Stellaris’ wild man-to-monster ride: Descent from democratic federation to fascist empire in 120 minutes

Stellaris is the great space opera simulator I have wanted at several points in my life, normally after watching a random episode of Star Trek.

Stellaris splash screen

A long time ago, in space the final frontier…

The future in Star Trek is great – possibly the only ultimate realisation of a utopian society, yet still with a fleet of ships equipped for battle when those lines of communication aren’t always clear on the first pass.

With Stellaris, my mantra started out as What Would Jean-Luc Picard do? (WWJLPD)

The main thing Stellaris taught me = I am not Jean-Luc Picard.

Episode 1: Live and Let Live

My first discovery as I ventured forth from our solar system, slipping the bonds of earth, was a species of space-based life. It didn’t like us when we flew too close, but it didn’t attack us if we left it alone.

On the one hand, it was blocking a planet that our scientists thought would be useful, but ultimately, there are a lot of planets. The universe is a big place. They’re not hurting us therefore we don’t need to hurt them. Making the decision to observe from afar, I could hear the soft majestic overtones of the end-credits playing as I pulled my explorer ships away from what I’ve affectionately named space whales.

Today I have done a good thing.

Episode 2: The tools of society

There are only so many resources and only so many researchers and so deciding where to focus your efforts is crucial to the governing of any successful federation.

I was proud to direct our efforts towards anything that would benefit society and our engineering feats.

Surveying in Stellaris

Explore, survey and better our society. That’s all we’ll ever need to do.

There were definitely some pouting generals somewhere as all military technology was eschewed in favour of agricultural programs, better ways to research astrological phenomena, extensive funding for the arts and a media studies degree for all.

Space torpedos are only needed by people who intend to fire them after all.

Episode 3: A galaxy of friends

We made first contact very shortly after our encounter with the space whales. Indeed this was a joyous occasion as we mingled with a society that was far more advanced than our own. They didn’t seem overly keen to help us along, but we can all get behind a solid prime directive I suppose.

In my mind, I asked their ambassador if they were a predominantly logical people, if they had pointy ears and showed them a picture of Leonard Nimoy asking “look, basically, do you relate to this guy at all?” In the game, their ambassador did not respond to this because the game isn’t quite designed this way.

Episode 4: Swashbuckling across the stars

A few more systems in and I had cause to build a small number of military ships thanks to the arrival of a fleet of the bane of any civilised society and Hollywood: Pirates. Specifically, space pirates.

Stellaris human ruler portrait

I’ve never had an adviser in a video game regard me with such contempt before.

My cadre of pouting grumpy lesser generals had found themselves a champion and so Afro-Chinese former president-of-earth, Xian Zhao, was appointed to head lead the Pirate Hunters into battle.

Luckily, these pirates were probably local boys, so their military technology was about the same as ours and Xixi sent them packing, because we had a couple more ships than them.

I have a quiet drink with Xian in my ready-room after the incident and concede that sometimes, in rare instances like this with pirates that can’t be reasoned with, there might be a case for military intervention.

The end credits roll with a slightly more melancholy rendition of the theme tune this time.

Episode 5: Bugging out

Then the bugs turn up.

This is the second society of fellow spacefarers I’ve met and the experience is wildly different from the definitely-not-Vulcans I met earlier.

Their initial stance is aggression, hostility and suspicion. In an attempt to follow the WWJLPD mantra, I build an embassy to help salvage our relationship which is already apparently in the gutter. They see this as a trick that they just don’t understand.

Their racial trait might as well be listed as “hates David Hing”.

This episode ends with the bug people abruptly declaring war.

Episode 6: Warborn

Xian is up for re-election as president-of-the-earth, so I make two moves:

  1. Desperately try to negotiate peace with the bug people
  2. Make sure the current president gets re-elected so Xian is free to be hurled into the fray

A series of hastily thrown together research stations pop up across Hing space, adequately fulfilling the current president’s mandate. He ran on a platform of building research stations, and whilst the researchers now stationed in these remote places might be looking nervously at the walls held together by duct tape, it means Xian is still employed as my first (only) general.

The bugs have made a beeline for one particular planet in my federation and laid siege to it.

I respond with a panic-built fleet that I dramatically name as “The Warborn” and send them to defend the planet, whereupon they become known posthumously as “The Warkilled”.

Episode 7: The mid-season finalé wherein we spend the budget and develop characters

The bug people have me on the ropes and they know it.

No amount of negotiation, diplomacy or embassy-tricks are going to save me, and they know it.

That’s when the switch goes off.

Society and engineering projects are put on hold. Research turns to all the military applications possible. We try and find a way to weaponise a media studies degree.

The besieged planet is still holding out and so as a distraction, we take drastic measures. I carefully remove my WWJLPD bracelet and lock it away in a box in my ready room, and issue orders to send the Pirate Hunters to hit one of the bug people’s undefended worlds.

Xian Zhao hits them hard and takes no prisoners (because I haven’t researched a way to do that yet). The undefended planet is quickly brought to its knees and the bug people attack force besieging my planet instantly withdraws some of its fleet to defend its civilians, but it’s too late for them to hit back – Xian is already space dust – ready to take command of our new fleet of Mk II Brawlers.

Space battle in Stellaris

Fight them. Crush them. Destroy them. Repeat.

The Mk II Brawler class can hit harder and be hit harder in turn. They are a massive improvement. The Pirate Hunters swell in numbers and in strength and they ride out to crush the remnants of the siege.

They chase them off. The day is saved. The bug people have retreated. Xian congratulates me on a fight well won.

But I’m not stopping here.

Episode 8: Stars strewn in blood and a galaxy aflame

It is implied that between the mid-season finalé and this episode picking up, the fighting has been going on for some time. The truth is that the bug people didn’t see it coming and didn’t expect it so their aggression is quickly pushed back so far that they have to beg for a cease fire having found themselves utterly outgunned and outclassed.

Grumbling, I grant them their precious ceasefire, allowing them to prolong their inevitable obliteration and enslavement at my hands.

On my way home from the realm of the bug people, I destroy the space whales and set my constructors to strip mine their stupid rock for anything of value.

During the ceasefire, I make use of the time by returning to a planet with a tribe of primitive ape-locals and genetically manipulate them. They are dragged them kicking and screaming into civilisation and become a colony under my dominion.

I enhance their physical strength and warlike attributes. These filthy primitive monkeys will be my disposable shock troops for the many ground assaults to come.

colony management in Stellaris

I never knew you could manage a colony with spite. Now I do.

The end credits now roll to the beat of marching drums.

Episode 9: Birds of a feather don’t get given the benefit of the doubt

When I meet the bird people, they are immediately arrogant and show signs of aggression. They’re tip-toeing around threats.

The bird people have probably not met the bug people yet. If they have, they have not exchanged notes.

The bird people do not get an embassy.

The bird people do not get a second chance.

Nobody gets a second chance.

The war monkeys are loaded into dropships. The fleets are dispatched.

The universe shall be mine and none shall dare oppose me. I lift the hood of my dark robes up to cover my head and summon my apprentice to teach them something evil.

The rest of the fictional TV show based on my time with Stellaris was cancelled because it became depressingly violent, bloody and without hope. Seeing as we already have The Walking Dead and The News it was decided we didn’t need any more of that on our imaginary TVs.

I suspect that my total play-time on this ride with Stellaris was a little more than two hours, but not much more. It can take a while to get your head around the systems, but like a lot of Paradox’s offerings, there is so much user-generated-narrative here that it’s very likely you will come away from this game with an experience that is extremely personal to you.

I now know that the old axiom is true: Power corrupts, but absolute power is ok.

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