Visiting Earth in Starfield is a rather sad homecoming. I land my ship in the state of Florida and it looks nothing like the state I know. Rather than seeing the open ocean, twisting mangroves, and lush tropical plants, a desert covers the land as far as the eye can see. I, a Xenobiologist, scan the planet and see there’s no flora or fauna left; only basic Earth minerals remain. The planet is quite literally a husk of its former self.
Earth’s dismal state doesn’t come as a surprise in the game. Before I even go to our solar system or see the planet on the map, a man at a kiosk on a more prosperous planet tells me that people do their best to avoid the system and that no one wants to be assigned to live there. The only occupied planet in the solar system is Mars, and its inhabitants live in a fully contained and sealed industrial facility, like packed fish in a dusty can. Apparently, Mars is preferable to trying to set up shop on Earth, and I can see why.
As I use my spaceship to quickly hop from continent to continent, the landscape looks barren. To walk around, I need to suit up fully because there’s no oxygen anymore. Although I’m aware that a handful of monuments withstood the destruction, every continent looks just as desolate as the next, more or less. If I’m lucky, I might happen upon a meteor crash site or some mud flats, but by and large, it’s nothing but dust and dirt.
Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon
Starfield takes place in the year 2330. In the course of the game, players learn the Earth’s magnetosphere collapsed following the invention of the grav drive, a technology that enables spaceships to travel faster than light. Following the collapse of Earth, several nations banded together to start a mass evacuation of the planet. In the world of the game, humans have been scattered across the universe, with many living on the oxygen-rich planet of Jemison.
The trope of an uninhabitable Earth is a rather common one in science fiction. In Doctor Who, a future history foresees the mass evacuation of Earth following solar flares. In Star Trek: Discovery, the people of Terralysium believe they are the only humans left in the universe, and Star Trek: Enterprise takes place in an alternate timeline where the Xindi destroyed the Earth. The 2001 horror sci-fi Jason X shows a class of college students going on a field trip to a ruined Earth.
The destruction of Earth lends a potent message to sci-fi stories, and for good reason. Fictional worlds can explore salient political and social themes that are relevant to the times in which they are written. Sci-fi at its best often tends to be prophetic and rooted in a deep understanding of current social issues, like climate change and the impact of human industry. Shift realities to the Earth we know in the year 2023, and Starfield’s environmentalist messages read as salient as any.
The year 2023 has felt like a key period for tracking climate change and its impacts. In July, Earth saw its warmest month on record, with even hotter ones to come, and ocean waters have warmed to record-breaking temperatures. An extensive report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that Earth will likely cross a critical threshold for global warming within the next decade if governments don’t take aggressive action.
Even in light of the current state of our real Earth’s environment, much of the possible environmental impacts of players’ actions in Starfield aren’t exactly front and center. The invention of the grav drive may have destroyed Earth, but my rocket will endlessly refuel with no consequences, and I’m free to mine planets for any resources or objects I want. Still, the game nudges in subtle messages as players reach the mainline campaign quest to visit Earth. In these moments, Starfield allows us to imagine a future where humanity made the greatest technological leap possible — but it didn’t save the Earth. It destroyed it.