If you missed the Xbox and Bethesda showcase at Summer Game Fest, you missed some cool games and a whole lot of Starfield at the end. It was the most we’ve seen of Bethesda’s upcoming sci-fi RPG, and even as a person who doesn’t usually love the studio’s games, it looks pretty rad. I love me some space shit and living out the power fantasy of not living on the hellish spinning rock we know as Earth. But despite how cool the game looked, I couldn’t stop thinking about something that happened at the very beginning of the show when Microsoft made a preemptive statement about Starfield so bizarre I thought I misheard it, initially.
Following the Star Wars Outlaws trailer, Head of Xbox Creator Experience Sarah Bond took the stage to talk about games coming up in the show, including Starfield. Bond probably didn’t write the script, so none of this is directed at her personally. But as she discusses the show, she mentions that it’s a double feature. One half of the showcase will be the usual rundown of games from both Xbox’s first-party studios and various partners, the second half will be a deep dive into “one of the most important RPGs ever made: Starfield.”
It’s just one sentence, but it is more loaded than a baked potato. Sure, showcases like these are usually full of hype. But it’s not often we get marketing speak that’s not only hyperbolic, but preemptive and self-aggrandizing before it’s had a chance to prove itself.
First of all, Starfield is not even out yet. To speak to something’s importance before anyone in the public has so much as played the game in a demo capacity is absurd, and is dripping with hubris just waiting to be slipped on. Look to something like Cyberpunk 2077, a game that was so hyped up in its marketing that when it inevitably came crashing down at its poor launch, the game would never be able to recover. Even during talks of that game’s supposed renaissance, those conversations are always full of asterisks and caveats, rather than the glowing praise it was given before it launched.
This isn’t to say Starfield will be a Cyberpunk 2077-style disaster. On the contrary, I’m more inclined to believe Bethesda has made enough games on this scale that Starfield will at least be competent (though Fallout 76 gives me pause). But when we’ve seen games go from headliners of the industry hype machine to internet laughing stocks, I’m surprised any company, no matter how confident they might be, would lead with this type of messaging. If things go poorly, this kind of statement is just begging to be clipped and edited into montages of bugs and crashes.
But really, I shouldn’t be surprised. Microsoft dumped $US7.5 billion into acquiring Bethesda. You don’t throw that much cash around to not hype up your next big game. According to Xbox leadership, the company and brand is in a great place, even if it’s taking its sweet time actually getting the games it’s been investing in out the door. Being publicly confident in the game you’re putting out, even if it ends up being a dud like Redfall, is all part of selling your product to the public. But making sweeping claims about how important your unreleased, new IP video game product you’re selling this holiday is when you have no actual basis for calling it “one of the most important” RPGs steps over the line of what we normally see in the video game hype machine.
This isn’t exclusively a Microsoft problem. Sony and its partners have been especially bad about this with The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic franchise has been in the news a lot this year because of its successful HBO adaptation. During the promotional cycle for the show, showrunner Craig Mazin said Joel and Ellie’s cross-country road trip was “the greatest story ever told in video games.” Even before all this, Naughty Dog’s messaging around The Last of Us had just been weird. When the company unveiled the Last of Us Part I remake for PS5, it was alongside long, drawn-out conversations between the people who made the thing like Director Neil Druckmann and actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson about how important it has been to the medium as pre-orders went live. Even if I agree with the notion that The Last of Us is important (which, to be clear, I do), hearing someone who wants me to buy something insist upon its legacy feels like we’re reaching a point where the people who profit are the ones who think they’re the ones who determine the cultural mark a game should leave behind.
Let’s get it straight: Suits don’t get to tell us a game is important. They’re not the ones who make that decision, players are. And as video games desperately chase for some imagined legitimacy in the public eye as if they aren’t the most profitable entertainment medium on the planet, companies are becoming more comfortable at asserting their games are culturally important before anyone has gotten the chance to play them. Bond might be beholden to what the teleprompter tells her to say, but we don’t have to believe it. Starfield may one day become one of the most important RPGs of all time. Skyrim certainly has. But if someone is already insisting a game is going to leave a mark on the medium, remain sceptical, because they’re trying to sell you something.
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