The bone-dry sci-fi of Stellaris, a game that doesn’t even work

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The central concept in Stellaris — that a galactic emperor isn’t a god — doesn’t work. It’s a concept Paradox has explored to great effect, especially with Crusader Kings and Victoria (minus the galactic part, of course). Some things are outside the control of a ruler. He does not get to tell each point of population which tile to harvest. He does not get to gobble up territory indiscriminately. He does not get to move sliders willy-nilly. History, Paradox’s favorite subject, is not a strategy game. It is an exercise in limitations. It is about people trying to hold power against the demands of social unrest, religious freedom, petty rivalries, Popes, capitalists, natives making a fuss about self-determination, evolving political philosophies, progress, entropy. To their immense credit, Paradox’s strategy games are the same thing. They are among my favorite historical essays.

After the jump, what does this have to do with sci-fi?

Stellaris embraces this conceit wholeheartedly. It furthermore presents it as a gameplay solution to the usual late-game micromanagement in any game where you start with one city. How do you then multiply the number of cities without multiplying the workload? A central tenet of Stellaris’ design is that there will only be five (give or take) cities — planets, in this case — at a time. Which makes for a pretty paltry galactic empire. So once you have more than five (give or take), you have to turn some of your planets over to middle management.

Stellaris_base

On a certain level this works. Your overflow planets coalesce into the rough equivalent of states or provinces. Paradox figured the name “sector” sounds spacey enough, and they’re right. The Such-and-such Sector. It has a nice ring to it. You can imagine a starship captain telling his navigator to go there. You give these sectors general instructions. You’re going to want to appoint a governor so every planet gets a little bonus of some sort. When you’re running out of money or production, you can bump up the tax rate on a few sectors until you get your spending under control. Somewhere inside the colored blob of your empire, apportioned into sectors, a nucleus still under your control. That place doesn’t get a sector name.

The first but least troublesome issue is the new mindset required to divvy your planets into AI-controlled sectors. You made that planet. You decided to land on this one and then you grew the colony. You set up the initial landing site and developed the tiles. You cleared out the jungle and maybe passed an edict to keep the new citizens in line and maybe flew in some extra people to jump start its production. You checked in on it periodically and made adjustments. You nurtured it. And now you have to give it to the AI. Now it will build whatever it wants. The people who live here might drift away from your empire’s traits. No more edicts from you, no more decisions about buildings, no more population control. You can look, but don’t touch. And it’s probably best not to look too closely, because the middle management AI is either bad or a commentary on the inefficiency of middle management.

But even if you adjust to this “let your children free” mindset, the bigger problem is the degree of interaction with these sectors. The design is obviously based on autonomy, which means you won’t have to interact with it and you’re free to do other things. That whole “reducing micromanagement” thing. But the opposite happens. Instead of solving late-game micromanagement, the sector concept increases it by a) limiting the information you get and b) arbitrarily shutting off some interactions while still requiring others. Imagine someone forced to give up a child for adoption, but she still has to show up for PTA meetings, take care of it if it gets whooping cough, and keep track of when it has soccer practice in case the AI forgets to pick it up. That’s the arrangement you’re making in Stellaris.

Sector non-management will leave you wondering why isn’t this planet growing as much food as it needs? Or why is it growing so much food? If you can’t control population management, why do you still have to micromanage slavery, which is a significant part of population management? You might have built a colony, indeed an entire government and economy, on enslaving alien populations to work in mines, but they’re running around merrily free in your sectors? And although you can’t build buildings, you’re supposed to still do all the robot building on the same menu if you want robots to be part of your workforce? Oh, and by the way, you’re probably supposed to do all the colonizing in these sectors as new planets become habitable. Or even as you run low on space and start colonizing the less friendly planets. Okay, let’s see, to start the next colony, where did you put those fanatic collectivists who aren’t spiritual? Wait, are they the ones who can settle ocean planets? Are you really supposed to be managing stuff this way, because it doesn’t seem to be getting done otherwise, does it? What about building mines and research stations and defensive emplacements? Do you do that? No? Yes? No? Sometimes Stellaris can’t seem to decide, or if it has decided, it’s not telling you.

Interface is something that has been evolving steadily in Paradox games. Go back at look at the first Europa Universalis. Now compare it to Europa Universalis IV. What a difference a decade plus makes. But with the gameplay shift in Stellaris, Paradox got lost while they were making the adjustments necessary for this game design. The Stellaris interface is like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When it is good, it is very very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid. The interface was told that we’re not supposed to mess with our sectors. The gameplay didn’t get that memo, since sectors still need to be navigated, examined, developed, and even used. For instance, the starbases that are the foundation of your fleets — you don’t need me to tell you how important fleets are to a sci-fi strategy game — get swallowed up in a sector entirely, but you still constantly need them. Constantly. You still build and develop them. You still use them to make your ships. You move your fleets among them. You decide which ones to improve with which modules and you need to know which modules are where. This is the starbase with the fleet academy and the corvette yards, so this is where you want to build your corvettes. Oops, this is the one for destroyers. Where’s the starbase with the corvette yards? And where’s the starbase where you’re supposed to park your fleet because it has modules that reduce maintenance costs, which are a significant part of the economy? One of Stellaris’ really cool concepts is that fleets in space incur a massive financial and material cost. The interface has no idea this is in there.

Stellaris_combat

It’s mind boggling to me that you can’t see starbases on the map, but then again, there’s no way to see all sorts of information on the map. Depending on the zoom level, it is either a star dotted collage of colored blobs or a confetti sprawl of tiny overlapping numbers and icons. Star systems are inexplicably shifted from where they really are by a z-axis that serves no purpose other than making the hard-to-read map even harder to read. Does Paradox think these tiny colored orbs are giving me the information I need when I’m colonizing planets? Am I really supposed to peer into this icon confetti to suss out whether I’ve discovered any precious engos vapor? Yes, that’s a thing. Engos vapor. There are many things like it that you’re supposed to discover and develop, and yet there is no way to find these things short of peering closely into the galactic confetti. Why is information as basic as another empire’s hyperspace links unavailable? When I’m trying to figure out where my ship is on the map by double-clicking, does Paradox really think I want to zoom into the planet view, which has zero frame of reference for where it’s located in the galaxy? Did Paradox really think Stellaris doesn’t need a minimap? That’s hardly surprising in an interface where the growth stat isn’t on the screen where I decide whether to build structures to encourage growth.

Stellaris is shot through with gameplay that is completely absent from the interface, as if it was a work in progress, so there was no point making the interface for it yet. For instance, you have to choose among several randomized research options. It’s a great concept (until the mid- to late-game when you already have all the meaningful techs and you’re just grinding away at the odd +5% here and there). Let’s say one of the techs I have to choose among lets me use quicksand tiles that are otherwise blocked on my planets. Now keep in mind I have no idea when the option to research it will come along again, so the meaningful choices are that much more meaningful. Naturally, I’ll want to know how many quicksand tiles I have in my empire. How many of them are impeding growth? How many of them are blocking valuable resources? In a normal game on a normal map, I would know this by looking at the map. In Stellaris, I have to move through every single planet I control and don’t control because they’re in sectors. I have to move through them one at a time. So much for not having to fuss with planets in sectors. How does something this obvious pass muster at Paradox, a company that has spent fifteen hard-earned years getting good at interfaces?

But if the price of playing Stellaris is navigating a bad interface, that doesn’t set it apart from lots of games we play anyway. The trick is that we have to want to play the games badly enough to bang our shins against their bad interfaces. Stellaris fails at the crucial task of making me want to play by committing a cardinal sin for any game, regardless of genre, platform, or production values.

It is without personality.

Stellaris is split into two separate games. The early game, before you have to hand your planets over the AI and before you’re hemmed in by other empires, is a passable sci-fi space exploration strategy game. Your ships explore the stars and uncover new worlds and meet aliens. This will all feel very novel the first few times. There’s a sense of sci-fi wonder at the events. Well, the first one or two times they happen. The fourth time I fought space crystals, fished a cruiser out of a gas giant, relocated a wacky race of space comic relief aliens, or hunted down a list of alien critters, the magic was long gone. “Ooh, what is it?” becomes “oh, this again”.

But these scripted bits are necessary to breathe any semblance of life or world-building into Stellaris. Stellaris is the game where you had to blow up an asteroid before it hit your planet. I’ve seen that one three times. It is the game where abandoned sentient mining robots can be destroyed to reveal the location of mineral rich planets. I’ve seen that in every single one of my games. It is the game where space whales fly around and don’t bother you. In every single game you play. Paradox has to do this because the rest of the game is a barely disguised spreadsheet. The other races you encounter — aliens — are the least alien you will ever encounter because they are exactly like your race: a set of values. Now this is true of any faction in any game, right? What is Miriam Godwinson but a set of values? A plus to her piety, a minus to her research, a little extra military oomph. What are the zerg but a set of values? More units, cheaper units, units governed by a constant rate. What are the Psilons but a set of values? A bonus to research, some spying, less diplomacy. But what sets these factions apart is that the values are uniquely theirs. They define their gameplay. Their gameplay defines them. The more you know the game, the more personality they have. The more you delight at Miriam, the more you loathe the zergs, the more you tend toward the Psilons.

Stellaris_crystal_jupiter

There is no analog to this in Stellaris. None whatsoever. A race is nothing more than a set of values that is never constant. You can select one of the eight pre-built races, but why bother, since none of them exists in the game? You might as well just roll your own race, because that’s what the universe is going to do. Every faction you encounter in Stellaris is a randomly rolled set of values. Not procedural. It’s not as if the bird people are better at flying, the reptile people are better at mining minerals, or the people people are better at diplomacy. It’s completely random. The picture on their diplomacy screen is of no relevance whatsoever. There is nothing inherent in the slimy octopus people, the mushroom people, the bug people, or even the vanilla people people. No one eats rocks, or lives in caves, or doesn’t need farms, or uses special rules. All that matters is their ethos, their traits, and how they move across the map. X, Y, and Z. This is where Paradox’s spreadsheet approach to gameplay, which serves them well when they breathe gameplay data into history, undermines a fundamental tenet of sci-fi. Aliens should be alien. Not just rolled dice with a bunch of babytalk names slapped onto them. Im-do. Quasvalyvia. Jouvon. Pouz-dok. Lagun-chuzz. Faffosan. You will always remember the Klackon in Master of Orion. You will never remember the Oogie-Nollocks Union in Stellaris.

Remember how Master of Orion had unique heroes? Remember those guys? Remember how glad you were when certain ones showed up? And you know how much Paradox brought to life rulers and courtiers in Crusader Kings? Imagine what Paradox could have done with the central theme of space opera: heroes driving events of galactic proportion. Luke Skywalker defeating the Empire, Shepard coming between the Earth and the Reapers, Paul Atreides as the fulcrum among all those vying Houses and factions. This is nowhere to be seen in Stellaris. You plug a portrait with a couple of values into a slot. It will vanish unceremoniously at some point. There are no relationships, almost no character development, and precious few identifying factors. Oh, look, I can chose between a guy with a longer life expectancy, a guy who costs 33% less to hire, and a guy who might speed up my research for a couple of techs. Hey, someone just died. Which guy was that? I couldn’t care less. It’s time to plug another value into the socket. It’s the same busywork as changing a light bulb.

Even the gameplay has been drained of personality. After the early game of exploring (familiar) alien space, Stellaris settles ponderously into long stretches of waiting and minimal interaction. This isn’t unprecedented. Paradox’s historical games can have long stretches of waiting. Waiting for cores to convert or fleets to repair or armies to get over there or colonies to settle. But when you’re surfing history, you expect gentle swells between the waves. You know something exciting is coming. It’s history. Something exciting is always coming. What will the Ottomans do? What’s going to happen to France? Will the British navy be insurmountable? When will the Protestants launch their reformation? The historical frame of reference lends the slow patches a sense of anticipation while the familiar actors eye each other, waiting for their cues. There is no such thing in Stellaris because it opts out of any personality for the players in this star-flung history. You are surfing a spreadsheet. Actually, not even surfing. Treading water.

No one has ever wondered “what will the Ooki-Naba Federation do?” Because the Ooki-Naga Federation was never a who. They were only ever numbers down this column and numbers along these rows. They’ve had random words slapped onto them. Ooki and Naga, followed by some noun a space empire might call itself. Here’s a picture of some mushroom people. Not that there’s anything mushroom-ish about them. Not one single thing. Paradox has opted out of any sort of world-building or imagination in favor of randomly jamming numbers together and writing nonsense words into one of the cells in the spreadsheet, a cell that has no bearing on anything in the game, much less any frame of reference for your imagination. This is a universe of bare numbers arranged on a grid with hardly a coat of paint on them, and certainly nothing resembling personality. You might say Stellaris Excels at giving its races personality.

Stellaris_ringworld

There’s a lot to admire and even like in Stellaris. The ethics system, whereby a race locates itself on a compass rose of opposing ethical values, is wonderful. Acknowledging slavery as a foundation for an economy is a new move for Paradox, and it can be eye-opening. Shuffling technologies and randomly dealing them out is a great way to put science into science fiction. The ship design stuff is good and it plugs into a fantastic combat system. Battles swirl around with lively graphics, especially given Paradox’s mathematical approach to combat in their other games; how nice to finally get a visual thrill when the fighting happens. The planetary development is gratifying, even if you do have to eventually kick your planets to the curb when they join a sector. But none of these is a good enough reason to wade into the poorly executed sector system and the erratic interface. And none of these survives Stellaris’ dispassionate approach to personality.

Imagine that your favorite history professor has written a sci-fi novel. You’re intrigued. You read it. It’s dry, bereft of imagination, and misses the point of sci-fi by light years. It’s even full of typos and some of the pages are blank. But you still read all 912 pages. It’s flat. It’s lifeless. It’s terrible. You’re crestfallen. That’s Stellaris.

  • Stellaris

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • A grand strategic sci-fi game without personality, crippled by its misguided solution to late-game micromanagement, made by folks with a long history of excellent strategy games. What happened?
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