Squaddies by the Fireside: Endless Space

“We’ve already mentioned ambience,” continued Alex, “but just to expand on that, the visual inspiration and faction-specific design really made it for me. It’s a total love-letter to space opera. The eight races are all wonderful in their own small way, and even with the distinctions and differences between them, that aesthetic cohesion we talked about runs deep.

“You know what got me, though? The fact that, for such a serious presentation, it remains remarkably full of character for some reason — even amidst the total abstraction of the grand strategy prism. Not bad, considering games like Galactic Civilisations 2 — where humour is much more prevalent — still come off a little dry and soulless.”

Pete stood and poured himself a second gin and tonic. The conversation had made his throat dry. He offered a glass to Alex, who shook his head.

“For me, the attraction of this sort of game — once you understand how it works, of course — is the sense of emergent narrative that unfolds as you play,” said Pete, dropping a couple of icecubes from the tray into his glass. “Will your empire conquer the stars, or is it destined for oblivion? If you think of it as an unfolding story that may well have a tragic end, that makes the inevitable losses — well, inevitable if you’re as inexperienced as me — rather more palatable.”

He topped up the glass with the tonic water and returned to his seat, raising his glass to his companion to wish him well.

“In my current game, for example, the United Empire — my faction — was locked in a bitter conflict with our nearest neighbours the Pilgrims,” he continued. “I fortified my positions and successfully fended off their advances, destroying any of their scouts that dared to come near my systems. The war was a stalemate, though; no-one was going anywhere. I decided that in order to resolve this, an appropriate display of force was in order. So I researched the relevant technologies to improve my invasion capabilities then stormed in to capture two of their systems. They offered peace shortly afterwards.”

Pete took a sip from his glass. Alex realised that he had subconsciously been leaning forward to immerse himself more in his friend’s tale, and sank back into his chair.

“It didn’t stop there, though,” said Pete. “I was hungry for power after this victory, and my other neighbours the Hissho were starting to expand a little too close to my systems for my liking. So I took my invasion fleets up and thought I’d teach them a lesson or two. Two captured systems later, they offered a cease fire — blood rushing in my ears now, I refused and decided to press on confidently… only to be confronted by a fleet of vessels three times stronger than my invasion fleet.”

Pete put his glass down on the table, leaned forward in an expression of sadness and shook his head.

“As my forces took a well-deserved beating, the survivors limped home to the nearest friendly system to lick their wounds and hope to fight another day.”

He looked up at Alex and smiled cheekily.

“All that was unscripted. But the emotional engagement was there just as much as if it had been played out in less abstract form, like a cutscene. That’s the hook for me. The occasional (and usually infuriating) random events only add to this feeling of an unfolding story.”

“I’d say that’s certainly part of the attraction for me, too,” said Alex. “That eeling of guiding a people through a proudly imperialistic expansion through the stars, the unknowns, the surprises, even the failures. I love the developmental and managerial side of Endless Space, too. The fact you’ve so many options to surmount a problem or achieve a goal. It’s true that this is not exclusive to just this game, but once again, the UI and immediately discernible and, moreover, comprehensible feedback makes the navigation of empire much easier than many of its ilk.

“Like any good 4X game, you’ve got to deal with predetermined faction affinities — custom race options are on the way, but let’s use the default settings for now — and understanding workarounds for negative attributes, while at the same time taking advantage of the positive affinities is where the satisfaction begins. Deciding whether to assign a hero to a particular system to boost development of increase labour; whether that hero should gain one perk over the other; if the level increase is worth the upkeep cost in the early game, and so on.”

Pete nodded and waited for his friend to continue, as he felt sure there was more to come. Sure enough, there was.

“But my most favoured aspect of Endless Space has to be the discovery of new systems and worlds. The anticipation of my little scout making its way along a starlane towards an uncharted system is savoured each time. To find a system containing a slew of planets with favourable conditions is one thing, but to find luxury item lodes or deserted cities and temples, or any of the other intriguing artefacts littering the galaxy on distant worlds, is thrilling. It must be like finding that rare drop in Diablo. Combining these discoveries with system colonisation and cultivation, optimising development and turning a lonely outpost into a thriving planetary hub, fine-tuning and trying to minimise the effects of negative elements… it’s just very, very rewarding.”

Alex realised after a moment that he had stood up as part of his impassioned speech. Pete looked at him with some amusement as he sheepishly sat back down again.