Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What "Stellaris" told me about the dangers of technology

In case you never heard of "Stellaris", you're either living under a rock or really aren't that much into really complex and heavy strategy games that need real effort and time to learn. Damn, that came out wrong. So, I'll take it you don't know Stellaris. It's a game by renowned studio Paradox Interactive (Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis, Skylines, among others) in the 4x genre, allowing you to guide a civilization from its earliest FTL days to a sprawling intergalactic empire. As you marrily colonize new planets, research new techs and observe strange phenomena, you're range of options grows and your empire gains in strength, eventually resulting into First Contact with other civilizations and even war. So far, so good. But the game also has some really interesting other features, among the "crisis". And that one's a real bitch. 

So, once you're empire is measuring its age in centuries (and you your playtime in several hours), you can trigger so called crisis events. They're what the name suggests, galaxy-shattering crisis that threaten each and everyone. The interesting thing is the trigger. There are certain technologies in the game that are marked as "dangerous", and you really have to think hard before researching them. For example, there was the really shiny "Sentient AI" waiting in the tech tree, providing a research boost of 10%. That would be a markable improvement and give me an edge over everyone else. However, do you really want to have sentient AI? Especially if you have an army of robots colonizing and working the more unhospitable worlds in your empire? Nah, I though, and left well enough alone. 

Most of the time you play like this.
I wasn't overrun by an army of Arnold Schwarzenegger's angry cousins, but some time later I was informed that a large energy burst had been detected somewhere and a portal be opened. A strange race told me that they were here to destroy everything, and then a second portal opened, and then a third. Before I knew what was happening, half of the galaxy had been overrun, and my fleets faced an enemy stronger than me by a magnitude. What the fuck had happened? I looked up the intricate rules for this in the Stellaris Wiki (thank god for nerds and the internet) and found out that the event was triggered by researching really shiny ship engines called "jump engines" that allowed you to traverse huge distances really quickly. You can guess where this is going. 

Some ship had awoken something bad in another dimension, which now considered my snuggly galaxy as its prime feeding ground. Thing is, I didn't research that thing. Someone else did, one of the many AI controlled empires. I'm sure they enjoyed their huge movement boost for a while. Now, we're all dead. And it's not even my fault, but since we're all interconnected, it affected each and everyone of us (especially my hapless ally, a pacifist race of bird people whose independence I guaranteed and guarded for ages at this point). You're seeing the moral, I trust. 

But the game is really gorgeous.
Reading up the Stellaris Wiki, I discovered that the same procedure would happen for the sentient AI catastrophe, in which case robotic armies would rise and start to rapidly reproduce themselves (needless to say, if you don't stop this in an concerted effort, you stand no chance once the snowball effect is rolling). Again, I could be affected without touching the sentient AI myself. So, there's a certain incentive to the first. 

But it gets worse. When the interdimensional aliens started overrunning everything, old hatreds didn't die. Instead, the race in whose territory the portals opened refused to allow anyone else military access. My other neighbour, a pretty aggressive and rude race of fish people, declined to form an alliance with me against this terror. Everyone was on their own, dying for themselves before the invaders went on to the next victim. There's a moral here as well.


  1. This sounds fascinating. Have you read any other interesting deep dive reviews along these lines? I've read a few about CKII, etc., but not yet for Stellaris.