The scene in Starfield‘s E3 2021 trailer in which a character climbs a ladder may not have seemed like much to get excited about, but it’s strangely become one of the preview’s biggest talking points among those who are concerned about the power of the game’s Creation Engine 2 technology and how it will impact its visuals.
See, you’re not really able to climb a ladder (or anything else for that matter) in most Bethesda RPGs. At least you can’t climb them in any traditional way. You can walk up ladders, mountains, and other vertical obstacles in those games, but there isn’t actually a “climbing” animation for any of those actions. As Bethesda’s Todd Howard explained during a 2016 Quakecon panel, the team just never figured out how to incorporate that animation/feature into the studio’s old engines without messing up the A.I. They ultimately felt it wasn’t all that important. At the same time, it sounds like the shortcoming has always bothered them.
“One day, we tried to figure out why we wanted ladders so bad because we don’t really need them,” Howard said. “It just felt like we’re game development pussies because we can’t do ladders.”
Well, that was a…surprising way to address this topic, but Howard’s statement does touch upon why this seemingly minor issue has become such a talking point over the years.
See, climbing things in many video games is usually no big deal. Even games that don’t feature extensive climbing mechanics (such as the one seen in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild) typically “throw” your character into an animation whenever you need to climb ladders or whatever. However, it’s the fact that climbing isn’t really a big deal in most video games that makes its absence such a big deal in Bethesda RPGs. In fact, the absence of that feature has become something of a rallying cry among those who feel that Bethesda’s old game engines are woefully outdated and that the developer hasn’t done enough to upgrade them over the years.
Surely, though, Starfield‘s advanced Creation Engine 2 will finally just let you climb a ladder, right? Well, The Telegraph asked Howard that seemingly simple question in a recent interview, and Howard’s response was surprisingly evasive.
“Well… climbing is not… don’t read too much into the ladder,” Howard said. “It’s a ladder to get you in and out of the spaceship. That’s about it. We may have to clarify that. Exciting video game features – they’re a pain in the ass! [laughs]”
Again, Howard dodging the dreadful ladder question wouldn’t be such a big deal were it not for the fact that Bethesda is touting not just the potential of the Creation Engine 2 but the ways that next-gen technology will let them do things with Starfield that simply weren’t possible before. Based on that quote, though, it sounds like climbing ladders may not be one of those bold new next-gen features.
The whole idea of Creation Engine 2 ignoring the “ladder problem” also has fans combing over the Starfield trailer (which was made using “Alpha In-Game Footage”) with a fine-tooth comb. While most fans will concede that the game looks good (based on the trailer footage) others are saying that some of the animations look stiff, some of the colors appear dull, and that some of the effects don’t quite pop. Maybe it’s all nitpicking (especially at this still early stage for the game), but for a generation of Bethesda fans who worry that the studio is burrowing themselves into their comfort zone, there was some hope that our first real look at Bethesda’s new engine may make it clear that the company really is blazing a bold new path forward.
The truth of the matter is that the topic of game engines is a complicated one and that few studios really do build an engine from the ground up. That means that Creation Engine 2 will likely still feature many of the qualities that defined the Creation Engine. That may be bad news for ladder climbing and bugs, but it’s good news for modders and the Starfield development team who will get to work with something they’re at least mostly familiar with.
So while it certainly feels like the obvious reply to “Can you climb ladders?” is “Of course,” it’s maybe too early to start judging Starfield‘s graphics and technology on the basis of this teaser alone. At the same time, if we end up running into another Cyberpunk 2077 launch situation, there won’t be a ladder tall enough for Bethesda to climb that will get them away from the angry cries of gamers wanting to know what happened.