On Enjoying Grand Strategy Stories

In Monday’s Waypoint Radio, they continued the discuss of what Stellaris does right and wrong when it comes to bringing to life the events that occur throughout a regular game. And, truth be told, I have bounced many times from other Paradox Grand Strategy Games (GSG) such as Europa Universalis, or Crusader Kings, having had the most luck and enjoyment out of Victoria II.

For as much as most of Paradox’s GSG games have history to support the events within, and help contextualize what the simulation comes up with, they always failed to get my imagination going and immerse myself within them. Victoria 2, despite being the most enjoyable for me, also failed in this, feeling much more like I was playing Democracy 3 in another era. And, Stellaris hadn’t escaped that fate.

Part of that, and they touch on this in the podcast, is that there is very little that the game does to direct your attention to these events and contextualize them within themselves. For example, when a population in a far away system of your empire deviates from the official ones, there is nothing that ties that deviation to the rest of the simulation. Mechanically, it was a matter of the random number generator (RNG) rolling a number that meant the population would have a different ethic. However, and whether it happens as such or not in the simulation notwithstanding, when it comes to the player, there is no “Oh, yeah, these planet has been training a lot of troops and they have been fighting, thus they’ve become more militaristic” or perhaps pacifists, as they mourn the losses of their friends and family. There is no “oh, we have been attacked a lot by other empires, so we just don’t like others anymore”. When it comes to the game, there is nothing to tie those mechanical elements to an overall narrative of the history of your empire and the stories of the people that inhabit it.

For as much as Paradox’s GSG games pride themselves in the stories they can produce, and Crusader Kings 2 subreddit is (sometimes) proof of that, their presentation is terrible for the most part. It has improved, and it is remarkable how far they have come – even within Stellaris itself -, but it takes a conscious effort from the player to be able to weave these stories together and produce something worth remembering.

Or, as put in the podcast, somebody who is a Game Master or is otherwise good at improvising from prompts will have a much easier time in doing so. There are still limitations – federations are frustratingly simplistic and barely allow for interactions between its members -, but given the right mindset, there is quite a bit within Stellaris to enjoy.

Once that realization set within me, I understood why I have been enjoying myself more with my recent run of Stellaris (currently threatened by the Unbidden). Not only am I roleplaying as an organization from my world building project, I am also much more comfortable exercising the necessary mental muscles in order to engage with it, and that’s a great feeling to finally be invested in it beyond just wanting to win. Hopefully, Stellaris will continue to improve and communicate some of these little details much better.