Stellaris has accosted the RPS clan with its sci-fi strategy and alien-on-alien diplomacy. Adam thinks it is an elegant and joyful strategy and story-making machine, while Alec thinks its menus are annoying and John reckons it's nothing but inaccessible gubbins. Now, we are unleashing Brendan into this political maelstrom, where he will assume the role of an all-loving 'father' race of robot Overseers. What could possibly go wrong?
We are the Unboxed. An individualistic, long-living robo-sect of militant conservationists who adore everything. If you don't let us love you, we will murder your entire family.
I'm playing Stellaris as a Synthetic with the use of this lovely mod. Normally, robots are just hardworking (occasionally rebellious) machines you can use to populate inhospitable planets. But we Unboxed are different. Every five years we elect a new leader - the 'Rebooter'. We have no need to grow food on our planets and we reproduce by "manually" building new robots. We are basically Skynet except we're lovely.
We're also super-conservationists. And we are on a mission to find Earth. Not to destroy it, but to visit humanity and "uplift" them. To bring them into the interstellar community and see them blossom into the gentle, space-exploring utopians I know in my circuits they can be.
The Unboxed Republic begin "life" in an unremarkable part of space. Being strict conservationists means we suffer a penalty if we clear away anything on planets we colonise. Forests for instance, or these horrible slums.
So to be absolutely true to the Unboxer spirit, I vow not to clear any tile of its natural environment at all. That means any rain forest, any canyon, any volcano or any herd of weird vicious animals. They will all be protected from demolition.
My first step, however, is to colonise and name all planets and systems in our borders. This is my favourite thing about games like this - the simple ability to rename things on a map. I do the same thing with Cities: Skylines, for instance.
And also in my previous game of Stellaris, where I played as a repugnant race of all-consuming slaver bugs called 'The Scrub'.
But the legendary system of Sol is clearly not in my borders. It must be found. So, I launch a massive exploration mission with multiple science vessels, scouring the galaxy for the humans.
But what's this?
There is another race of pre-sentient creatures in a neighbouring system. I set up an observation post and start teaching them all about hyperdrives and Instagram and it isn't long before I have given birth to my first space child. They have called themselves the Confederation of Pirate Scum, after their home system, which I renamed. I am sure they will grow up to be very nice.
In the meantime, my science ships have found no trace of the Sol system. Captain 'Postpone Updates for 4 Hours' of the 'GIVE ME THEORIES' has made contact with half a dozen other intergalactic races. Meanwhile the crew of the 'LEARNING IS FUN' has explored half the galaxy - everything below the waist.
Just then the spaceworthy races to my east AND west declare me their 'rivals' in some kind of co-ordinated bitching session. Robots are not liked in this galaxy.
One of the subsequent communications from these hostile races includes a weird all-caps insult - probably a language error on the mod's part.
But the syntax mistake is so weirdly fitting that I don't even bother searching how to fix it. The ROBOT_POP_ANDROID people are proud of their underscore heritage.
Nevertheless, I fear a conflict from these new angry neighbours. But the first stab wound comes from an unlikely corner. My own child. The Confederation of Pirate Scum!
Who could have seen this coming? The very rascals we uplifted from their humble origins have declared war on us, demanding energy credits and a change of our voting procedures. Well, robo-democracy will not be bullied like this. The newly-formed warship battalion, the 1st Stern Warning, will be glad to fight.
In Stellaris, if you get a message declaring war, you get to set your own war demands in return. So I set mine as humiliating the Pirate Scum and forcing them to change their first contact protocol to 'peaceful'. This means that if they lose, they will essentially go to their rooms without supper and be nicer to everyone they meet from now on. I could demand them off their planet, murder every last one of them and take the resources for myself. But that's not the Unboxed way.
In the meantime, I send two science vessels - the LEARNING IS FUN and the I WANT HYPOTHESES - on a web-like course of desperate hit-and-run exploration.
Half a dozen new lifeforms cross their paths. Spiritualist fungi, militant reptiles, pacifist bugs. They keep sending me messages, like desperate teenagers on MSN. The science officers breeze past arrogantly, without stopping to chat. Then, there it is.
(I found it by typing it into the search bar)
It is smack bang in the centre of the galaxy. Immediately I send science officer Popcorn Dispenser to survey the system and send all other sciencing teams on a homeward course. Exploration accomplished, boys! They whizz past all the alien races they met along the way, ignoring them like ants, availing themselves of hastily made border pacts I have made on their behalf.
Soon, we have a buffer colony established between Sol and the hordes of horrible alien faces peering at it jealously. I quickly rename this buffer system 'Sol's Best Mate' to avoid any unsolicited advances. And I send the construction ship TOOLS TOOLS TOOLS to make an observation platform high in orbit around the Earth.
As the builder bots do their work, the war bots do battle over the skies of Godawful Toilet Bowl, the capital planet of the Confederation of Pirate Scum. No, I have not forgotten about them. The 1st Stern Warning soon achieves a decisive victory, for which I am sorry. Yes, I'm sorry, little Pirate Scum. All we ever wanted to do was to help you. And now, we have. We have helped you by bombing your planet to bits and embarrassing you in front of all your space friends. You'll understand when you're older.
The Pirate Scum sulk back to their planet, upset and beaten. I forget about them for now and focus on humanity. They are in the middle of a devastating global war - they are going to need all the help I can give them. The soft, pink idiots.
But word has also reached me of a newly discovered species, many lightyears away. A space empire of collectivist insects with a shadowy agenda.
The Scrub have returned.
It turns out Stellaris allows you to load old species' you have created into your new games. But it looks like I forgot to exclude the fearsome Scrub from this one. Whoops. Suddenly a nightmare scenario presents itself to me. What if the Scrub somehow made their way to humanity? Yes, they look small now. But I know them better than anyone. They'll grow. They are monsters. Earth cannot fall into their hands. The humans will be enslaved, or worse, expunged. This can't happen.
Then - joy of joys! - word comes through from the observation post above Earth. The Humans have arisen! They are now a space-faring civilisation - my second-born starchild.
Despite the war, the excitement among the robotic population at this news is palpable. Our leader, C++, is sure to schedule some kind of celebration feast in humanity's honour. It is the year 2232 and it is exciting to see this gentle race of intelligent wanderers coming into the galactic fold, with all their curiousity, their tenacity, their art, their creativity. What kind of wonders will they bring to the galaxy? What kind of people will they be?
A ruthless, capitalist, military junta.
"The Human regime," says their leader, "always strives to deliver the best service to our holding company."
And with that, they build a spaceport around the Earth and immediately send hundreds of marketing ships to my borders.
Truckers. Hundreds of truckers. I decide to let them through and soon the merchant vessels, packed with strange goods, storm our space stations and planets and start setting up shop, hawking human things to any Unboxer they can get a hold of. I shrug this off. That's just the entrepreneurial human spirit, isn't it?
But a couple of months later the truth comes out. Everything they've been selling us has been junk! Trinkets and ill-conceived machinery. And now our economy has hit a severe slump, having a noticeable effect on production. How did we not see these con men coming? We are HYPER INTELLIGENT ROBOTS. This must be how Maggie Thatcher felt when the DeLorean guy sold her that car.
Maybe this is a just a phase, though. Yes, that's it, the humans are just "acting out." I look at human space and realise they are hemmed in by my old buffer planet. As a gesture of good will, I give them this system in exchange for nothing, and establish an embassy on Earth to keep diplomatic channels open at all times. The humans are now in control of both Sol and Sol's Best Mate. It looks pleasant to see humanity's space all their own colour, thanks to our help.
Then I zoom out and am reminded of their name, which is now plastered across the stars.
Hm... And now that I think about it, there were some native people on the planet orbiting Sol's Best Mate, which I have just left behind. Oh well. I'm sure the humans will treat them with respect.
A couple of years pass. More aliens come into view. The galaxy slowly fills.
Most of the civilisations turn out to be peaceful. But the Scrubroach menace is growing. And they are hanging over everything, like a dank cartoon fart cloud.
I am also worried the humans are being too introverted. It has been years and they haven't even set up mining stations in their home system, never mind colonise the perfectly good tropical nightmare planet one system to their spacenorth.
I start to wonder if their vassalage is stifling them. You see, when you uplift a species they automatically become your "vassals", meaning they come fight in your wars and generally don't mess with you. Could it be that this is keeping them insular? Do they need to be weaned off the robo-teet?
I decide to give the humans interstellar independence, but I also guarantee this independence and give them a slew of other goodies to get them on their spacefeet, including star charts, scientific research and 15 minerals worth of pocket money every month. All this for the next 30 years. It is probably the most comprehensive deal I have ever made in Stellaris with a single race.
All the while, the ROBOT_POP_ANDROID people have been selecting a new leader every five years (the 'Rebooter' of the Republic). For instance, C++ was the leader when humanity was uplifted. But following the independence treaty, our people have elected Sticky Keyboard to be the Rebooter. He is the only synthetic among the candidates who is known to be both corrupt and rude, which makes him very qualified. However, he is so insolent that his boorish behaviour actually lowers our trade income, which is normally where a third of all our energy comes from.
But worry not, dear reader! For we, the wise Robo-Republic have just unboxed our third stellar child! This is what they look like.
Aren't they ADORABLE? Born in the faraway Shitposter system, they even have us - their benevolent father race - as neighbours. Isn't that cool!
And see how they gave us a lovely (compliment_plural). Oh, I do so enjoy bringing these marvelous peoples into the stars.
But soon: disaster. From the shadows a messenger passes me a space missive (a pop-up appears in the game). My neighbours, the League of Vhemmbor, have declared spacewar! Remember them? They were the xenophobic koala-bat-bird-things who insulted me all those years ago.
They mean to humiliate everyone in the neighbourhood - and they have struck when the coffers are empty. Look at them on the map below, they are so big. Meanwhile, the Unboxed Republic's own outposts are just tiny orange spots here and there in space, like some horrible cosmic acne. I'm not sure how we're going to get out of this one.
Once again, I reluctantly flick the switch on my Robo-Republic to WAR MODE. Space ravens head out to all the peaceful and spiritual nations of the galaxy, who I once passed by with arrogance, offering a 30 year research deal in exchange for whatever minerals they can afford to donate - a desperate effort to raise the money for a defensive fleet.
As a warband of 20-strong koala-bats cross over the hyperlane gap into my territory, every space raven returns, each of them carrying hundreds of jewels in a little pouch. By which I mean the notification bubbles all pop down from the top of the screen in unison, like coins raining from a slot machine. Grovelling works!
Within a month the koala-bat warband is laying siege to the LAN Party system, bombing the robo-life out of one of our newest colonies.
Enough of this! A war government needs a war leader. The people, annoyed with the unfulfilled promises of Sticky Keyboard, have elected an equally corrupt yet much more charismatic synthetic as the new Rebooter of the Republic.
Our valiant builders are now working overtime. My people are all scrounging every last energy credit they can find and pumping it into the war machine. The resultant megafleet is christened the 1st Severe Scolding and sent to deal with the dread koalas.
Under the leadership of Missile Enthusiast Bot, the koala-bat people reel at the battle of LAN Party, and suffer our robot counter-invasion. The koala League soon surrenders. Their capital system is "liberated" and slavery is forcefully abolished. It is a great day for freedom and democracy. Also thousands have died.
Closer to home, the humans have been growing and colonising new, unexplored worlds. It's so nice to see them on their own two feet.
Why have they raised all these ships?
And why are they marching them into the big purple patch of space where nobody should ever go?
In Stellaris, there are things called "fallen empires". They are huge, nasty blobs on the map who get furious if you go against their will. This purple crowd of fungi-based lifeforms, for instance, are xenophobic hyper-isolationist murderbastards. In other words, they are very touchy mushrooms. Any incursion on their space, even having a colony close to their borders, often results in a devastating, unwinnable war. I hold my breath as the humans go in...
Miraculously, nothing happens. The humans pass out the other side like a healthy stool. Somehow, those plucky humans have skirted right through this space without invoking the wrath of the fallen empire who lives there. Incredible.
With the war over and the humans alive and flourishing, I find myself with some free time. Perhaps it would be good to father some more species? I already have three children - the rebellious Pirate Scum, the mischievous Humans, and the adorably hideous Shitposters. But I want MORE. I'm basically a galactic vagabond, wandering around looking for plump bipedal species' to impregnate with dangerous science. It is not long before the galaxy is giving birth to six new races all at once.
Four of these races are neighbours in the far east of space. They are as follows:
1. a group of sentient canaries deep in a medieval renaissance
2. an aquatic planet full of fungus folk who have just started building combustion engines
3. some eerie but delicate desert snails
4. whatever the fuck these things are
Very promising indeed. I set up frontier posts and start teaching them all about space engines. For the long arm of the Scrub is reaching eastward like a tentacle, and they must not be allowed to enslave these humble, creepy aliens.
At the same time the humans are getting into heated arguments with the giant Xanadree Dominion to their north. Which is not how I raised them. The Xanadree are a toothy species of imperialist reptiles. They look like this.
They are obviously baddies. Within a couple of years - miffed about humanity's posturing and planet grabbing - they declare war. I am forced once again into DEATHBOT MODE - this time to protect my child.
But this Xanadree nation... they are bigger than anything we have fought before. I muster a new fleet of 78 ships, and christen them the '1st Passive Aggressive Note' and I am overjoyed when we are soon joined by Pirate Scum frigates. Ah, my own son, back to aid his family in their hour of need. Quick, a transmission from them is coming through. On screen!
They are a spirited people.
Together we head into battle. But the raid is a disaster. The humans don't even show up for the fight, possibly because they are fleshy and fear death. And the Pirate Scum don't last long when one hundred of the Xanadree's best-equipped ships turn up. It is a massacre. The 1st Passive Aggressive Note ends its days being chased down like a scared vole. When the Xanadree fleet finally catches up to them, admiral Faulty Spark Plug is killed trying to escape, along with his entire crew.
But do not despair. For here comes the 2nd Passive Aggressive Note! A force much stronger than its predecessor.
The humans, who have already technically lost their conflict against the aggressors, are again staying out of the fight. But my robot war machine rolls in and takes revenge on their behalf. Finally, we overcome the terrible Xanadree, who have now renamed themselves the "Adeex", possibly in some effort to confuse and bewilder our robot minds. But it is no use. Their capital falls and they surrender to all our demands, including the abolition of slavery.
Immediately, I give the humans back their rightful lands. Then I give them some more lands just for good measure. I think they call this "reparations", which I'm sure will cause no bitterness.
But treachery is afoot. As this war raged, not one but TWO of my neighbours have struck out at Unboxed space. Infamy! This means I have to get back home lickety split. I reform my navy into the 1st Annoyed Glare, led by veteran admiral Parody Twitter Bot, and stomp home, crushing everything along the way.
As these 'Backstab Wars' come to a close, I check in on all my little nest eggs - the aliens who I have been uplifting. The eastern children are all in the toddler stage! They have their own systems and are stemming the tide of the great Scrub sea.
I am so proud. And I am deeply inspired by their initiative. Perhaps it is time to let them grow of their own accord. "If you love something, grant it space independence," as the saying goes. Without hesitation, I line up all my space children and release them from subjecthood in a single bureaucratic ceremony. What joy they will bring to the galaxy! What love will spread thanks to my tutelage, my wondrous children!
What follows is a clusterbomb of rivalries, dissent, conflicts and insults. It is as if I have just died and everyone is fighting over the contents of the will. The Canaries are annoyed with the Desert Snails and have declared them their "rival", the Fungus Folk have been seduced into protectorate status by a nearby conglomerate of "nice" mammals, and the Humans - my little humans! - have formed an alliance with my most violent neighbours and old war foes, the League of Vhemmbor and they've gone to war with the Adeex/Xanadree again. I don't understand, humanity. I gave you a slew of things - a SLEW - and this is how you repay me!?
I try giving the humans a system, just to calm them down. But for some reason, they don't want it.
With the galaxy in turmoil from so many newly-freed wildcards, and the Scrubroaches to the north consistently united in the most ominously familiar way, I decide it is time to give up and retire the Unboxed Republic. I have fathered more civilisations than I can remember. Eight? Nine? I even tried to form a last-ditch Family Federation. But in the end, most of my space children turned out to be militaristic boneheads or evangelising zealots who hate me.
So the time has come. I begin by giving my systems away, one by one, like I really am writing my last will and testament.
To my youngest starchild, the Belligerent Insects, I give the system of Used Furniture. To the Shitposters, I leave the Wonderful System and its planet, the Planet Of Corpses. To the Desert Snails, I leave K-Pop, Bomb Threats and Starch Based Products. To the Canaries: the systems of Don't Cry For Me Argentina and Propaganda. To my eldest starchild, Pirate Scum, I leave the systems Tina Turner and HBO Presents (at first, they will refuse to accept these because of their weird honour system but eventually, they will agree). And to my second-born, the Humans, I leave the systems of LAN Party, Dust & Skin Flakes, YOLO, Could Be Things Here and Disneyland.
As for us, the Unboxers, we are no more. We have disbanded our fleets and crawled back to our home planet - Microsoft Marketing Dept - where life will be overseen by Governor Skype Call Testing Service.
From this day forward we will uplift no more races, we will fight no more wars. Let no person visit us. We have become our own fallen empire. The Repacked Republic.
But, if you look closely, you can still see our influence in the stars.
Stellaris is out now on Steam for £34.99/$39.99