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Something has always felt off about Starfield's characters. Apart from the fact that they spend entire conversations staring directly into your soul, they don't always emote in a believable way. At moments, character faces move like animatronics, which makes it hard to read what kind of emotion they're trying to express.
In previous Bethesda games, facial animations were generated based on the audio of their dialogue using a middleware technology called FaceFX. As characters speak, the tech dynamically matches their expressions with the sounds they make as opposed to an animator doing it by hand. The developer hasn't publicly said if Starfield uses FaceFX, but modders have found text in Starfield's files that suggests that's the case.
One common expression that doesn't quite look right from an animation standpoint are smiles. Videogame character artist Delaney King says they look wrong because they neglect some important face muscles. In their thread on X (Twitter), King explains how the orbicularis oculi (a muscle around your eyes that allows you to close your eyelids) should contract as you make a smile, almost like you're squinting a bit. If you don't, it tends to look like you're faking it or are mimicking the "dead inside" meme of the stock image guy, András Arató.
Starfield's characters also don't smile with their zygomaticus major muscle, King says, which contracts to pull the corners of your mouth upward. This is how you get the uncanny smile from the Adoring Fan that never looks quite right.
"I am not sure what solution they are using for their faces—if it is facial capture fed into bones or blended shapes, but it definitely needs a manual tweak pass to get those smiles working," King said. "It's just creepy."
Giving Starfield some credit here, they are an improvement over Fallout 4's facial animations. Fallout 4 characters in that game barely smile at all. It's like their mouths and eyebrows are the only things that can move. But Starfield's characters look dated compared to other conversation-heavy games, like Baldur's Gate 3, and it's repeatedly come up as people share their experiences with it. Although the comparison with Larian's RPG isn't quite fair because of its extensive use of motion-capture, there's still a huge gap between how the two games handle it. Starfield players can't seem to agree on whether it's a serious flaw or something you should expect with Bethesda's games, though.
King's explanation highlights how something as small as a slightly contracted facial muscle can alter the meaning of an expression. It may not ruin the game, but it can make characters look flat and insincere—which is the last thing you want from your crew in a game about risking your life in outer space.