Our fantasies of space travel encompass a whole universe of ideas begging to be explored, but there are three main facets that can be found in every work of science fiction to some degree:
First and perhaps foremost, space serves as a surface for our projections of escapism and imagination. We interact with fantasies of wonderful otherness: worlds that are alien from the one we inhabit, beings different from ourselves, experiences we’ll never be able to have. From this angle, the vastness of space signifies infinite opportunity and plenitude, and encourages the wide-eyed question: What else could be out there? This is the realm of swashbuckling space adventures, strange alien worlds and Skywalker wistfully looking up to the suns of Tatooine, dreaming of finally going to space.
Next, there’s the fascination with the prosaic and practical. How would one protect and sustain our frail animal bodies as they are being hurled through the cold emptiness of space or exposed to the hostile atmosphere of some distant world? How do you figure out what the alien being is trying to tell you with the wiggling of its tentacles? And once you figured all this out, how do interstellar, interspecies politics work? Old concerns – ranging from survival, to communication, to politics – gain new significance and allow for fresh perspectives if placed in the unfamiliar context of space travel. This is the realm of hard sci-fi, speculative fiction, and the meeting points where imagination blends seamlessly with the predicaments of the here and now.
Lastly, space is also an unsettling challenge to our self-perception as homo sapiens sapiens. Space is not just unknown; it is fundamentally unknowable. Space highlights that we are animals that have evolved to ‘know’ the immediate surroundings of the tiny grain of sand they inhabit. We may have scientific, painstaking ways of ‘understanding’, but the enormity of cosmic space and time will never comfortably or intuitively fit into our minds (at least as they are now). Watching the stars forces us to entertain the notion that what we see as normal, natural and central in our everyday lives may well be strange, artificial and peripheral from a more distanced perspective. This is the realm of existentialist brooding, gods lost and found, and Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
This is a review of Stellaris in three parts, each part evaluating the game through one of these facets of science fiction. This means that I won’t critique Stellaris as a strategy game, or even as a game per se, but as a work of sci-fi. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it being a strategy game is irrelevant to this discussion, on the contrary; it is no accident that space has been a favourite setting of strategy games since the dawn of the genre. These games are usually good at conveying scale as well as the complexity necessary to suggest a living world. This is especially true for the more ponderous beasts of the genre, such as turn-based, 4X, and grand strategy games, which are immense both in terms of space and the time needed to achieve anything. Most of them, however, have one major drawback: they are games about competition between equals, and working towards a win state. Usually, this means war; sometimes, there are more nuanced ways to win the game, such as diplomatic, cultural or economic goals.
But even this apparent freedom reveals limitations; even if the game is flexible enough to allow many different playstyles, you will be branded a loser if you’re not constantly interested in being engaged in competition. The top-down, distanced perspective so typical of the genre becomes symptomatic of deeper issues; you aren’t here to become immersed in a virtual world, but to stay well above the surface of the fiction and push game pieces around to further specific goals. Unfathomable deep space is transformed into a flat game board, becomes a peripheral ornament to the thing itself.
A few strategy games, however, make breathing room for both the virtual world and the player, blowing gamey conceits out of the air lock and focusing on simulation instead. Crusader Kings 2 might be the most extreme example of this kind of design. CK2 realises, unlike Civilization for example, that history isn’t a competition between nations or a linear, uniform movement towards a set of universally shared, pre-defined end goals. Instead, it is more like a mess of overlapping events whose meaning or relevance is a matter of context and interpretation. And even though you’re still pushing pieces over a map, this flat, abstracted map invites you to use your imagination to see a breathing world instead. Since Stellaris moves away from this gamey quality as well, I’d like to ask: Does it manage to engage the imagination and intellect as a work of space-faring science fiction?
Part I: Wide-eyed Wonder
Not unlike Crusader King’s 2, Stellaris hides a surprising amount of imagination and whimsy beneath its sober surface. The look of its universe is pleasant and has some nice detail, but it’s also aesthetically unobtrusive and lacking in character. The play- and colourfulness that I found central to my enjoyment of the game is found in other places entirely.
After having started the game for the first time, I selected one of the pre-created empires, and the most boring of them to boot, the United Nations of Earth. I played for a few hours and enjoyed the game, but felt like something was lacking. So I decided to create my own empire instead, and was immediately excited by the breadth of options available.
Your ethos decides the ideology or beliefs or your empire; whether its people are peace lovers or militarists, or whether they embrace or hate other species. Traits represent the biological or instinctual qualities of your species and decide which ecosystems they prefer living in, or whether they are rapid breeders or physically resilient. Choosing negative traits will give you more points to spend on positive traits.
The government type, finally, is dependent on your ethos and spans everything from direct democracy, to science directorate, to military dictatorship. Just as important as these, I feel, are the purely cosmetic options. Choosing whether your species is mammalian, avian, molluscoid etc. will not affect the game mechanically, but it will offer you a wide variety of utterly charming and fantastically designed species portraits to choose from, and ample points for your imagination to latch onto. Moreover, you also get to choose the name of your species, your home planet, your empire, and even the adjective used to refer to your empire/species.
Empire creation is an ingenious way of investing the player into a virtual world before the game proper has even begun. I ended up with a spiritualist collective of mushroom people and felt attached to my people from the very beginning. Mushrooms are the fruits of fungi living invisibly beneath the surface. Being connected this way, I reasoned, sentient mushrooms would tend towards collectivism. Also, being physically connected to a larger whole might lead to a strong sense of spiritualism, of being part of something greater; hence the government type of the “Divine Mandate”. Since fungi don’t really move except through growth, I gave them the “sedentary” and “rapid breeders” traits and decided that my people would strive towards quick expansion and growth in the universe at all times – peacefully if possible, through war if necessary. Finally, since fungi thrive on humidity and organic matter, I chose a “tropical preference”. All of this reasoning, of course, was a fiction created entirely by me, but the fact that the game allowed for and supported my fiction in the first place shows that it is concerned with more than just its cold, mechanical aspects.
So it came to pass that the Suldlom Collective of the mushroom people began exploring the universe, and expanding. The early hours of the game are spent in anticipation of coming across other species and empires in a vast galaxy. The fact that these other empires are randomised has been criticised, but it does make the prospect of meeting them far more exciting, since you have no way of knowing what to expect. On one side, I met the smallish, meek Shabtak Polity; a direct democracy of peaceful xenophiles looking like woodlice. On the other side lingered my arch nemesis over the course of centuries: The large Hegemony of Shantar, comprised of an avian species of xenophobic, godless war-mongers. Those heretic pigeons insulted my fungoid religion every five minutes or so with creative mockeries while threatening my borders with their war machine.
Sometimes, retaliation is the only option
Speaking of these insults: the writing of Stellaris is consistently amusing, playful and charming – and often outright clever. One of my most memorable encounters occurred when the Suldlom stumbled upon the Sol system by accident and discovered primitive humans. Of course, I immediately built an orbital observation platform and instructed it to perform “active study”, meaning that abductions and medical probing are allowed. This option is available for any ‘primitive’, pre-spacefaring species, but in this case, there was a special irony to it; the stories of alien abductions so familiar in the real world become the result of the player’s in-game actions. Brilliantly, Stellaris acknowledges this irony and pushes it further: some time after establishing the observation platform, a message informed me that my abduction teams had performed a prank on the poor humans, namely “usi