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I Really Wanted To Be Able To Play Stellaris

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I have written far too many times over the years about my dislike of strategy games. Not because I find them at fault, and I certainly don’t have any criticism for those who enjoy them. Primarily because I’d love to be in their numbers – having a whole other genre to love, you’d have to be crazy to reject that notion. There would be so many classic games I could suddenly sink into, so many games in 2016 to look forward to, and maybe I’d even start enjoying doing my taxes too.

Having heard Adam raving about Stellaris, heard his amazing-sounding anecdotes of alien encounters and galaxy-wide adventures, and seen the huge excitement amongst strategy fans during its release, I thought: right, this is it. I’m going to get past this. I’m going to get into Stellaris. I lasted half an hour.

Oh my goodness.

So, yes, perhaps I was leaping head first into a deep end filled with spikes, but good grief, my head began to hurt. I opted for the full tutorial, obviously, with everything explained to me in explicit detail. I was going to bloody well learn something, and I was going to get past my fears and concerns and hang-ups. I’m not sure even the first tutorial pop-up managed to not get interrupted.

Stellaris, it turns out, doesn’t want new people. It wants people that already understand how to play Stellaris. I cannot think of any other reason why the interface should be so hell-bent on making it impossible to figure out how. Tips incessantly popped up over tips, following one instruction was almost always interrupted midway with a demand to do something else. Send a science ship to a planet, I was told. But where should I click to do that? Oh, where to click is stored in this other menu, over there! Right, okay, click on that – and a wall of text conceals the three instructions I need to follow. I obey the first, clicking on another window, and the explanatory window disappears. Every time. It’s not possible to follow multi-stage instructions in turn – you have to memorise them all at once and then carry them out, while guessing which piece of information wasn’t quite accurate. Send that science ship off and suddenly the entire solar system is a mad mess of orange lines – was that meant to happen? Oh, apparently yes, apparently sending a science ship to check out a single planet has it dart around the place looking at absolutely everything in the most fuel inefficient order imaginable.

Each instruction from the tutorial proper appears top-right, of which only the first paragraph is read out loud – as you try to follow the verbal guide while clicking on what it’s tell you to, it cuts itself off every single time and you have to look back to read the rest. But wait, no, you can’t read it because now something else has popped up! Or indeed hasn’t – oftentimes the only way to have it let you carry on following the tutorial is to tell another block of text to NEVER APPEAR AGAIN so you can get on with what you were trying to learn, that other fact eternally tossed into a black hole.

Within minutes I’m being told to carry out five or six different tasks at once, none of them meaningfully explained, all of them seeming to involve trying to click on a tiny, tiny ship and instructing it to go somewhere to do something via entirely unintuitive menu options and tiny obfuscatory buttons while not knowing if I’ve done the other tasks properly, still trying to work out what the bleeding heck the “tiles” on a planet are about (apparently planets in this universe are so astonishingly tiny they can only fit about twelve buildings), and never actually figuring out how to assign a worker to a building I’d created despite the game being absolutely determined that I must. I was exhausted.

And this is all after having had to pick a race and start a game via the most extraordinarily complicated set of options, of which none is explained. I went with the octopus-faced people, because octopuses are bloody brilliant, but I’ve no idea if that was a good thing or not. And should I have customised things? All the customisation options were terrifying, opaque, and I was at that point about to give up before the game had even started. So I went with default octopus-faced people. No idea what that means.

The whole experience felt like a parody of my mind’s views of strategy games. It was as if someone had set out to make a game as inaccessible and unwelcoming as possible, going to incredible lengths to make sure someone new to the genre could only be bewildered and demoralised. After half an hour – just half an hour – I couldn’t stand any more. It wasn’t about to become clear – it was only piling on more and more barely-explained guff, until I felt like I was being handed so many plates in an ever-more precarious pile towering above my head, and had no desire to watch them all come crashing down around me. So I quit out.

I’m so envious. I so want to experience the superb-sounding tales Adam relates of his time with the game. But maybe I’m genetically coded to be incompatible with these games, or maybe this is a genre that is so entrenched within its own established player-base that there’s no room nor desire for outsiders. The conflicting, overlapping, rapidly disappearing tutorial messages may as well have read, “Already know how to…” for the help they were. And so, yet again, I shall stare at strategy gaming from outside the misted up windows, wondering at how anyone was able to get inside in the first place.

This post was originally published to the RPS Supporter Program.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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