Thursday, May 12, 2016

Stellaris' Uncomfortable Spotlights

Let's talk about sci fi, about 4X games, about Stellaris.

In my lifetime I have played a staggering number of 4X games. I even created 4X board games when I was a kid. It's a genre close to my heart, because I like building things and I like science fiction.

Most game genres have slowly matured. They have gone from simplistic simulations to more complex offerings that integrate many layers of player choice and interactive narratives. First person shooters started at Doom but matured into Mass Effect 3 and Just Cause 4. Sure, not everyone wants the added complexity of a cinematic universe, complex skills, construction, leveling, etc. But many people do, and those people have found these new games more rewarding and interesting than the "flat" old games.

4X games haven't done that. They're pretty much the same as they were with Masters of Orion, just with snazzier graphics. Stellaris is just another one in the chain, struggling to make its mark but refusing to step away from genre conventions that were outdated twenty years ago.

I'm not saying Stellaris is bad. Like many retro shooters, there is a place for oldschool games. The genre was invented to serve an itch, and the itch hasn't faded. But there are many of us that play 4X games because they are just vaguely close to what we want, like people that played Doom but wanted Mass Effect.

So let me creep up on the subject. Don't want to scare it off.

I knew I wouldn't like Stellaris too much, because all the marketing is about space battles. When it comes to 4X games, the space battles part is always weak. At first glance, it's odd how much focus these games always put on combat, since it funnels you into playing a warring species even if A) you don't want to and B) that makes no sense.

But the combat in these games plays two major roles, and the devs usually don't want to figure out a better way to accomplish those two roles, so they just keep combat in.

The obvious role is "meat gate". Other species, raiders, and passive alien hazards are all blockades that prevent you from just running roughshod over the whole galaxy. By forcing you to fight, the devs force you to spend time and resources on a navy. This means that non-warlike species don't have an overwhelming economic advantage - they still need to spend a lot of resources on their navy, even though it's not part of what they care about. This economic wall is a negative feedback loop that means star nations will expand at a similar rate regardless of their approach, which is a cheap and easy way to balance the game.

If you've played Stellaris, you probably already understand what I mean. There are a lot of random monsters, especially around high-value stars/black holes. These keep you cut off, force you to move slowly and settle for low-value stars. Eventually, you will need to use an expensive navy to fight those monsters. The earlier you do so, the more economic reward you get for having access to the high-value star and the more the science reward matters. It all balances out.

The other big role of combat is "storytelling". Humans are really great at weaving stories out of a few clear data points, and there's nothing clearer than a fight. We build a story in our head of our struggles against the Klarthians or whatever. This story keeps us connected to the situation, invests us in the universe. It gives the game punch.

It's easy to test this theory out: just play Stellaris after typing "invincible" into the console. You'll see how quickly the game falls apart. The pace and punch are gone, and it's just not very fun to play.

But I'm not holding that against Stellaris: every 4X game is like that. Stellaris has a few cool features to try and keep the game focused even in those situations, such as districts and such. But Stellaris is interesting because they accidentally stepped into my world, accidentally created a shadow of the game I actually want to play. A post-4X genre.

So, I settled on a big desert world named Dnar.

After a short while, my species evidently decided a desert world was a pain in the ass so, without asking (and without me having access to the tech) they genetically engineered themselves and called themselves "post-humans". Fine, neat!

This began what was obviously a scripted arc where tensions grew and then war bloomed between the standard humans and the post-humans. This is a really neat idea, meatily supported by the detailed population system, which allows for subcultures and subspecies to be clearly marked on the world maps. It was hampered by the way I didn't really get any options, couldn't really do anything. With every new event, the only option I had was "that's concerning".

Well, that was a bit disappointing, but it's a neat idea, right?

Here's the monkey wrench.

See, turns out Dnar wasn't an uninhabited world. There was a subterranean species and, after a short while, they joined me on the surface. Some kind of slug thing.

Then all the baseline humans left. The post-humans were suited to the desert environment, and the human-humans weren't, so all the human-humans just... left. Dnar was populated by post-humans and slug monsters only.

Still the scripted arc continued. The humans sabotaged the post-humans. The post-humans clashed with the humans.

But there were no humans. Everyone on Dnar was post-human or slug monster.

And there's the highlight.

This is real sci fi. This is where you let me shape the stories of whole populations, this is the story of people and places under the pressures of technology.

Of course it's all scripted and the script falls flat. It would have to: the setting is too diverse and chaotic to simply use a canned script.

But... you could use an algorithm.

The way the universe of Stellaris is set up, you know exactly what populations on what planets are what species, how happy they are, how strong their cultural drift is, and so on.

It would be possible to write an algorithm for how these species behave, how their events spool out.

The post-humans are considered travesties by the general population? But there's no general population on Gnar. The post-humans would have no outlet for that. Instead, it'd be about how they get along with the slug-monsters, with the human governor. How they emigrate.

Do they drift away from the core culture? Do they start to talk about succeeding from the empire? How does the governor deal with that? The president? The slug monsters?

To me, trying to govern that world, massage that situation is 100x as interesting as sticking pins in a map.

Now, that isn't to say that sticking pins in a map is bad, or even off the table. Sticking pins in a map is a great way to feel like you're part of the universe, a great way to manage your overall resources and the flow of your civilization. But the challenges and opportunities and complexities of a galactic empire stem from the isolation of space, the chaos of technology being adopted willy-nilly, the wealth and poverty to be found at each new colony...

That's the 4X game I want to play. One where you struggle to keep your empire intact. Not against the threat of war or random monsters from space, but from the simple threat of people under the pressure of technology. There's a huge space for this kind of game.

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