Starfield came out the same week I found out I was being laid off.
I’d known it was coming, the writing was on the wall. But no amount of mental preparation makes the blow any easier when it does come. I spent every day that week trudging home from the office with a sense of hopelessness dragging like weights on my legs. I was so exhausted I would pass out on the couch and wake up several hours later, confused, hungry from having missed dinner, and panicked because there was a part of my brain that was quick to pummel me for wasting time doing nothing productive.
And then of course I’d lie awake all night with my mind racing; what if I can’t find another job, how am I going to afford my rent, do I have enough to pay bills through the end of the year, how can I ration unemployment effectively, on and on and on. It’s a cycle that’s nearly impossible to break when your immediate future feels so back-breakingly uncertain.
I had pre-ordered the premium edition of Starfield, which meant I would have access to the game a full 5 days before the official launch. Since I’m a streamer, I figured it was a good excuse to gather my community of fellow nerds and dive into the latest Bethesda RPG with gusto. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an avid Bethesda loyalist, but I have a fondness and nostalgia for Skyrim and a deep love for the hundreds of hours I burned in Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4.
I find my greatest joy in games that I can completely disappear into. The kinds of games so vast, with avenues in so many different directions, I can wander in one direction and end up pulling on a thread that leads to 17 others I wasn’t expecting. Starfield has proven that in spades for me, at a time when I’ve really needed it.
About a week into my playthrough, when the stress and anxiety of my impending layoff started to kick in, I retreated further into my self imposed isolation. It’s always been my response to high levels of stress. Even before I heard the news, I was dealing with depression that was overwhelming, making it difficult to concentrate at work, or focus on my personal hobbies. A recent ADHD diagnosis wasn’t helping either. There’s the old adage, “When it rains, it pours,” but this was–is, a torrential downpour, a category 5 hurricane. And I wasn’t talking to anybody about it.
I started canceling streams, sleeping all day, doom scrolling social media. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for a few very concerned and very forthright friends, I’d probably still be in my isolated hovel somewhere. Finally, on Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, I pulled myself off the couch, combed my hair, put on my best “I’m completely fine” smile, and hit “Go Live,” not because I wanted to, but because I felt like I needed to. Turns out, I was right.
There’s no shortage of main missions, side quests, or curiosities to set your sights on in Starfield. But that particular night, nothing seemed interesting. It felt like flipping through channels on the TV and finding nothing to watch. That’s the worst part about depression, being robbed of your joys at a time when you desperately need them the most.
There was nothing I wanted more that night than to retreat into the cosmos and find myself on some far off planet with Sam or Vasco or Barrett, and learn more about them and this particular slice of the universe that they occupied. But everything was static. A void with no direction, no guide.
“Where’s our solar system?” someone in chat asked.
It was only at this point, about 15 hours into my playthrough, that I realized I hadn’t explored my home solar system at all. Aside from one story mission that brought me to Mars, I hadn’t even given it a second thought. With so many solar systems to explore, so many planets and moons uncharted, everything felt a bit overwhelming most of the time.
In any case, I set a course for the Sol System (the in-game lingo for our very own home solar system), and felt a rush of familiarity at the sight of Earth, the Moon, Mars, Saturn, Neptune. Even Uranus. The star map in front of me felt like a poster in my 5th grade science classroom; a swath of worlds, vast, unique, full of a sort of comforting mystery that had always been their essence. And for the first time, I could explore them in this pseudo-realistic setting, the closest I would ever get to seeing another planet with my own eyes.
“I want to go to Saturn,” I blurted, almost in spite of myself.
The chat started humming with life. Squeals of enthusiasm, rapid fire fun facts about the solar system, a series of hilarious names we would name a planet if we got the chance. It felt like we were all suddenly 10 years old again, kicking our feet in our chairs in science class, staring up at a projector with a massive, albeit blurry, image of Saturn, speckled with factoids around it.
Except this time, as my ship sped out of its loading screen, Saturn took form in crisp 4K and 60 frames per second, and my voice caught in my throat. There it was, in front of my very own eyeballs, the gas giant with rings that had captivated my imagination since I was a little girl.
I’m old enough and confident enough in my lot in life to know that I will never be an astronaut. I will never be able to look upon my home planet from some distant orbit, let alone Saturn or any other planet. But Bethesda did something special with Starfield, something I have yet to see in any other space exploration game I’ve played; it gave me realism.
I could look upon Saturn and Saturn’s golden hued rings of rock and ice, pulsing at thousands of miles an hour in its orbit around the gas giant, and see exactly what I could expect to see if I was really looking down upon it with my own eyes. Aside from the idle humming of my ship’s engines, the silence of space hung between me and this, until now, unknowable, inaccessible planet. It was as real as it had been in any book I’ve ever read, any documentary I’ve ever watched, any dream I’ve ever dreamed.
Naturally, it’s not possible to land on Saturn; it’s a gas giant, after all, and as disappointed as I was, I gotta give Bethesda credit for sticking to the realism and maintaining that boundary. But I flew in earnest to Titan, and then Enceladus, and then Tethys. I clambered over the ice peaks on Enceladus to find Saturn on the horizon, and amidst a black sky packed with stars, there were also endless possibilities. How many of those stars could I travel to? Land on? Find respite in the same way I found it here?
We flew to Jupiter, and then we landed on Io and Callisto. We flew to Neptune, and we made Spongebob jokes as we orbited, and I put on my best Mr. Krabs voice. We flew to Mercury, and my controller battery turned off because I went idle too long while listening to one of my chatters, a literal astrophysicist, explain the ridiculous temperature shifts that happen at Mercury’s poles.
We flew to Venus, and another one of my chatters, a literal geologist (yes, I have some pretty remarkable friends), explained how some of the chasms are so deep you would fall for 6 minutes straight. And yes, we even flew to Uranus, and I don’t think I need to go over the endless cascade of puns that transpired.
In all, I spent over 10 hours exploring our solar system, over the course of a couple of days. Every planet, every moon on which I could land and traverse the rocky, lifeless landscapes. I landed on Earth’s moon and stood in front of the Apollo Lunar Module and American flag. I stood on a craggy peak on Enceladus and Tethys and stared at Saturn on a starry horizon, with unfiltered sunlight cascading onto the icy landscape. I fell into at least seven different crevices on Mercury and took a healthy amount of fall damage (I deserved it).
I pondered the rings around Neptune, and Uranus, and Jupiter. Not because any of these explorations solved my problems; I’m still being laid off, I’m still depressed, I still have trouble sleeping. But there’s some small voice that reaches out every time I hop into my ship and launch myself into space. It’s quiet, unassuming, as if it doesn’t wish to overstay its welcome. But it’s there, and as I crest some new horizon or find myself on the edge of a new galaxy, I hear it plain as day.
“Keep going,” it says. “Just keep going.”