Stellaris is a deeply engrossing experience. It’s a member of the 4X genre (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit,eXterminate) of strategy games from Paradox Interactive but with a real focus on story telling through the strategic gameplay and emerging narratives.
In Stellaris, the player starts by building the galactic species they wish to guide to stelllar domination. Are you taking charge of a deeply militaristic race of fungoid mushrooms? Perhaps a group of Robotic servitors, bound to protect a lesser species? Maybe your race of humaniods are pacifists from a perfect Gaia world, ready to spread their ideals across the Galaxy. All of these can be built by the player, their species traits, their societal policies and their choice of Government. Each selection of flaws and positives will change how the game will play. These govern how other species react to you, how you can build your population and how combat works in game.
Stellaris’s strength is that the core of the game is built around emerging narrative gameplay.
Every star marks a new system that must be scouted by exploratory science ships. These star systems and planets feature Anomalies, mini events that feature a tiny Sci-Fi Narrative about nuclear wastelands, seemingly abandoned tomb worlds or gigantic walking trees. Researching these provide bursts of narrative that make the universe feel like a vibrant place to be discovered, rather than a list of names to be ticked off and claimed.
Speaking of which, in order to claim ownership of these systems, an empire must build a starbase there. These systems are connected by lanes, which means that there is a strong strategic element of planning ahead in order to scout out tactical advantages. These come from oddities and stellar phenomena like shield debilitating nebulas or swarms of powerful crystalline entities that can be destroyed for resources or studied to learn how to coexist.
From there, the universe expands. There are potentially dozens of species out there in the universe, built using the same system as the player empire. Some will be militarisic religious zealots, bent on wiping out all life other than their own. Some will be materialistic federation builders, adamant on collaboration and strength through resource growth. The diplomacy of the game is fairly simple, but it allows for a measure of galactic intervention, even on the part of players not looking to dominate by military force.
Stellaris’s true strength though, is in those narrative elements that develop as the game goes on. The small scale versions of these are the planetary events that ripple throughout the game. Events like finding a primitive civilisation on a world means they’ll be an empire of their own before too long. If a player decides to interfere with their development as a species, maybe they’ll be a loyal vassal in the future.
Then come the big moments. The Crises. These shake up the state of the universe, helping to break stalemates or provide a means for new empires to rise. These range from all of the Sentient AI in the universe rebelling to form their own sovereign states, to extra-galactic horrors descending upon the Galaxy from a portal, to two tremendously powerful and ancient fallen empires deciding to fight across the cosmos and demanding each of the lesser races pick a side.
These randomised narrative events help to guide the players of Stellaris intitally. But the game does this without necessarily giving up the spontaneity and potential for player driven gameplay. With the crisis system, Stellaris provides a solution to the end game problem that often plagues big strategy games. Where a victory condition requires that the player conquer the majority of the Galaxy or subjugate/ally with the majority of other races, it’s a lot easier when everyone is facing a huge threat that will either force co-operation or wipe out the weaker forces.
While there are problems, with the game potentially becoming very dense with busywork and micromanaging as the scale increases, Stellaris represents an interesting way of solving the dilemmas of narrative and end game burnout, by focussing on improving perennial weaknesses in the genre.
All images taken from Stellaris Steam Page