Stellaris as a Work of Science Fiction: An Exploratory Review

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 “using the thrusters of their shuttles to burn large circles and complex patterns into crop fields belonging to the primitive Humans”. In tongue-in-cheek moments like this, Stellaris becomes a gentle parody of sci-fi, working brilliantly in conjunction with the more straight-faced aspects of the game – such as fighting wars, conducting diplomacy etc. – and repeatedly delights by punctuating the main activities with diverting mini- or sub-scenarios.

Stellaris manages – at least until the late game – to create a universe that seems full of potential surprises and possibilities. From aesthetic and writing, to space exploration and the discovery of new mechanics, Stellaris doesn’t allow its universe to become stale, predictable or overly sober. Even war, which can be a very stressful affair, asks you to enjoy its intermittent, colourful light shows; unlike most turn-based or grand strategy games, battles in Stellaris can be spectacular affairs with hundreds of ships and projectiles swarming the screen and lasers cutting brightly across it. All of this excites and tickles the imagination, encouraging the player to see what is essentially a flat, heavily abstracted map as a window into a living world, within which role-play and the creation of stories or history is just as important as success.

The colourful light show of space battles

Part II: Prosaic Predicaments

If the early game of Stellaris is dominated by exploration, discoveries and surprises, its later stages are concerned mainly with the more prosaic concerns of politics and management. And here, too, Stellaris largely succeeds, perhaps even more permanently.

Like Crusader Kings 2 or Europa Universalis 4, Stellaris uses the Clausewitz engine and functions like its older siblings on a fundamental level. This must have been both a risk and an opportunity; on the one hand, these systems were built to simulate historical scenarios, and using them in a sci-fi game might either feel out of place, or make the game appear like a re-skin. On the other hand, the process of rediscovering familiar things in a ‘new’ context may lead to fresh perspectives. Luckily, Stellaris does a mostly decent, and sometimes excellent job of taking the very ‘human’, such as politics, and translating it into a very alien world.

While war and diplomacy, for example, work pretty much exactly as they did in the older games, its POP (population) system is an addition that works brilliantly and meaningfully in the new space-faring context. It works (roughly) like this: Each planet has, depending on its size, a certain number of slots, each one of which may be occupied by a single population unit, representing a group or community of like-minded people. Each POP has its own ethos (set of ideologies), biological traits, and a percentage called Ethical Divergence; a negative number means that there is a likelihood that the POP’s ethos may conform to the values of the empire they belong to, whereas a positive number signifies a chance that its ethos may diverge in unpredictable ways. There’s a number of factors influencing Ethical Divergence, but the most important one is distance from the home planet: colonies on the other end of the galaxy may quickly embrace beliefs foreign to the empire, while those close to the core will likely consist of conformists and loyalists. The system is very simple, but makes perfect sense and may lead to interesting and unpredictable situations.

The POP system lies at the heart of an elegant escalation of complexity. At the beginning of a game, all your POPs will reflect your empire’s ethos and are members of the same species, displaying the same genetic traits. My shroom people, as fanatical collectivists, were all supporters of slavery; so much so that they actually preferred living as slaves of the empire. Without dissenting voices, without conflict, it became easy to convince oneself that slavery – at least for the shroom people, then the only known intelligent species – was natural, and that the Suldlom’s tolerance thereof was in fact a biological constant.

But slowly, contamination seeps into your ‘pure’ world order. New ways of thinking appear on the horizon. The Suldlom met other empires that embraced individualism and despised slavery. Soon, however, conflict arose from within my own empire. A species of boar-like, fierce individualists called Hadadeshi, inhabiting a planet within Suldlom borders, became part of my society. They didn’t at all agree with my adopted stance of moral relativity and demanded independence. As leader of a collectivist, expansionist theocracy, I couldn’t, of course, let them go.

I ‘welcomed’ them into Suldlom society (the empire isn’t xenophobic after all) and refrained from draconian measures (genocidal purges and similar atrocities are possible in Stellaris). With time, I felt, they would begin to understand the superior Suldlom way and become an integral part of its indivisible whole. Of course, that didn’t work out too well, and soon I tried to suppress dissent by enslaving all of the Hadadeshi and using (costly) forced migration to divide and disperse them over all of my colonies, thus sowing the seeds of future conflict and revolts over the whole of my empire. Well done, Archprophet.

Through expansion, conquest and migration, new species entered my territory, and the more the distance between new colonies and my home planet grew, the more frequently my shroom people began to turn away from the empire’s ethos, becoming pacifists, xenophobes, or – I shudder to think of it – selfish individualists or heathenish materialists. Some aspects of the new diversity are immensely beneficial; if my shroom people couldn’t survive on a coveted ocean planet, I’d simply fill a colony ship with another species that is used to the environment. But in my collectivist empire that strives towards uniformity, most of them seem like a subversive threat. So, how to respond to it?

Slowly, the game had become about the question of how to face the entropic forces of interstellar, multi-species multiculturalism, a question that concerns politics as well as ethics. Should you embrace the foreign and the diversity it brings with it, adjust your policies if necessary? Should you exclude – or even eradicate it – it for fear of change? Or should you include it only to enslave and exploit it for the benefit of those who are at the centre? Is integration about cohesion, or just about control?

In the end, the Suldlom Collective decided to make the foreign its own; at first, it used old-fashioned propaganda, then costly orbital mind control stations, and finally, even genetic modification to transform its citizens into conformists. Over the course of many decades and a short period of desperate, bloody purges against dissenters that will never appear in the history books taught at Suldlom schools, dissent became a distant anomaly at the fringes of a harmonic mushroom utopia – a place where everyone, Suldlom or not, adored the slavery that bound them to the greater whole.

One of the greatest potential strengths of science fiction is to present real issues in a distancing frame, allowing the audience to approach the familiar with less prejudice than would otherwise be possible, and to see aspects of their world they wouldn’t have perceived otherwise. Slavery, for example, is and always has been an abhorrent thing; any sensible being should not have to think or argue about this. It is self-evident – or finally has become after millennia in which the opposite was true. And this is a good thing.

Yet at the same time, this self-evidence is also a problem; after all, if you feel like you’re not allowed to question an abhorrent thing, how are you supposed to really understand why it is abhorrent in the first place? Most people who accepted slavery as natural likely didn’t spent a lot of thought on it either. To differ from them in more than just the historic accident of another age and place, it is necessary to question the self-evident from time to time.

Science fiction is adept at giving your mind space to breathe. Playing as the Suldlom Collective, I began asking myself: In the distant future, in another world, in a different society of an alien species, could slavery conceivably, hypothetically be justified? In a way, the role-play as creator and ruler encouraged by Stellaris led to a mental exercise in moral relativity. After all, if the Suldlom believe in all honesty that slavery benefits every member of society, can their empire still be called immoral, or tyrannical (as other empires liked to call me)?

Of course, these hypothetical musings would be uninteresting and useless if Stellaris’ systems did not challenge or complicate them over the course of a game, going through many permutations of the same basic questions. At the dawn of the Suldlom Collective, slavery seemed harmless, consensual. But through its slow escalation, Stellaris kept throwing ever more difficult questions at me: What about this other empire judging you? What about the Hadadeshi who struggle against your ‘benevolent’ slavery? What about the manipulative means you had to resort to in order to preserve your fungoid utopia? This is just one example of how Stellaris is successful in involving the player in a sort of dialogue over the predicaments they face and the choices they make to solve them.

Nevertheless, there are also a few ways in which it fails to communicate anything interesting. It is a shame, for example, that the player’s meddling in planets’ makeup does not have any ecological repercussions whatsoever; neither the destruction of mountains, forests, wildlife etc. to gain space for buildings and POPs, nor the wholesale terraforming of planets have any negative consequences. Especially given the game’s usual aptitude in pointing out the ethically questionable without abandoning its carefully upheld amoral stance, it seems almost perverse that you can routinely and without any thought wipe out whole planetary ecosystems across the galaxy – and indeed you are compelled to do this if you want to run your colonies with any semblance of efficiency.

The sector system is another offender. Not only is it a pain to use and navigate, but it adds nothing interesting to the game whatsoever. Theoretically, sectors can seek independence, but the risk of revolt is far too small to warrant any strategic thought when establishing and managing sectors. The game’s victory conditions are equally toothless, not only subverting the game’s role-playing potential but also ignoring any player who is not interested in conquest and expansion.

Part III: Awe-struck Animals

Does Stellaris succeed in inspiring awe in the face of the enormity of the cosmos? The short answer is: Not quite, but then again, given its light tone and focus on politics, this was never really its goal in the first place. A longer answer might respond: Even though awe may play second fiddle to other concerns, it is still an important part of the equation. Without at least some emphasis on the overwhelming enormity of space, a science-fiction game will have trouble accommodating a sense of limitless discoveries and surprises, as well as an illusion of a physical reality that gives weight to a player’s choices within it. Too much focus on scale, however, and the player may be lost in a seemingly infinite, dizzyingly disorienting space within which the player’s actions may seem inconsequential. So, perhaps I should rephrase the question: Does Stellaris manage to strike a productive balance between easily readable space, and a sense of overwhelming expansiveness?

At the start of a new game, the galaxy seems very large indeed. Exploration is slow, and threats such as pirates or hostile alien beings slow it down even further. Coming across one of the ancient Fallen Empires – stagnant factions that are large and powerful, yet also mostly passive – is a humbling and unsettling experience in the early stages of the game. Compared to your fledgling empire that has barely left its nest, these moloch-like civilisations are an unpredictable and potentially catastrophic presence. And as your science ships explore countless solar systems, their reports hint at ancient, extinct civilisations that thrived and died eons ago. Your map prevents you from becoming too disoriented in this universe, but it also reminds you how small and insignificant you are.

As the game progresses, however, its space gradually shrinks as it is more and more completely explored and finally carved up by the territorial claims of expanding or emerging empires. The galaxy becomes crowded, your empire locked in, and even if there are solar systems left to explore, the tensions of close border contact shifts your attention from space-travel to diplomacy and war. Unlike our real universe, the world of Stellaris is both completely knowable and conquerable. At the start, space is something other and hostile; as you grow, you’ll incorporate it into your empire’s ‘body’, making it your own.

The galaxy is getting a bit crowded

One might argue that most 4X/turn-based/grand strategy games are designed like that: a phase of exploration and growth, followed by one of conflict and competition as borders grow closer and space scarce, and finally, by a victor emerging from the conflict. This makes some sense in a scenario set on earth, where space can be exhausted. But I’d argue that games set in space might profit from a more open-ended, ‘elastic’ approach. The idea that space empires are locked in between borders and have to fight over every scrap of territory is a strange, rather gamey conceit.

A space game in which territory is far less easily exhaustible and war between empires less likely might compensate this loss in emphasis on ‘foreign policy’ with a more detailed focus on ‘domestic policy’; Stellaris’ POP, policy and faction systems, are already steps in this direction. But the faction system especially, where disgruntled groups like dissenters, slaves or secessionists pursue their own goals, is far too weakly implemented to support interesting inner-empire conflicts. Unlike Crusader Kings 2, where faction conflicts may easily spawn devastating, decades-long civil wars, factions in Stellaris may unfortunately be safely ignored for the most part.

I’m not really concerned about a lack of an end point or a victory state implied in this hypothetical game; a sci-fi game unrestricted by a historical setting might go on indefinitely, until the player has seen enough, or, perhaps, until some cosmic cataclysm wipes out their civilisation; not unlike the interesting late game crisis system Stellaris already has in place.

In the end, I think that, as a work of science fiction, Stellaris would have been better off if it had jettisoned its more conventional aspects of expansion and conflict between civilisations in favour of a bolder open-endedness and deeper simulation. But even if familiarity with its universe and old-fashioned design elements do take away some of its potential, Stellaris still hits a lot of sci-fi sweet spots. It delights and surprises even as you struggle with some difficult political or strategic dilemma, and it evokes perhaps just enough of the grandeur of our universe to give your actions within its galaxy a sense of significance.

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