This story contains minor spoilers for Starfield.
About ten hours into my Starfield playthrough, I started collecting ‘Earth books’ for fun. I thought it would be a fun personality quirk; my celestial cowboy scuttling across systems looking for long-lost literary links to the past. Forget precious ores and mysterious celestial relics, I wanted art, and Starfield’s cluttered landscapes allowed me to cram my cargo hold full of whatever junk I desired.
For as long as I can remember, I (and many others) have been sprinting around in Bethesda’s vast, open worlds, hoovering up every form of trinket and treasure we can find. Often it’s something useful, like a rare or valuable resource. For the most part, it’s just junk – it’s worthless, you can’t consume it or craft with it, whether it’s books, weird ornaments or far more potatoes than you could ever need.
Why is it all there? How is it made? And perhaps most importantly – why has Bethesda stuck to its guns on filling its RPGs with endless items, and why are we so compelled to collect them?
To answer these burning queries, I sought out the best possible representatives for Bethesda’s art of clutter. John Valenti, Lead Set Dressing Artist and Robert Wisnewski, Lead Props Artist, have worked together to create thousands of assets for Bethesda’s roster of mammoth titles, from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion right up to Starfield. If anyone can explain how this stuff works, it’s them.
So, where do they start? Wisnewski laughs and says while this question might sound simple, it really isn’t. The short answer is, Bethesda began with a huge list of items that Starfield absolutely needed, but by the end of development, that list was about 20 times bigger than their original estimate. One of the main things that guides this ever-growing list of objects is lore created by the wider team.
“We try and learn about the people that inhabit these cities, settlements, and outposts, including factions,” Valenti explains. “What are they like? How do people live and what items would they need to survive? What types of jobs would people have out in the settled systems? What items would they need to use to complete their tasks?”
The research gets even more granular; the team starts to consider the personalities of the individual NPCs that inhabit a particular space, be it a politician, an outlaw, or a miner. What objects would a worker have on their desk? What tools would a medical professional have? What personal items would they keep? All of these small questions contribute to the larger picture of these environments, that are all deeply personal to the characters that live within them.
With thousands of different little items to contend with, a management system is needed. This is where ‘clutter sets’ come in – groups of objects that are organised in some way, be it individual assets that can be used to form other objects – kind of like game dev Lego – or, for smaller items, bits that are pooled together by a theme. Wisnewski tells us that it’s not viable to make unique clutter for every single space in a game as expansive as Starfield, so objects are created with multiple uses in mind.
All of Starfield’s environments are populated by hand. There’s a system that can randomly generate important gameplay loot, such as ammo, healing items, and thematic objects for quest rewards, but anything considered ‘non-essential’ – every mug, every coffee stain, every scuff mark on the floor – is placed with intent, and with a personal touch.
“Set dressing is best when artists are doing the work and making the decisions about what should go where,” Wisnewski says. “We generally feel better when things are done that way. I feel there’s no better source material than what you see in the real world. I look at ceilings and lights. Some of the pipework and cables in the Zenimax building were inspiration for ceilings in Starfield. Stains on buildings. Construction sites. Airports. Recycling centers and landfills are a goldmine for ideas to me.”
Wisnewski adds that he often envisions himself in game locations before populating them, and the pair have even added easter eggs from their real lives to Starfield‘s environments. One example is a set of plushies arranged like the cover of The Ten Apples Up on Top by Dr Seuss, which Wisnewksi highlights as a nod to his children. This arrangement of objects appears randomly inside Starfield’s abandoned research towers.
“We could probably write a book about all of the little easter eggs that appear in our games,” he says.
We give our artists the creative freedom to make believable and lived spaces, and I believe that this is what makes our games so special, and it is why I love working on them.John Valenti
Valenti adds that it’s his goal to use miscellaneous objects to create a scene that has meaning, but is also open-ended enough for the player to come up with their own conclusion based on their own unique perspective. This is where that earlier research of environments and who occupies them comes in.
“I work with the designer to figure out who is inhabiting the location, run through the quest and get an idea of who they are, and [then] set dress and design that location based off their preferences and personalities,” Valenti explains. “If the location is unoccupied, I create my own characters – who occupies this location? – and flesh out their personality with things like what hobbies they have or what types of food they prefer. My approach to an occupied office or home will differ from an unoccupied one. People separate work from personal life, living differently from office to home. The office may be more minimalist, organized, and clean, while a home may be a bit more dishevelled, densely cluttered and have knickknacks scattered around on display.”
“We give our artists the creative freedom to determine what goes where and let them have fun with it to make believable and lived spaces, and I believe that this is what makes our games so special, and it is why I love working on them.“
One particularly prevalent theme in Starfield is the fate of Earth, and the story of its demise is represented in the artifacts that made their way from the now-abandoned planet into the Settled Systems. There are a number of different museums scattered across the galaxy that make a point of archiving a number of ‘key’ Earth objects, in the same way any real-world museum would, from everyday household items to historical milestones.
“The first location that pops into my mind regarding old Earth clutter is the NASA Museum,” Valenti tells me. “It was important for us to preserve and pay homage to early space flight in this museum, so we kept many of the museum model displays intact, so that they were not only recognizable to the player but also helped tell the main quest’s story.”
This location also gave players a chance to pick up interesting, thematic rewards that feed into the story about Earth. Valenti adds: “I felt like these items may not have been important enough for humans to take during the time of evacuation, but are important and interesting enough for the player to see as a collectable and worth taking home, whether that be their ship or outpost, for decoration.”
A second example stems from a Starfield sidequest, which follows the story of a colony ship that has been floating around in space for 200 years. The fate of the ECS Constant and its crew is up to the player, but the clutter found aboard the ship deftly weaves a tapestry of a small group of people suspended in time, and quite literally, space.
“We wanted to have some historic pieces on the ship, objects that we still use and hold dearly to this day – things like baseball trophies and basketballs – as well as some Earth produce that would be used throughout the Settled Systems,” Valenti explains. “It made sense to have some Earth-related clutter on the ship passed down [within families], and it made everything feel a bit more personal. These items are relatable and normal to us, and to the Constant members, but for other characters that live throughout the Settled Systems, these objects may have been ancient artifacts, or even ‘alien’. I find that to be a very interesting spin.”
Both the NASA Museum and the ECS Constant feel like very different locations, telling very different stories – and so much of that feeling comes from the clutter spread around within them. You might not notice it in the moment, but it’s clear that Bethesda Game Studios puts a huge premium on creating a vibe through junk alone.
Starfield‘s environments, both interior and exterior, begin as empty architectural shells, to which level designers and artists add a wide variety of medium and large objects to. This includes everything from machinery, electronics, light fixtures, containers, displays, shelving, rugs, furniture, signs – allobjects that a player can’t directly interact with.
Once those elements are in place, the smaller set dressing objects are used to further define and personalize the locations. This is the ‘clutter’ that the player can interact with; food, medical items, tabletop decorations, tools, sculptures, games and toys, minerals and inorganic objects, ammo boxes, switches – thousands upon thousands of different assets in total according to the pair.
Deciding which items should be immovable and which can be picked up is described by Valenti as a “challenging and interactive process” throughout the course of development. This is down to the sheer number of objects, how they interact with one another, and what feels right as a player. An item’s scale, value and functionality helps the team decide which category it should slot into.
“There is a visual component to these decisions as well.,” Valenti adds. “For example, if a storage box or a barrel is closed with a lid, it can be assumed that it is filled with something and that it is too heavy to move, so we make it a static object. Collectable objects are typically eye-catching items that are small enough to grab and go. If I want to place it in my outpost, I want to be able to loot it!”
Some larger items that don’t quite fit into those categories are marked as movable statics – objects that will, for example, fly across the room if they’re subject to an explosion. Wisnewski adds: “We make those items so environments seem more lively when gameplay physics occur: explosions, projectiles, powers, and NPCs/players bumping into them.”
Traditionally, Bethesda strives to give players the opportunity to loot as many things as possible from extremely interactive environments, and Wisnewski adds that the decision comes out of a very simple conclusion – players like to do it.
“Many people, myself included, love collecting objects in games, and lots of players love to use lootable items as decorations in their ships and outposts, or just for fun.” Wisnewski says. “For me, I do everything possible to find ways to exploit our systems during our testing phases in order to keep obscene amounts of items. Allowing our players the freedom to do absurd things with [physics-enabled] objects to make themselves and others laugh is really important to us.”
Allowing our players the freedom to do absurd things with [physics-enabled] objects to make themselves and others laugh is really important to us.Robert Wisnewski
“And oh boy, do our players really like pushing that limit! Our programmers work miracles in optimizing code so that players can largely do as they please. Jamie Mallory’s sandwich collecting is a perfect example of this.”
All of this work is a delicate balancing act in a number of ways. While Bethesda enjoys giving players freedom to collect practically any junk they want, there shouldn’t be so many shiny trinkets on offer that players feel overwhelmed.
“Too many items can make inventory management difficult, and that’s something we had to consider as well” Wisnewski says. “Densely cluttered environments vs ‘too much stuff’ to carry is a constant balancing act during development.”
It’s rare for modern games to include such a gargantuan number of non-essential items, but for Bethesda, it’s a core part of the flavor of RPG they are known and lauded for.
“Having interesting settings where the player can find lots of items – and come up with stories as to why the objects are there and who lived in those spaces – is as important to us as having gameplay reasons for having those objects,” Wisnewski says. “Game mechanics aren’t always the primary reason as to why we do things like this… sometimes it’s just because it makes the game more fun.”
Valenti says that Bethesda has stuck with this formula because it makes their worlds feel more believable, and adds: “We want to empower players to play however they want and make the game their own, and having interactive objects allows for some magical things to happen.”
That’s a sentiment that many players share. In the rolling peaks of The Elder Scrolls, the quirky wastelands of Fallout, and now, the awe-inspiring retro-futurism of Starfield – that intricately placed clutter is what makes the environments we spend hundreds of hours wandering through so special. Every hand-crafted bedroom, office, abandoned outpost, is a microcosm of Starfield‘s incredible universe, full of characters, history and hope. It’s also a symbol of player agency; the freedom to horde cheese wheels, or sandwiches, or in my case, 37 copies of War of the Worlds. It’s your story.
I couldn’t leave the conversation without finding out what these two masters of clutter favored above all else. Valenti’s answer is prompt and sweet: My Friend Wilby, a series of collectible crochet creatures. For Wisnewski, it’s the paper airplane, which he describes as a “small easter egg” relating to the Frontier. He adds: “Someone will eventually figure it out.”