Outside Influence – Stellaris

I was going to write part 2 of my general world building series, but I think I want to hold off on that a few more days. See, I recently picked up a computer game called Stellaris, created by Paradox Interactive, and it’s been an absolute blast so far. That aside, the game does a few things particularly well in terms of developing characters and the world (or in this case, universe), which I wanted to highlight. I’ll refrain from any significant judgement on the game itself, but I may accidentally endorse it a few times. Stellaris has its flaws, but I’m definitely freaking out over it. Even as I write this article I’m just thinking about how much I want to jump back into it.

Quickly, though, I want to discuss what the game is all about. If you know how Stellaris works already, feel free to skip this bit, but for those who are unfamiliar with it (or perhaps computer games in general) this may help give some context.

Stellaris puts you in charge of a species (human or otherwise) that has just achieved faster than light travel. Then it lets you explore. The end goal is to control a large portion of the galaxy, but you only start with your home planet, a few ships, minimal resources, and anywhere from 200 to 1000 solar systems to explore (sometimes more if you modify the game files). Each of those star systems have planets, asteroids, moons and other explorable objects. All across the galaxy there are other empires expanding as well, other species that are trying to gain a foothold. Some are friendly, offering great deals in technology or resources in exchange for what you can offer them. Others want to destroy everything you hold dear. Stellaris is a game of space exploration, managing a growing empire, and conquering your rivals.

But first, each player must create their own species to play as. I suppose you could use the pre-made ones but…c’mon…

I Only Spent 30 Minutes Creating my Species


That little fact surprised me. The sheer amount of options that are presented to you when setting up a game–when designing a human or alien species to play as–is staggering. Above you can see the page that determines your society’s government and ethical code, of which there are several variations. This page alone makes you consider things like would this society value the majority over the minority or vice versa?  Does the fact I’m playing as a race of intelligent space cats mean they retain their need for being doted on and cause them to enslave other peoples?  This one page of options presents the player with a multitude of governmental choices that range from military dictatorship to an oligarchy of scientists to a people’s republic and everything in-between. The ethic choices are somewhat simplified, but it still offers plenty of options, and more severe versions of each option. Because you can have up to three ethical stances there is an opportunity for several combinations among the 12 optional ethics you can give your species.

And all this is just in one page. The others help outline things like the appearance of your people, the language, ship design and much more. The whole thing is somewhat simplified on every level to make this creator tool more manageable, but anyone who is trying to outline a culture–be it for a film, novel, game, or anything else–could take a few notes from Paradox’s stellar species builder. In 13 pages of options there are thousands of unique variations. As I went through each page, the species I was creating for my first playthrough became more concrete. For example, I knew I wanted to defy stereotypes and create a species that was both intelligent and strong, though to do this I needed to also pick a harmful trait, which turned out to be “Solitary”. This brought me to the appearance section a few times and I tried to pick a species that seemed to fit that role. I ended up choosing something that looked like a four-eyed secretary bird. I declared that it had become flightless and evolved solid bones rather than the hollow ones most birds we know of have. Knowing all this, I went to the government and ethics page (shown above), and chose to make them militarist and fanatic materialists, following that strong/smart pairing. Soon, I had a race of aves, a bit of lore I’d constructed in the process of creating them, and a sense of who they were as a people.

Adapting to Your Surroundings

In Stellaris, the way you play must change based on what you’re exposed to. By that, I mean that if you’re next to an empire who is perfectly at ease enslaving and attacking you, you’ll have a much different game than if you are bordering a pacifist empire. If you have trouble finding suitable planets to colonize you’ll spend a lot more time exploring the galaxy looking for the perfect planet to claim. There’s not a particularly compelling plot to the game, but the way you play and the things that happen–in a way–become the story. I will forever tell my friends about the time I first booted up the game, spent hours looking for a tropic planet to settle, and then suddenly realized I forgot to explore the star systems closest to home. Both had suitable worlds to colonize. It was a moment of relief and hilarious frustration and I choose to believe it helped characterize my aves. Those birds, smart and strong as they were, were too excited about exploring space and ignored the resources closest to them.

That’s what I’m going with, anyway.

After this colossal mistake, which set my species back rather significantly, is a defining moment for them. In the same way, it’s important for each culture you create to have flaws. I find it’s great fun to have somebody who is superior to us (ie: the rise of Marvel films) but without flaws they simply aren’t as appealing. For my birds in Stellaris, it’s mostly human error–ironic as that may be–but it got me thinking about the governments in my next novel. The Ember Trade is still very much a work in progress, but the core plot is written down on a small document in my computer. I went back to it after discovering that not-too-elusive tropical world I was looking for and went through the characters and governments I’d created, looking for the same sort of human error. I’m not sure if much will change, though I’m certain something will.

The Elements of a Great Story

Stellaris is a peculiar game. In a way, it has no story, choosing instead to put you in a situation and provide a means to for you to progress. How you do that is up to you. That’s where the story is. Everyone will create their own species to take to the stars, and those people will all encounter several unique alien species on their journey. They might discover a relic of some long dead species, dominate an opposing empire, or form a federation of allied powers. I could tell you a story about the space pirates who raided my outpost and how I counterattacked the following year with a fleet of my own. One of my scientists discovered an urn floating in orbit around a sun and I had him study it–after months of investigation they determined it was just an urn and had no idea how it got there. When exploring I discovered a planet with wild flora so dangerous the fauna of said planet was hunted by them. The game provides the opportunity for many stories to be told–just as a strong setting should. Writers, novelists, creatives of all kinds should take note of the situation Stellaris drops its players in. Not only is it a beautiful thing to explore space, but the many varied possibilities generates an incredible number of stories. As an author (which is still an odd thing to hear myself say) I am fascinated by this game because of this fact.

So what can we learn from Stellaris?

Space is pretty, filled with danger, and when expanding you should definitely check out your neighboring stars first.

Side note: I’d like to do a few articles under the main title Outside Influence, a sort of “you can learn from this thing” sort of series. I promise, I’ll make more than one entry.

Photo credit: Paradox Interactive and Stellaris

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *