Somewhere in the mid to late 2000s, Bethesda got really good at making RPG side quests. I love Morrowind to bits, don't get me wrong—it certainly has the best main campaign Bethesda's ever done—but something hits different with Oblivion, Skyrim, and Fallout 3's consistently excellent side stories.
Morrowind often just sees you clearing out a cave or collecting a macguffin and returning it for a reward. That's fine enough, and these side quests can't all be Shakespeare, but the name of the game in middle-period Bethesda is variety. Take Fallout 3's standout The Replicated Man. This mission sees you sleuthing through the inhabitants of Rivet City like a post-apocalyptic Rick Deckard, trying to determine which of these citizens is a human pretending to be an android, all at the behest of a morally dubious employer. It's well-written and intriguing, with a mix of gameplay options, as well, combining dialogue, exploration, and light combat and culminating in a defining, if pretty clear-cut, moral choice.
One of my favorites in Oblivion is An Unexpected Voyage, which takes you by surprise the first time you sleep at the Imperial City's low-rent houseboat hotel, the Bloated Float. You wake up to find it under attack by pirates, and have to fight through a quirky miniboss squad of the ne'er do wells as you make your way from the bowels of the ship to the captain's cabin to wrest the helm away and return to shore.
Skyrim is loaded with stuff like this, quests like A Night to Remember, Blood on the Ice, or Waking Nightmare burned into my brain. That's not to mention both of these Elder Scrolls games' phenomenal faction questlines, which serve almost as alternate, even superior main quests in and of themselves. I've heard the derisive prediction of Starfield being "Skyrim in space," and whenever I hear that I think, "No, that's exactly what I want:" an admittedly janky world suffused with lovingly-crafted stories, now scaled up to a full galaxy.
What I remain afraid of is "Fallout 4 in space." I like that game a lot—it's got the best combat Bethesda's ever done, and crouch walking through a cave headshotting or backstabbing guys has never felt better. It's just lacking the masterful side content I crave.
There's a few standouts like the great Silver Shroud quest, but the ratio of these missions to filler is all off. In so much of Fallout 4 you're saddled with "Radiant" quests, procedurally generated objectives that allow for "infinite fun." In practice, my freedom fighter buddies at The Railroad just kept sending me to pick up macguffins in dungeons I'd already cleared. Those faction missions are a blur of pointless drudgery, while previous factions like Oblivion's guilds or Dark Brotherhood provided a cavalcade of knockout quests, each distinct from all the others.
Don't even get me started about how in Fallout 4, some dork Revolutionary War reenactor would never leave my house, always hollering at me about how some "settlement" (read: three no-name NPCs in a shack) needed my help now. If I ever made the mistake of giving them my precious free time? Well thanks to Radiant questing I would never run out of stepped-on shacks full of glorified talking mannequins that needed saving. Preston would always let me know. Sorry man, I have to go save my son, Shaun. Have I mentioned him recently?
In Starfield, I know a lot of those one million, gajillion planets are going to have to be populated with Radiant-style content. I just hope Bethesda's had the wherewithal and the space to get the mix right this time—your filler needs to be cut with something good, and for all the compulsive, soporific "forever content" you're required by law to have in an open-world game now, I want enough of the surprising little yarns Bethesda's so good at weaving.
I want distress beacons that aren't what they seem, deserted research camps next to unspeakably ancient monoliths, and sympathetic outlaws who have fled to the edge of the frontier and will live or die by my hand. I want Skyrim in Space, basically, maybe with a little bit of Mass Effect 1's perennially underrated uncharted worlds mixed in for good measure.