Stellaris, Paradox's new space strategy game, may give the space strategy genre new life

March 25, 2016 by Rowan Kaiser

It's not just another Master of Orion wannabe.

“MAKE SPACE GREAT AGAIN” read the hats. Cheap, small, white font, on a bright red baseball cap. A cute little joke for Paradox’s Stellaris presenters at their GDC press conference, unveiling their big trailer, and their May 9th release date.

The phrase worked for me. I want space games--specifically, science fiction grand strategy games, where humanity (and others) head to the stars--to be better. For two decades now they’ve been stuck in a rut of trying to be Master of Orion 2, itself an attempt to be Civilization in Space. And there are other ways to do this kind of game, dammit. I’m angry. I need a figurehead to take my incoherent rage about the lack of a Babylon 5 simulator and win my damn vote already.

And Paradox Development Studio seems like exactly the right development to do this. For one thing, they’ve already presented the best counter to Civilization-style historical strategy games. In the last couple years, PDS’ Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4 have garnered mainstream attention for their effective reframing of history as political and diplomatic. CK2 has been especially fantastic at combining epic strategy with intensely personal dynastic and courtly intrigue, via a simple, clever set of transparent mechanics.

Stellaris has the same lead designer as CK2 as well--Henrik Fahraeus--and the main reason I’ve been getting excited about it is that it seems to be doing for space strategy games what CK2 did for history; tweaking things in all the right places. A rigid tech tree of the kind that makes sense for real history, applied to a science fiction game? No, Stellaris uses semi-randomized techs, drawn from a deck like cards for research. That weird science fiction trope, both in games and television, where empires are species? Stellaris essentially demands multi-cultural empires, with desert-dwellers reliant on water races for colonization.

But there’s that silly Trump joke, teasing what could well be a genuine American crisis. It feels, well, mildly irresponsible from a company that does uses game mechanics as historical representation.

This feeling would be reinforced later at GDC, when developer Chris King gave a presentation on how Paradox managed the relationship of history and game design. King’s presentation, from a design perspective, made sense, yet all of his examples--Hitler’s Anschluss, Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, and the colonial Scramble for Africa--were all examples loaded with ethical and emotional weight, and King just blew right past that. What was amazing about Crusader Kings 2 was that it was smart, that it wasn’t “just a game,” but actually used game mechanics to say something about history, power, and human nature.

But science fiction isn’t history. Epic science fiction, like Stellaris, can’t be history. The difficulty of space colonization suggests that not only may we not make it out of the solar system, we not make it off of Earth. Space, the very thing that’s supposed to be made great again, may be little more than a distraction from the real problems of Earth: an unattainable dream that stops us from doing what needs to be done here. The Stellaris trailer seems to embody that possibly futile dream of space colonization, starting with “Ever since the dawn of our civilization, we’ve been reaching for the heavens.”

We probably shouldn’t view space opera on this scale as an aspirational future. That’s the point: it’s a story, it’s a metaphor. It tells us about ourselves to hold these ideas. As Giant Bomb’s Austin Walker pointed out upon the trailer’s release, the story isn’t about going to the stars and taking over. It’s about how the same problems we have on Earth come with us to the stars: a ship destroyed for trying to colonize too soon, with diplomacy coming too late. (It’s also a scene that could be straight out of Babylon 5: first contact gone horribly awry, leading to disaster.)

And this is all there, in the Stellaris previews I go to. This time: Star Trek-style Federations on display, with various empires uniting, creating joint fleets with the best technology of all of the member races. Or, depending on your empire’s political system and member races, you can actually see the leader who defines your empire in diplomacy change races.

It’s all of these little things, slowly adding up, that make Stellaris so promising. It’s not that there’s one specific thing that makes it look great, it’s that Paradox seems to have a deliberate answer for why their game is the way it is beyond “Master of Orion did it.” Each empire has its own ethics, which give it specific government types--and these create special building opportunities. A peaceful, friendly race can build helpful gardens on their planets, while a grand autocratic empire can build grand Death Star-like space stations. The leaders that you talk to are actual individuals in the game, and they change with the politics of the empire.

And if Paradox gets it right? It could be huge for strategy games, a genre that’s been utterly dominated by Civilization and Civilization-style games for so long that it can seem like that’s the only way to do it. The two chief problems for Paradox to garner mainstream attention have been their imposing interfaces and narrow historical focuses. Stellaris is showing the potential to fix both of these things at the same time: space colonization is a simple hook, and can be used to more slowly introduce game complexity. It’s an exciting opportunity for all kinds of strategy and science fiction fans to have space made great again. Let’s just hope they don’t Trump it up.