An NPC looks shocked in a screenshot from 'Starfield'

I’m Not Loving the Latest Meme About ‘Starfield’s NPC Faces

When Starfield finally revealed its gameplay earlier this year, I was immediately struck by how odd the faces looked. I’m not a graphics purist by any means, but in the years since Fallout 4 released, most AAA games have made pretty incredible strides with facial detailing. 2018’s Red Dead Redemption 2 continues to impress me, the faces in Baldur’s Gate 3 have continually been impressive since Early Access launched in 2020, and even indie titles like Syberia: The World Before show impressive detail with face models.

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And while such detail was never Bethesda Softworks’ strong suit (as is evident from looking at … pretty much any modern Bethesda game), I gotta say, at this point it just feels sloppy. The slop itself wouldn’t be a problem if Bethesda’s general fanbase wasn’t prone to pointing things out in what feels like very targeted ways.

No more dancing around the issue here, this is what I’m trying to get at:

When I initially saw this, my thoughts were probably similar to those of almost everyone else: Jesus Christ, these look bad. The eyes, the motion rigging—it all feels like something you’d see in a new dev’s first major finished product, and not a AAA game that requires 125 gb to run. But then I just had to pinch my nose and sigh, because of course the first thing gamers would do is take targeted pictures of almost exclusively BIPOC NPCs and make a meme out of it.

I know some people might try to shut this conversation down because it’s “just a funny ha ha Bethesda meme,” and “why do SJWs have to take the fun out of everything?”—whatever. Here’s the thing: These pictures, especially the one of the Asian man on the right (you don’t get more classically orientalist than that), were very deliberate choices on the photographer’s part. Whether or not they had explicitly racist intentions doesn’t really negate the fact that these pictures are contributing to racial biases certain types of gamers already nurse.

For instance, this image is now being used as a dog-whistle for gamers who do explicitly have racial biases. You don’t have to go far on Steam to see examples of this being used, such as comparing these NPCs with the very white-presenting romances in Baldur’s Gate 3. Or better yet, players trying to bring this up, only to have commenters say that it’s tit for tat for “woke game devs intentionally making characters ugly.” You don’t have to think too hard to understand what they’re getting at.

Of course, the onus is also on Bethesda because at this point, you’d think a studio with this much funding behind it wouldn’t be this reckless in designing and rigging its characters. From what I understand, all non-named NPCs—i.e., the ones meant to fill out the game’s massive world—are procedurally generated. This is why we have Black NPCs with hair that simply doesn’t make sense, or Asian characters with skin that looks more jaundiced than actually Asian. Then, of course, there’s the rigging of the eyes and heads, which was so poorly done that it results in the angles seen above. Here’s an example in real-time:

This kind of design is just lazy at best, and woefully reckless at worst. I’d say that Bethesda’s devs should have known better, that they should have predicted that the worst of their player base would run wild with these kinds of flaws, but it’s Bethesda—who even knows what their stance is beyond “make big video game.”

Just to be clear, obviously the problem isn’t having a diverse world of characters. The problem is making a diverse world in the laziest way possible, without any thought or care put into creating it. By pulling this kind of shit, all you’re doing is inviting the worst kind of people to spew whatever bullshit they’ve just been waiting for an excuse to spew. I mean, again, that one Asian guy’s face just blew me away the first time I saw it. The teeth in particular are so emblematic of a certain kind of Yellowface portrayal I haven’t seen since games in the early 2000s.

The sad thing is, even if Bethesda did take more care in its procedural generation system, these kinds of gamers would absolutely, 100% still find a way to make fun of the BIPOC NPCs, because they do that with every game. But that’s why I still put some of the blame on Bethesda: In 2023, I’d like to think these major devs know better. “Bigger is better” doesn’t mean much when it gives fuel to bigots.

(featured image: Bethesda Softworks)

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