Endless Space and Why Can't We Have Anarchist Strategy Games
JULY 11, 2017 By MARGARET KILLJOY
This morning I conquered an entire galaxy as a race of spacefaring, pacifist-ish, ecologically-focused anarchist robots. I won an economic victory. There’s probably some irony there.
Endless Space is a damn good game. I’ve played its non-space-based sequel Endless Legends a couple of times, and I think I actually like this spacey one better. I play strategy games to lose myself for a day or three after too much bullshit like work and the world being a garbage fire, and this is now one of my favorites. I’m sure I’ll sacrifice more of the finite hours in which I’m alive to play this game.
It’s a “4X” game, which is like some weird acronym for things that don’t start with the letter X [editor’s note: “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate”]. Basically, it’s the genre of turn-based games in which you construct buildings, research technologies, extract resources, colonize territory, negotiate trade deals, and go to war.
Which doesn’t sound very anarchist now that I’m typing it out.
Why am I addicted to these fucking things?
I played a race called the Automatons and of course I played it because one of their traits is “anarchist.” Anarchist, as a trait, means they aren’t as good at piling lots of ships into big, coordinated fleets because they have fewer “command points.” Which I got defensive about for a moment, then shrugged my shoulders and said “well, maybe, sure.” We’re actually pretty good at mobilizing large forces, we’re just less good at, you know, having them operate under a single leader. Hierarchy might be better suited for the kind of command structure you’re forced into with this kind of game.
Which is exactly my problem.
I wish I could play a strategy game that actually reflected the ways I think tactically, economically, and socially. You’re always stuck being a space tyrant.
Take, for example, that this same race is “pacifist.” I’m sure nuked at least ten enemy planets from orbit over the course of the game. Because I had to, in order to win. If I’d played entirely defensively, I would have been wiped out. If I’d laid slow and careful siege to my enemies, making sure not to cause civilian casualties, see the aforementioned “wiped out.”
But fuck, I wish I could play a strategy game that actually reflected the ways I think tactically, economically, and socially.
You’re always stuck being a space tyrant. You can be a conquering space tyrant or a neoliberal space tyrant. I guess you can win by science or by building neat stuff, but you’ll probably have to be tyrannical to do it.
The Bolsheviks, after they murdered the rest of us, didn’t change the underlying nature of the strategy game of global politics. They just joined in as another faction, gathering territories, resources, research, and funds in their bid for global hegemony.
I know what you’re thinking. Well, I know what I’d be thinking if I were reading this article. I’d be thinking: “Yeah, but the limitations of a singleplayer game structure require there to be a single commanding voice, creating this supposed tyranny.” I get that. Like… books and movies are often better with single strong protagonists, even if global conflicts and history are better understood without that limited narrative. I know that when I play a strategy game, it’s going to be me commanding my part of it. That’s the macro structure of these games, and I don’t see that changing particularly. Even with cooperative games, that will continue to be an element of it.
What matters to me are the details. A lot of work goes into varying the factions in games like these so that each race or society plays differently. What would an anarchist faction, an actual anarchist faction, look like?
What if you didn’t recruit soldiers with money or industry, but with propaganda or — better yet — inspiration from the battles fought at the front? What if, rather than invading alien factions, you fomented revolt within them, and when they throw off their oppressors they don’t join your faction so literally, but instead become an autonomous, potentially-allied force of their own?
As an aside, this is exactly what went wrong with the Soviet Union. (Well, one of the things that went wrong with it). In the name of “anti-imperialism” and “anti-capitalism” they created a strong imperial state that people smarter than me have described as “state capitalism.” The Bolsheviks, after they murdered the rest of us, didn’t change the underlying nature of the strategy game of global politics. They just joined in as another faction, gathering territories, resources, research, and funds in their bid for global hegemony.
A real revolution would change the rules of the game entirely.
Of course, in the real world or a space strategy game, it would be in every other faction’s interest to team up to crush you. But anarchy — or really, just the idea of actual liberty, whether informed by the western political philosophy of anarchism or by various other traditions — can never really be destroyed.
What if we had swarm tactics instead of fleets? What if they weren’t ruled by discipline, but fueled by the passion and the spontaneity of autonomous people?
What if some video game developer hired me to make a game like this? I promise to avoid publicly advocating pirating it.
What if, better yet, we changed the real world’s underlying rules and took control of our own lives and created a free society? If we did that, imagine all the awesome video games people would make.
In the meantime, I’ll probably buy Endless Space 2. I hear it’s pretty good.