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Storytelling in 'Stellaris' Leaves Too Much to the Imagination

Stellaris needs a role-playing mindset, but it rarely supplies enough material to work with.

I've returned to the stars of Stellaris. With multiple patches, free story expansions, and now the Utopia DLC, I finally heeded the siren song of deep space strategy gaming and am trying once more to lead my people to their destiny among the stars. Maybe this time, I hope, there will be some new world that doesn't seem so reminiscent of all the others I've forgotten or left behind. I'm not terribly hopeful. As Buckaroo Banzai once paraphrased Seneca so aptly: "No matter where you go, there you are."

Maybe that's why the quintessential sci-fi 4X is, for me, Alpha Centauri. It doesn't believe in the tabula rasa that is part and parcel of so many space strategy games. It's a game about going into space and discovering that all the old dynamics that ruined life on earth are still alive and well. Space does not represent a new beginning but a continuation.

There's a price for telling such a pointed story, with such sharply-drawn characters. It means that every time I sit down to play Alpha Centauri, it roughly tells the same story again. It doesn't offer the possibility to meaningfully shape its future-history. Stellaris, on the other hand, hints at a universe full of stories and discoveries waiting to be uncovered. Different races can take on a wide variety of traits and characteristics that imply their own origins and worldviews. Your spacefaring race can evolve in surprising ways, especially as citizens adopt new ideologies that may run contrary to your faction's chief values. As they explore the stars they may randomly uncover strange quest lines that shade-in some of the universe's backstory. The variety, if not infinite, could keep the game fresh for ages. If you're willing to help it along.

Let's take my noble Washbears of Beartopia, for example. At the start of my game they were pragmatic materialists, united more by a passion for science and engineering than any sense of greater purpose, but as their scientific progress drove an economic boom a lot of them became notably acquisitive. Meanwhile, on a distant frontier planet with rampant unemployment, some of them became devoutly spiritual. Neglected by the empire that sent them there, they discovered a mission and ethos that I never intended.

That's one way of looking at what happened. And I only looked at it that way because I'm trying to make my experience interesting and relatable to people who maybe haven't played Stellaris. The other way of looking at it is that my species had a high probability of spawning two new factions that equated to "money people" and "religious people". If I fulfilled some conditions set for each faction, I would get an "influence" bonus that let me do things like recruit more leaders, establish new diplomatic relationships, and expand my frontiers. I have seen, and will see, identical or similar factions crop-up in game after game.

Breathing life into these mechanics requires a willingness to join the game in its often halting efforts at storytelling, and it dawns on me that maybe this is the thing above all others that has repelled me about so many space strategy games. There are people for whom this kind of universe becomes real because they want it to be. Sitting next to Austin as he played Stellaris and we prepared for a stream, I realized that for games like Stellaris to really succeed as fiction, they need their players to approach them almost as tabletop RPGs. The game is simply a robo-GM, setting a scenario before a player who controls an avatar that amounts to little more than generic description around a pile of stats and modifiers… and transform them via the imagination into vibrant fictional world.

All screenshots courtesy Paradox

Watching Austin play, I could kind of see it. He knew his leaders' names and what they had accomplished in their lifetimes. He interrogated his relationships with other races according to the values he had projected onto his own made-up species. Each new event and unlock became another line of the epic poem he was composing about "Plume of Maroon" and his race of science-parrots.

I've always found this an easy thing to do in a tabletop game. If you don't play along with the game master, the reality can fast become dreary: You're just rolling dice against resolution tables in someone's kitchen while looting someone's refrigerator. "Some assembly is required" for both the game and the story, and that's the bargain every tabletop player strikes.

But I find it harder with video and computer games. I think it's because the field of possibilities is genuinely infinite with a tabletop game (especially if you're willing to fudge a few rules here and there). But with games like Stellaris and Alpha Centauri, they're considerably more limited. I find I want them to do some of the heavy lifting, convincing me that they have a world in mind that I can inhabit.

With Stellaris, there are a few moments when I can project something into its universe. My scientists discover what appears to be a breeding ground for "crystalline entities" and note the ominous hints that an ancient and alien intelligence is animating them. My race of devoutly rational bears find ancient tablets chronicling the improbable saga of a bygone empire, and it ignites a frenzy of enthusiasm for alien cultures, driving them to abandon their standoffishness in favor of closer ties with all their neighbors, giving rise the galaxy's first Federation.

But I can see disaster looming on the horizon: my pampered scientists are growing increasingly discontent with my refusal to develop the robotic and synthetic workers that other races employ so successfully. Simultaneously, I just started researching "Sentient AI" in order to get a significant research bonus that will keep me ahead of my stronger neighbors. I tell myself it will probably be fine, but what captivates me is the possibility that it won't. That buffs and bonuses are about to transform into fiction.

But then hours go by, signposted by technologies like "Plasma 3" and new traditions like "One Vision" that boosts unity across the empire and the landscape seems to flatten this briefly booming story once again. A few wars are declared. A science ship finds another class three anomaly. I get a boost to my fleet capacity; now I can field nearly 80 warships, so I do, and I send them to some border or another.

If I really tried hard, I could tell you stories about all those interchangeable trips through the stars, but I'd just be making them up.