Stellaris and the Power of Imagination

Don’t break the fourth wall, you clever child you”- The Rutharian Stellar Empire when I opened communications with them to propose a migration treaty (probably)

Stellaris is a strategy game that has been on PC for many years but in the summer of 2019 was ported to consoles. The best way to describe Stellaris I find is the following. You know the free to play mobile games that would say “Colonize planets! Build fleets! Conquer the Galaxy!? Well Stellaris is one of those but with ridiculously fleshed out mechanics.

Once you’ve picked the species you wish to play as the game allows you to set the governing ethics for your empire (Or megacorp, republic, monarchy, dictatorship etc, it’s up to you) and depending on these will enable you to research minute, specific technologies. Set species rights, design ships. Annex, vassalize, or liberate alien empires. Uplift pre sentient species, genetically modify your own. Sounds complicated? Ya well the console version is almost an entire game worth of updates behind its PC forerunner. We don’t even have planetary districts, ecumenopolises, or starports. All of this probably sounds like a lot to visualize in a game, right? The developers must have an extensive art and modelling department surely? Well not quite.

This is one of the principle charms of Stellaris. That is how it forces the player’s imagination to participate in the play experience and worldbuilding in a way that few modern games do. While most modern games spend vast amounts of resources designing every little object for you from city backdrops to coffee cup logos, Stellaris does not. Planetary invasions are the prime example of this process in action. When you invade a planet for example you will be shown a generic alien background. At the bottom will be a series of red dots to represent the defenders and a bunch of aqua ones opposite represent your armies. Now you can choose the types of army to build, xeno-cavalry, clone commandos, android armies, all depending on what technologies you have researched. You can give them special upgrades too like neo-concrete bunkers or drone swarms.  But what they look like and how they fight is in your head to decide. Do they rush forth like red army masses similar to the soldiers in the 1997 film Starship Troopers, or do they leap and dance across the battlefield in suits of power armour as the soldiers in the 1959 Starship Troopers novel did? Who’s to say? The player will decide for themselves.

Numbers may not be everything, depending on what you think your army is made of.

This extends to planets also. When you view a planet’s surface, you’ll see a member of the race that owns the planet and a window behind them showing a city which will look different if the species is mammalian or reptilian or anything else. Ultimately, what the rest of that civilization looks like is up to you. Stellaris clearly takes cues from the golden age of sci-fi and the pulps of the interwar decades in many ways with its tone and this only adds another layer to the experience of playing the game as we conjure up bizarre alien societies in our heads. A glance at an empire’s governing ethics will only add spice to your imaginative cocktail. Is that spiritualist empire similar to the Covenant from Halo or are they more akin to the Asari from Mass Effect in their religious expression? Again this verdict will lay exclusively with the player.

Now Stellaris doesn’t completely leave our imaginations to do all the heavy lifting. Ships are an example where we can see plenty of detail on the models depending on the weapons equipped. However this only makes sense when the types of weapons your ship has can decide the outcome of an entire war. Going up against the Prethoryn Scourge (Think the Tyranids from Warhammer 40k) for example with no armour piercing weapons is going to be a really bad move. Thus the need to specialize and see those models is necessary. Plus, I think we can all admit, that space battles are fairly cool to watch too. (Even if the bigger ones run the risk of crashing your system!)

(the right armaments can mean the difference between victory and you planet being consumed)

I mentioned technology earlier and I’d like to swing back to it. When playing the game there are three areas for technology research. Physics, Society, and Engineering. Despite several playthroughs I have yet to see every option of research available. Here Stellaris often offers us names and weaves a thread of actual science through its technologies in order to ground the player’s imagination in the real. Ever heard of zero-point energy? Neither had it before i played the game, but this a real concept.

In a way by forcing the player to meet it halfway in terms of visualising the world of its setting Stellaris is a game ideal for those who wish to role play fictional sci-fi empires. Want to play as the Imperium of Man? Make your empire’s a monarchy with strong militaristic and xenophobic ethics and away you go. Personally, I play as a fictional interstellar organization from a world that I have created myself, a world I would one day like to put to paper. Playing this empire out in Stellaris may yet aid in that process, we shall see.

But I am not the first to  have considered this potential use of Stellaris.  The folks over at the Templin Institute did something similar over  a year ago with their series called Stellaris Invicta. Having written up a faction for themselves to play as and incorporating several empires created by their fans, they then engaged on a Stellaris campaign on their Twitch channel and would then craft a narrative for their campaign based on the events that transpired and creating a backstory for their world as well.

While not every game needs to adopt this approach, Stellaris has set the example that many games can follow. For a game of this type such a design philosophy works to enhance our enjoyment of the overall experience rather than hinder it and draws us into its world more. Ironically enough, using less generates more for Stellaris. The art of showing just enough to prompt the imagination but not enough to become a crutch for it.


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