Nothing brings a virtual setting to life quite like its inhabitants. In so many sprawling, open-world RPGs, it's the companions you meet along the way who make them feel truly alive. They're the NPCs who can contextualize the traditions, history, and belief systems of fictional settings, and make you feel like you're shaping stories outside of your own. Nothing immerses me in an adventure more than having companions at my side, which is why I'm all kinds of excited about the mention of them in Starfield.
Bethesda has only shown one Starfield companion off so far - Vasco. Appearing in both the original reveal trailer and in a more focused development video, the robot companion will be one of many who can join us on a journey across the cosmos. As this is Bethesda's first new universe in 25 years, we're expecting big things from Starfield and, while there are certainly plenty of unanswered questions surrounding the size and scope of this RPG, I can only hope that it will be companions like Vasco that tie it all together.
Game Director Todd Howard said of Starfield that "it is a universe, not just a game." By thinking about aspects of the setting such as history, art, and entertainment, and conceptualizing the smallest details – right down to the kinds of meals you'd find – the developers have given us a bite-sized taste of how they hope to immerse us in this cosmos in the Into the Starfield series of videos. This level of attention to detail is certainly in-line with their previous games, with the fantasy setting of Skyrim and the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout both feeling distinctly different in terms of their atmospheres and aesthetics.
But even when it comes to the worlds of Elder Scrolls and Fallout, the characters and companions you encounter are still at the heart of what makes each expansive setting feel alive. Without NPCs, Skyrim wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable as it is, and the post-apocalyptic irradiated landscapes of Fallout 3 and 4 would be twice as bleak without them. In fact, you just have to look at the initial launch of Fallout 76 to see how hollow a Bethesda world can feel when it doesn't have NPCs. When the online offering first released in 2018, there were only a few robots you could encounter, alongside other real players. Bethesda has since added NPCs to Fallout 76, which just goes to show how much demand there was to have that sense of character and life back.
Looking back on the way Bethesda allowed you to interact with the companions in its past games, you have to wonder if they'll have a similar kind of involvement when it comes to Starfield. Both Skyrim and Fallout 4, for example, gave you the option to ask certain characters to follow you as you set off exploring. In a practical sense, the followers help you fight and carry items for you, but you can also form romantic relationships with them if you so choose. While we're still light on details about Starfield, little tidbits from the team could point towards the companions having a similar kind of presence – albeit potentially more developed.
Vasco, for example, does appear to have all of the makings of a companion you explore and fight with. Described as a companion you "can depend on", the robot friend has a payload capacity, which could mean it will hold items for you, and the mention and defensive capabilities "should the need arise" also makes me think it will fight alongside you.
Howard touched on how much love there is in the community for Bethesda's companions during the second Into the Starfield video. As a result, the team says it has really "leaned into'' how Starfield's characters and companions feel about you. Lead artist Istvan Pely says that, when you're exploring, your companion can make "some comment off the cuff about something you're checking out, or something that happened."
I love the idea of companions expressing their thoughts and opinions as you journey around – it could very well make them feel more real and believable. You only need to look to RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect Legendary Edition, or The Outer Worlds to see how much flavor a more reactive set of companions can bring to game worlds. When you get the sense that NPCs are responding to your decisions and actions (or inaction, as may sometimes be the case), it makes the adventure feel more authored – as if you are writing it one mission at a time. Bethesda has had great companions in the past, but studios like BioWare and Obsidian have really set a new standard that I hope the studio has taken notice of when looking at Starfield.
Pely also spoke about the team's desire to make "the personal interactions with NPCs [and] characters in the game be as impactful as possible." Contextually, this was in regard to the sense of realism Bethesda is hoping to bring with Starfield's graphical fidelity. But I can't help but wonder if this may also hint at the amount of attention they've paid to the kinds of connections you can have with those you meet in the universe. After all, if they're putting a lot of work into personal interactions, there's a part of me that hopes that the conversations and relationships you can form will be more in-depth than they have been in past Bethesda games.
Forming bonds – whether that be friendships or romantic ones – helps me become more attached to the virtual space I'm in. While you had the option to get married in Skyrim or form a relationship with a follower in Fallout 4 after completing their personal quest, I would love to see Bethesda develop on this aspect and bring us a deeper, more meaningful experience in this respect. We still don't know how relationships will work in Starfield, but with design director Emil Pagliarulo briefly mentioning romance, it could very well be on the cards.
It's still early days right now, and without having seen any gameplay just yet, there are plenty of questions that are yet to be answered about the upcoming space-faring RPG. Still, with what little insight we've had into Starfield so far, nothing has gotten me quite as excited – or piqued my interest quite as much – as the mention of companions. If they really have taken past features from previous games a step further, as they claim, I look forward to seeing if or how we'll be joined by others who could make our experience in the cosmos feel that much more alive.