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Experiments in narrative generation

23 May 202111:11AMgames


The STRANGER comments on a pair of WILDLY DIFFERENT ALIENS, one FOX-LIKE AND MAMMALIAN, the other REPTILIAN. The ALIENS are dressed alike and appear to be deep in conversation, in an exotic but clearly shared language.

"What's their deal?"
"Oh yeah, they're from the Commonality, they're everywhere."
"The commonality, they're... a species?"
"Started as one. Lost Raltek colony found an ancient gene database, ended up de-extincting and genetweaking and crossbreeding their way into every niche in the galaxy. Now they're more of a... project."
"And are they friendly?"
"Friendly enough. Just don't tell them there's anything they can't do. Or anywhere they shouldn't go or... anything, else really. Stubborn, tenacious bastards, they'll fit in anywhere, whether you want them to or not. Guess that's what you get living in the Galaxy's lost-and-found box though."

So this is a tiny excerpt from a surprisingly long document documenting the backstory of the species I'm playing in a game of Stellaris, a galactic-scale space strategy game by Paradox Interactive.

Most of the game takes place on a pretty generic-looking map of a pretty-generic-looking galaxy.

The game gives you control of a civilisation on the verge of settling in other star systems, in a galaxy that's very much lived-in. It's packed with sci-fi tropes from every medium and subgenre under the sun, but the overarching theme tends towards the "ancient precursors leaving mysterious ruins" kind of story. It's a galaxy filled with very old, very dangerous, very valuable things, and a large chunk of the first part of the game is dedicated to figuring out what's going on.

The game has quite a lot of this stuff written into it. The engine is pretty flexbile. All of that backstory is lavishly illustrated choose-your-own-adventure with the end results plugged into the game engine, which is essentially a very complicated spreadsheet. The game throws these events at you at random, and how you choose to react is both entirely up to you and has real impacts on the way the game will play out going forwards.

What's fascinating to me is that it gives you just enough backstory and just enough constraint that you really can't help but fill in the gaps. You make a choice - say, activating an ancient gene database to give you citizens who are perfectly adapted to a new planet you're settling. On the surface it's because it's going to give you some kind of bonus, like higher productivity on that planet because you're not fighting the environment. But then, because so much of the game is framed in terms of stories, you're left wondering how that played out - and that part isn't written down. You have to write it yourself. What kind of species - what kind of person de-extincts species from an ancient database on a whim? What drives you to make that kind of choice, and what kind of consequences does it have on your society?

Which... if you're being technical, probably counts as fanfiction. Except it's fanfiction about your game, not the game. Maybe it's collaborative fiction? Or hey, maybe it's a thing we already have a word for - maybe it's an RPG, in the tabletop-y sense of the word, with the software as game master.

I've never roleplayed as an entire species before, and it's a wild ride.

So yeah - I'm roleplaying as a species of aggressively pragmatic fox-people, stranded on a faraway planet and forced to survive with nothing but their wits. They adopt a philosophy of extreme adaptability in the face of adversity. They come to thrive on their adopted homeworld. Then they find a very powerful, very ancient tool without changing their mindset at all, and they and their posse of gene-edited and de-extincted compatriots start sliding their way into every marginally habitable niche in the volume.

Binary planet around a neutron star? No worries, there's a species for that.

Are they a species any more? Or a project? Or are they a Culture? Is biology just a computing substrate for society and values? How does a culture that doesn't see species as relevant interact with one that does?

When you encounter another species for the first time, how do you react? And how do they?

How does a culture who aggressively modify themselves to match their planets' needs fit into a galaxy that aggressively modifies planets to match their biological needs?

When an ingame story event offers you the chance to genetically engineer your species permanantly with unknown results, do you take it?

What happens when they run into the civilisation who sent out the colony ship in the first place, to whom their shared name means something very different?

When your progenitor civilisation closes their borders to you because you have nothing in common, how do you react?

Is this exactly what the ancient aliens who built the genetic archive intended? Is the commonality just a world-seeding effort now? Or are we more like an invasive species?

Are we the baddies?

Much like a game of D&D, I won't know the answers to these questions until they come up in a game and I have to make a call. And, again like D&D, I can't tell where the game's story ends and my story starts - and I don't actually think it matters.

This is legitimately interesting sci-fi generated by game mechanics, and actively enriched by online multiplayer, and that's kind of rad.

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