starfield’s development makes it a unique project to have worked on?
This was the first time that I got to start with an entirely-new IP -- a blank canvas to paint on. With franchises such as The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, there’s history and legacy we have to remain true to. Taking on Starfield, there was an opportunity to put a twist on the science fiction genre, something that is simultaneously daunting and thrilling. As a longtime fan of the theme, one aspect that I greatly enjoyed implementing was the slightly-retro feel that serves as an undercurrent to the title. Pulling from ‘70s and ‘80s film, a time pre-CGI, there’s a very tactile aesthetic that we tapped into.
"In designing this vast universe, we weren’t afraid to let the player feel small and inconsequential at times."
What about the game makes you the proudest?
There’s a beauty in the unknown of space exploration that I’ve always appreciated. The idea of mankind stepping out and exploring the universe is incredible, and I believe the game captures that sense of awe, something that required all of these moving parts to work in tandem to accomplish. In designing this vast universe, we weren’t afraid to let the player feel small and inconsequential at times. It’s a very interesting feeling to have that backs the beauty in discovery.
The launch of Starfield is nearly upon us. How does it feel being so close to seeing the project enjoyed by millions across the world?
It’s exhilarating. When you’ve spent so much time building something, pouring your creative self into a project that you’re intimately familiar with, to finally share it is incredible. With that, a sense of trepidation lurks. However, we think people are really going to love it.
The release period of ‘Starfield’ begins on August 31 at 8pm EDT for those with early access. Following this, the game officially launches on September 6 for Xbox Series X|S and PC.