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Starfield design director Emil Pagliarulo says you may find God in its space — or lose faith

Asking big questions of a team asking big questions

An astronaut walks toward a glowing orb-like structure referred to by Bethesda as “the temple” in Starfield Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

In the five years since Bethesda Softworks first announced Starfield, much of the conversation has been focused on the endless possibilities that await players within the game’s web of planets and choices. There’s complex character and personality creation, a spectrum of geography all tricked out with the latest lighting and physics technology, customizable spaceships and space teams from highly dimensional NPCs, and loads of other bells and whistles to take advantage of the current generation of consoles.

One thing that’s not as foregrounded in the buildup to Bethesda’s next big thing: the narrative that will carry players through this newly created world. A few weeks before the game’s Sept. 6 launch, Polygon editor Owen Good spoke to Starfield lead designer Emil Pagliarulo, a veteran of the studio whose resume includes The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim and Fallout games, about constructing a universe — full of history and ideologically driven populations — from the ground up. Pagliarulo and the Bethesda team aimed to ask bigger questions than most science fiction games of its ilk. Here’s how.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

A tight horizontal crop of a Starfield spaceship gravdrive jumping through space Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Polygon: You embarked on a hell of a creative journey by developing an entirely new IP, so how do you begin on something like that? You have trusted people around you, you have structure that you can lean on, but when you get the call of “We’re doing sci-fi and have to make it all up” — was it intimidating?

Emil Pagliarulo: No, it wasn’t, it was exciting. The scale of the project hadn’t hit me at the time. It really was just like the beginning of a Fallout game or working on Elder Scrolls stuff — it was fun. The very beginning was [game director] Todd Howard and [art director] Istvan Pely and myself, Istvan on the art side, me on the design side, Todd putting everything together, having conversations that we had just like we would about Fallout. There was excitement of building on new IP and where we could go and what we could do.

What seems intimidating is not always that there are too many cooks in the kitchen, but many separate kitchens. What were the narrative responsibilities? How was Todd involved?

Basically, it was up to me to create the lore. Todd had the game idea, and I would create the lore. And every time I would create it, I would pass it through Todd.

For example, the United Colonies as a faction. That starts with conversations with Todd: All right, cool, what do we want the big factions to be? I was thinking this. So like the United faction is Battlestar Galactica, Starfleet, the structured society, military type of stuff, for that sort of power fantasy, that sort of vibe. So we would talk, we’d agree, and then I would go off and go find a name for that — the United Colonies was one of them, and there are others on a list. A lot of the work early on goes back and forth through email! When we signed off on “the United Colonies,” I would start the process for building up the lore from the ground up.

But to go a little further on that, with games like Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, you have established canon and creative expectations set from people that you work with. Here, you’re innovating with two purposes: one is to establish lore, and then the other is applying a personal story. How does the lore of Starfield become the story of Starfield?

The story of Starfield, as opposed to the lore... So there’s the main quest, and one of the things that Todd and Istvan and I talked about early on was: We are making a video game, there’s gonna be a main quest, but we really want to dig into the sort of the kind of high-level stuff with exploring space, the more theological aspects of it.

We talked a lot about religion, and we ended up making up two religions for the game. All the existing religions are still there in the world, in the universe, but we focus on the two new ones because those two religions accentuate the vibe of theology in the game. So there’s the Sanctum Universum, and they’re sort of the church where they believe that humans going through space and being able to explore the universe is a sign that God exists, and God wants us to be closer to him. And then there’s the Enlightened, basically an atheist church. They’re humanists; they’re just like, There’s nothing theological about this. And so we would have a lot of talks on our own journeys, our own theology. You know, what is out there? We were really inspired by things like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Contact or Interstellar — these really sort of heady sci-fi concepts.

[Religion] was a way to talk about these big concepts but not dive too far down the rabbit hole — you don’t want to offend people. We actually had Shane Liesegang, who was one of our writers [on Skyrim and Fallout 4]... He’s now studying to be a Jesuit priest. We talked to him about: If we were to make this real, this religion, what would we do? How would we write it? And so he advised us and did some writing for us, he wrote for the Sanctum Universum, and it really grounded it in the believable.

A player stared down a long hallway in Starfield Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

I’ve heard you talk about how the Dark Brotherhood in Skyrim was sort of a take on Catholicism, which makes sense to me since you were raised in the slightly Catholic city of Boston. So does this grappling with religion feel like a personal expression in Starfield? Poking that snake in something where you’re basically expected to be scientific and objective, and you’ve decided to go into metaphysical direction?

I think people know about the science, and it’s really about asking: Why do we want to go into space? What do we hope to find? You know, William Shatner, Captain Kirk himself, went into space and came back and says, “It was terrifying. There’s nothing out there.” That makes you think.

Todd and I both grew up in religious settings. I grew up Catholic, obviously, but I think [Starfield] has more to do with where I’m at in my life now. I’ve flip-flopped from agnostic to atheist probably five times in the course of making this game. That’s why both views are represented in the game. There’s the atheist view, there’s the more agnostic, religious view, but we don’t answer that question for the player. We don’t say what’s out there or what’s causing their thing — it’s open to interpretation. Players have gotten other things before, the science, the exploration, meeting the alien race that wants to invade. Those are all great. I love all those things. But we wanted to know if we could tackle a bit of a larger story in a game, something that one of these great movies accomplished.

An open-ended RPG, much less one that is set in the vastness of space, offers dozens of rabbit holes that you can go down. How did you keep yourself from going down rabbit holes as you built out the story and the characters and the things that were most important? Did you leave some of that rabbit hole stuff to supporting writers? How did you keep yourself focused on the story that you wanted to tell?

That’s a good question. The way I was able to do it is really just experience, having done it before. I think Bethesda as a studio and our culture... These are the kinds of games we make, these are the games in our DNA. And we have the processes in place to meet these.

Here’s the high level on how writing works: I come up with the main quest and the main story. I talk it through with Todd, he’ll give me course corrections, we’ll change things, but we were synced up pretty closely. And then I come up with the factions and the high-level storyline of each faction. I come up with the cities, and which ones were occupied. Like Akila City is on the planet Akila and the Cheyenne system — I come up with the high-level world-building. That’s during pre-production. When we start production and the other designers come on, that’s when I will work with the designers to flesh everything out. So the quest designer and the level designer who are assigned to the United Colonies, I’m talking to them. Here’s what the story is, and OK, how about we do this? We’re talking it through and they’ll start implementing it really soon after. It’s not like I am writing a giant design doc. It’s small.

That sounds similar to how you’ve described working on Skyrim, where after a certain point the strict process is free to go in any direction.

One process that we never had before that was new [to Starfield], that was fun, was coming up with a timeline of events. That’s sort of where we started. So if the game starts in 2330, we really have to know what happened in the 200 years leading up to that. That’s going to inform, like, a colony war that, you know, the Narion War, all the conflicts in the universe and how the factions feel about each other, the place of House Va’ruun and where they’re at. And so making the timeline was important.

It’s not to say nothing is documented; everything is. But it’s not like there’s a giant design doc where the whole game is outlined. There was a design doc that talks about the Freestar Collective. And there’s a little design doc that talks about the United Colonies. And those get updated by the designers as they’re doing their work. So a lot of the stuff is outdated if you look, and so that’s why we use the game itself as the actual working documents.

An astronaut in the cockpit of a spacecraft sitting on a planet in Starfield. Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

And without prying for too many spoilers, how does that time connect back to the theme of Starfield? How does that become your story?

The real high level of the story is like, Are we alone in the universe in one place? “What is the meaning of the universe” sounds pretty heady, but we kind of go there a little bit, we get into some pretty existential stuff in the main story. We’ve talked a lot about “NASA-punk” as being a theme of Starfield, that NASA really helps to describe the visual language of Starfield and the technology level. But you could say the same thing about Interstellar, and that’s not really what Interstellar is about. Starfield is really about that NASA-punk vibe and connecting us in the game to NASA in real space technology, but even when you look at NASA... Why does NASA go into space? What are we trying to get out there?

The funny thing is that the big NASA news recently is how they lost contact with the Voyager. The V’ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture! The Voyager probe that was launched in the ’70s has that gold record. And I was explaining to my wife, she’s like, What’s the record for? It’s for any extraterrestrial. And if another species finds it, they’ll be able to know who we are. So, like, even NASA was thinking about that back in the ’70s. We’ll always [be] thinking about it.

So is there an aspect of the game that is about that search for sentient alien life?

No, not necessarily. It’s a start. It’s trying to figure out, what is it a search for? We’ve showed that we’ve made some artifacts in the game, and we’ve showed some some weird stuff — we’re raising the question early on. Is this extraterrestrial? Is it something else?

In the game there is Constellation, this exploratory organization, which sounds like it leans right into that idea.

In the very beginning, there’s a character, Matteo, he’s a young sort of theologian in Constellation. He immediately goes to: This is a sign of a higher intelligence, of a god or something. At the very beginning, we have characters thinking that, but we don’t allude that it’s aliens at the beginning, or that it’s God; we are just throwing the idea out there. And we want the player to think about it themselves.

When you look at the galaxy as a whole, [Starfield’s] settled systems is a really a small pocket. And looking at where humans are, there’s the United Colonies, there’s the Freestar Collective, and the vibe of the settled systems is sort of like 1935-ish... The Colony War was like World War I. But stuff is brewing. There’s a lot of tension. Constellation is really the group that is still like, No one else is exploring anymore. We have to keep exploring. There’s a line in the beginning from Heller, he’s like, Ain’t the space we got big enough? or something like that. And the responses are like, Not to them, apparently, meaning Constellation. Constellation is still pushing the boundaries. They want to know what’s out there. They want to know about these weird things that they’re finding — what are they all about? Where do they come from? No one else seems to care. No one else seems to know the extent of what’s going on, but everyone else is squabbling. And no one’s concerned with exploring.

You’ve said — and it’s stuck with players in different ways — that when you write a big role-playing game, you have to accept that some people are going to spend all their time building shacks. But Constellation almost sounds like a narrative-device argument for players to stay on task, to follow the story, even though the game gives them the option to go rogue and become a pirate. Do you agree with that?

Yeah, I do. That was a conscious decision. Early on, we were looking at the main quest of our other games. What was really popular in Fallout 4? It was the companions. But we didn’t want to necessarily pigeonhole the player into being a good person or a bad person. So Constellation was a good way of having this neutral element. Sarah Morgan, who’s running the whole thing, is like, Look, I don’t care how you get these things. I don’t care how you accomplish our goal — sort of turning a blind eye because she’s not personally involved — but we need to we need to solve this. So, like, Vlad was an ex-pirate. You have people with shady backgrounds in Constellation, and that’s OK.

The other thing was that the companions were so important in Fallout 4 that we really wanted to make them essential to the main quest and be really part of that narrative. So the companions that you can get, the members of Constellation — there are other companions you can get as well, but we really focus on the Constellation ones as being the ones you need, the ones that you get to really know. And tying those relationships into the main quests in ways, too.

A tight vertical crop of a screenshot from Starfield featuring an astronaut standing atop a mountain looking at the blue sky above a rocky alien planet Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

Speaking of Fallout 4, the game had a voiced protagonist, while Starfield will not. Was that a deliberate choice in response to fan reactions to Fallout 4?

Not directly, but it certainly played into it. Early on in the game, we did have a voiced protagonist. In pre-production, the plan was to have a voiced protagonist. We hired an actor, we got the voice, we listened to him and we were like, You know what, this guy is too specific. So then what are the options? Do we have, like some RPGs do, four voices? Do we have one voice, but hire someone else who’s more convenient? But [in Starfield] you can make every different type of person. We realized that the only way to really do it and let the player be the person they want to be was to have an unvoiced protagonist.

There was a time in the industry where every protagonist was voiced. It was a AAA thing. We started realizing, You know what, maybe that’s not the case, maybe fans will actually enjoy the game even more... I mean, we played with different things. There’s a big argument, if in Fallout 4 and other RPGs, players don’t like reading a line of dialogue, a player response, and then they click it and get [a different spoken line]. But the problem is, then you read it, and then you click it, and you have to wait for them to say the same thing. So that’s not ideal either. So then we just arrived at, What if we just go text? and it was just really freeing. And, I mean, we have over 200,000 lines of spoken dialogue in Starfield with no voiced protagonists. And it was not having a voiced protagonist that allowed us to create such a big world.

How involved are you with a script that has 200,000 lines of dialogue? How do you make sure it all has nuance and doesn’t feel like someone reading out of a book at a lecture in a college hall?

There are a couple of things there. One is, again, experience, having been reviewing the designers’ dialogue for so long and really wanting to differentiate Starfield from Elder Scrolls and Fallout. It was a bit of a challenge going from from Skyrim to Fallout 4, when the designers want to write their shopkeepers, like, “Hello and well met!” It’s a tonal shift. Even from Fallout to Starfield, really pushing concise dialogue and realistic dialogue. How do people really talk? A lot of that would come out as I would constantly playtest this stuff from the designers. “There’s a lot of dialogue here. I’m clicking like four times, you can cut this down.” So copy editing is a big part of that process! And trimming that dialogue down.

One of the things about our editor — and plenty of people have worked in our editor now because we released it publicly — is that at the very start of a project, there’s no art lead, the code base is just starting out, but the one thing we can do is write dialogue. The challenge from upfront is: Don’t tell the story through what we call “lore bombs.” There will be environmental storytelling that comes in; the level designers, when they build the levels, will tell half the story. And so we have a much better process in place for every quest line, having a quest designer paired up with a level designer, and then constantly talking and being in sync with each other to help tell the story visually as well as through the dialogue.

Have you ever gone back to play through something that you’ve written out, so you know how it all goes, but yet you found yourself having a completely different experience from what you intended when you wrote it?

100%. I think a good example of that is the conversation with Father in the Institute in Fallout 4. I worked with a designer on that, Brian Chapin. And we went back and forth over, Who is this Father character? Why is he motivated to do these things? When I wrote the character, I understood his motivations — it’s very sympathetic. But in the game, when I played through it, it depended on who I’ve aligned with. If I was aligned with the railroad, and then I get to Father and, it’s like, This fucking guy, he’s such a... And that’s a testament to how [well] the team puts together the rest of the game, so that when you get to these moments, you’re like — even the person who came up with the concept is like, Wow, I didn’t know that I was gonna feel this way.

Starfield launches Sept. 6 for Windows PC and Xbox Series X, and will be a day-one launch on Xbox Game Pass.