Stellaris: The Final Frontier of Late Capitalism
Nearly everyone who’s played Paradox’s grand strategy game Stellaris agrees on one thing: the opening is sublime. Like Crusader Kings or Civilization, Stellaris lets you methodically steer a society across time and space. Only this time you’re dropped into a Star Trek-inspired universe instead of a historical scenario. After meticulously crafting a species and government, you appear on your home planet surrounded by twinkling stars, and there’s a legitimate sense of wonder as you pilot science ships into the unknown, uncovering one mystery after another.
In my first playthrough of the massive strategy game, I created a race of altruistic humans operating as the Democratic Reform Movement of the United Nations of Earth. Our goals were exploring outer space, making pals with distant aliens, and colonizing planets in an attempt to spread liberal democracy across the stars. It was a hopeful mission in line with my leftwing politics, and the early game of Stellaris does a wonderful job maintaining joy as the universe is revealed to you star system-by-star system. I discovered an ancient species who believed they were trapped in a virtual reality simulation and giant worms who communicated through vibrations. In the real world, I felt paralyzed by the onslaught of news coming out of Washington—Trump, science denial, the collapsing healthcare industry, the looming iceberg of climate change—but in Stellaris, my citizens sailed through the stars welcoming all species with open arms into their democratic socialist utopia.
But we all know how utopias turn out, right?
Overwhelmingly, reviewers love Stellaris’ opening set pieces and incredible sense of scale and spectacle. However, they also pan its mid-game, a long stretch when the universe has already been explored, each society’s borders bumping uncomfortably against each other. At IGN, Rowan Kaiser wrote, “In the transition from the early game to the mid-game, Stellaris grinds to a halt. The vast majority of my time playing was spent staring at the screen, waiting for something, anything interesting to happen. It usually didn’t.” The sense of wonder and exploration that is so constant early on is replaced by tedious bureaucracy, by the player twiddling her thumbs, micromanaging resources and policy edicts, or starting a war just to have something to do.
By the time I reached the mid-game, my society of happy-go-lucky hippies had already waged war for our beliefs with the Ogi-Nollox Star Empire, an oppressive band of zealot fungoids. As tensions worsened, we abandoned our altruistic principles and built defensive spaceports and battleships before overwhelming them with a show of force that forever changed the way other societies viewed our goofy liberal populace. But a funny thing happened after the war—a radical political faction spread like wildfire across our many colonies.
Although players and reviewers have criticized how much micromanaging is required to keep your citizenry happy in Stellaris, I was bowled over by how eerily my future space society mirrored our own. Our democratic project began in a spirit of hope and wonder and altruism, but as the decades piled up, that sensibility crumbled to extremist factions refusing to cross the aisle and actually listen to each other. Thankfully, some of these political parties held viewpoints that were at least similar to my own. Take, for example, the Xeno Compassion League. Consisting mostly of lefty humans and fungoid refugees from the Ogi-Nollox Star Empire, they lobbied for diversity and against slavery and isolation. Okay. That synced up pretty well with the fundamental tenets of the ruling Democratic Reform Movement. But that wasn’t the case with the nefariously named Glory Initiative or the Financial Development Foundation or the Human Unity Vanguard. The GIs wanted to dominate the universe. The FDF claimed all that mattered was resource production and cash. And the HUVs felt threatened as more and more aliens joined our democracy. They yearned to #MakeTheUnitedNationsOfEarthGreatAgain and demanded special rights as the founding culture of our democracy.
As we expanded our borders, eight political factions sprouted up alongside the Democratic Reform Movement. Their viewpoints and goals were so diverse, so conflicting, and, in many cases, so fringe and outright troubling that our society descended into a blubbering mess lacking true political ideals. We were trapped in a corner of the galaxy surrounded by either small isolationist cultures who refused to let us pass or the Till’Lynesi Empire, a band of imperialist space birds with a war fleet that dwarfed our own. There was nowhere for my society to expand and nowhere for my society to explore, so I burned decades trading resources with friendly cultures or quelling protests across my unhappy populace. The only things my citizens agreed upon were money, production, food, so we ramped up excavation of home worlds and outposts, slowly eating them from the inside out. We developed sentient androids and relied on them to colonize, explore, and produce, allowing our humans and aliens to become sedentary and bitter. So, I succumbed to propaganda and cultural monuments and even reeducation camps and could no longer reconcile this bloated, corrupt mess with the hopeful explorers we’d been merely a century earlier. The verdict on our noble experiment was in, and the results weren’t pretty: our democracy was on life support.
The mid-section of Stellaris isn’t fun, and that’s why I love it. Beyond the sci-fi trappings and Civilization-esque feedback loop waits an embedded critique of late capitalism, of the long and painful transition from a flawed democracy into a resource-obsessed, neoliberal culture overwhelmed by the interests of splinter groups like the Tea Party. Behind the altruism, behind the seemingly good-natured instinct to explore, behind the crusty veneer of the Democratic Reform Movement lurked one troubling truth: production and consumption. That was the fundamental guiding force of my galactic civilization, and because of that there could never be peace or unity or any reasonable progressive victory. Or, at least, that seemed to be the point of the many hours I wasted waiting for something to happen as my money and resources ticked up, up, up, my citizens’ happiness cratering down, down, down.
Eventually, we sacrificed everything we held self-evident in an attempt to “win” the game. You can successfully complete Stellaris in three ways: you control 40% of the universe, you destroy or subjugate all other civilizations, or you join a Federation and collectively control 60% of the universe. I knew we could never defeat the 11 remaining civilizations, and we barely controlled 20% of the universe, let alone 40%. So, we sucked up our pride and altered our views on bombing cities and initiating wars. We pledged donations to the Glorious Entente Federation and, after many years of strict obedience and pacifism, were finally allowed entry. If you’re a Star Trek fan, the Federation perhaps produces visions of level-headed nerds observing the cosmos and obeying the Prime Directive. Such is not the case with the Glorious Entente. Although its members were diverse in terms of species and culture—a bureaucracy of slugs, theocratic sheep, trader monsters, and democratic birds—our two goals were disturbingly simple: money and expansion. There was no altruistic bent to it like when my civilization tried to free the fungoids from the Ogi-Nollox Star Empire a century earlier. The Glorious Entente merely wished to expand because that meant more resources and money. In that way, their ideology remained pure and easily consumed by their diverse citizens. Greed is good!
Together, the Glorious Entente embarked upon a series of proxy wars knocking over governments that had the audacity to want to be left alone. Their only crime was denying us access to planets with more resources. But here’s the thing about money. Once you’re a billionaire or even a millionaire, you don’t really need more. All of our civilizations were rich, but there was practically nothing for us to spend our money on. Lose even a few credits, however, and the Financial Development Foundation lost their shit, grinding our government and culture to a halt. Decades passed in this way as we approached the 60% threshold, but then, Stellaris threw a curve ball: the Unbidden.
Suddenly, a rift opened in the fabric of space and out poured these electricity monsters called the Unbidden who told every living thing in our universe that we were food and they were hungry. Okay, I thought. Here’s the reason you even have a Federation in a game like Stellaris. We’ll band together and beat back the Unbidden, and that’ll be the uplifting crescendo that ends the game. I waited patiently as the Unbidden ate planet after planet on the other side of the universe. I waited patiently as the Unbidden established dimensional anchor after dimensional anchor which would make it even harder to destroy the portal they used to enter our universe. Finally, it became clear to me that the Federation’s official stance on the Unbidden and their whole eating the universe policy was ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Most of the Federation was engaged in yet another war with a weaker society over a few measly resource tiles, but meanwhile, the Unbidden were well on their way to killing everything and everyone. Here was the final terminus of unchecked bureaucracy: multiple societies bickering as the end of everything wiped them out one by one. The Unbidden are climate change. The Unbidden are nuclear power. The Unbidden are food shortages. The Unbidden are global plague. The Unbidden are overpopulation. The Unbidden are the end.
In a last-ditch effort, I abandoned every single project on my planets and began the slow churning of warships. I paid for border treaties and traveled across the universe and barely, just barely, beat back the Unbidden and destroyed their dimensional portal by myself. No one cared that I’d saved the universe from this incredible threat, and the game continued like nothing even happened, the Federation too busy establishing mining colonies in the far southeast recesses of the universe.
Finally, I just wanted everything to end. Our democracy was a failure, and so was I. Our hopes and dreams when we first took to the stars were dead, replaced by reeducation camps, an android workforce, and smaller civilizations who pledged themselves as our vassals. I only needed two more colonized planets to “win” the game, but years and years passed without anyone in the Federation stumbling across anything new. And that’s when everything finally became clear to me: how I would end the game. Across the universe, fairly close to where I’d destroyed the Unbidden, waited a primitive society, the Enlighted Kingdom of K’Karom, a monarchy of peaceful birds. They’d basically done nothing the entire game beyond hanging out on their three planets researching weird shit. All they asked was to be left alone, and since their planets weren’t resource-heavy and they weren’t actively oppressing their citizens, the Federation and the other remaining civilizations were happy to oblige. Basically, they were Switzerland.
To win the game, I decided to nuke Switzerland. Think back to when my people first climbed that metaphorical ladder into the stars. We were a bunch of smiling Keith Ellisons, content to meet new aliens and invite them into our shiny, new democracy, but only if they wanted. Now, I was going to exterminate a small, peaceful, and defenseless race just so I could re-colonize its planets and meet the winning conditions of the game. This was the end of democracy. This was the end of altruism. This was the end of civilization. I amassed a fleet with over 77,000 attack power and used the same passageways I’d flown to fight the Unbidden to reach the outer borders of the Enlightened Kingdom. I didn’t tell the Federation what I was doing, and just as I was about to attack their measly defenses and wipe out their people, the “win” screen appeared.
Unbeknownst to me, one of the Federation civilizations finally got around to sending androids to two planets unfit for biological life. The game was over, not because I did anything, but because the guiding philosophy of our late capitalist Federation won out: expand, amass, expand, amass, consequences be damned. I clicked out of the winning message and stared at the 616 warships I’d assembled in the Enlightened Kingdom. Those monarch birds, on the other hand, possessed maybe 12. I stared for a very long time before saving the game for the final time. Was my playthrough of Stellaris an unintentional critique of bloated America, or was it an indictment of me and my half-hearted progressive politics? I’m still troubled by the answer.