I'm a fan of the modern Bethesda RPG, having spent nearly 100 hours with Fallout 4 - which, for me, is a lot more time than I'm usually willing to give up. My fondest memories lie with Oblivion, because I think it captured exploration beautifully. I liked emerging from a big cave as a big nobody and striking out along a cobbled path, excited to go for a summer's walk. Skyrim abandoned Oblivion's warmth for your average fantasyland, but kept the great outdoors.
If I don't have an objective in Starfield, I sort of freeze over and don't really know where to turn. And even if I do, I perform a deep sigh and open up my menus and curl myself into a pinball, ready to get pinged around the innards of whatever can lies beyond the airlock in front of me. So far, Starfield's adventuring forces me indoors and it's a shame.
When in Oblivion, I might follow the geography of the valley as it winds into the distance. Perhaps I'll traipse along a dirt path and see whatever mysterious marker appears on my compass. In many of Bethesda's past efforts, I'm comfortable in the unknown because I know my place within the world. There's a map I can bring up and I'm on there - a small speck, maybe, but I'm there all the same. Zoom out and I might get smaller, but the camera's bump on the invisible ceiling marks Cyrodiil's bounds. I'm free to imagine what lies beyond the oceans or in the boundless expanse of space above me, but it's Cyrodiil I'm chartering.
With Starfield, I open my map and it's either a blue screen covered with some icons, or I zoom out and it morphs into a bazillion planets. Where am I in the grand scheme? I suppose I'm on planet X, Y, or Z, but if I close my map and look around me, I'm often in the confines of a metal room or staring out a dark, flat expanse. To wander in Starfield is to crunch along some barren rocks until I crave the confines of an outpost, or an abandoned research facility. Anything to get inside.
It's inside where I garner any sense of adventure. I can learn the various departments of Cydonia's hub, and what stairs lead to the shady leader who's asked me to destroy his ship for him, no questions asked. One quest has me attempt to steal some famous liquor from him; I nudged it to the floor with a notebook and rolled it into a corner out of his line of sight. Later, I learn I am told to take the liquor to another city across the stars, with the journey there being another dark rifle through some menus until I appear within some walls, then walk into a smaller set of walls. Being outside means being in a vast space, but being inside means spending some time in a changing space, where people exist and rumours spread.
Because of this, if I look at my time with Starfield, I can't say I've done much exploring. A lot of my time has been spent appearing at the doorstep of cities and offices, with the occasional long jog to some guy's house to nab his unpaid rent or something. I do my task, then I open my menu and I'm basically indoors again. The shutters of the star map slams down. The walls of the menu let me skip the flat planes of nothingness and plop me outside whatever establishment I need to enter.
Honestly, it reminds me of my brief stints in LA. As much as there are parts of LA I love, I resent how it's built with cars in mind and does little to accommodate people who just want to go for a nice wander somewhere. To adventure in LA is to pull up the equivalent of your starmap and see what boxes are good to eat at or what specific area might have a community of boxes, to then be chauffeured between them so you spend as little time outside as possible.
I suppose Starfield's argument would hinge on fast travel being a necessity, as without it you'd have loads of folks getting tired of travelling between planets in real-time. Makes sense! I mean, I wouldn't want a space game where I'm forced to boost between rocks in hour-long stints. And technically I'm never compelled not to fast travel. The option to take my time and motor along the galaxy is there, after all. But I feel like I've got to take the loading screen shuttle because it's probably the only way I'm able to see anything outside of minerals and a slightly large outcrop of rocks. And in a sense I very much am forced, because even flying to a planet from orbit takes hours.
When it comes to other Bethesda RPGs, there's a lovely mixture of wandering about outside punctuated by a lot of dipping inside. You've either got the wonder of emerging from a dangerous bunker unharmed to the piercing light of the wasteland, or the itch to open your map and place your finger on the next town along the way. When you set off, you never quite know what you're going to encounter. Starfield might be home to many planets, but its connective tissue lies largely in the tangle of a menu, and its adventures largely confined to the manmade - not even the weird alienmade!