Jacking in to Stellaris as a fanatical cyberpunk corporate cult in The Machine Age

By admin Jun4,2024

From the moment I understood the weakness of my flesh, I thought: no bother, like. Everyone has different skills. Then, I realised that some other people might be less enlightened than me about the whole ‘having limits’ things, and that there was a lot of money to be made hawking implants. Enter space strategy story-spewer Stellaris, specifically, it’s spost specent spee-LC The Machine Age. It adds many options for your space civs, most of which I’m too rusty with the ever-yawpening sandbox’s myriad nuances to appreciate. But what’s this? A new origin that lets you play as techno-religious corpo-cult obsessed with transcending the limits of their meat prisons through cybernetic augmentations? I recognise that from toys! Let’s do some clicking.

Cyberpunk, for all its narcotic sex appeal and Inspector-Gadget-with-a-coke-problem style, is effectively just a justifiably paranoid vision of a future economy based on deep feelings of inadequacy. Justified because this is just a romantic extrapolation of how the advertising industry actually works. Advertising, bizarre and malicious thing that it can be, exists as perhaps the most evidently and obviously destructive societal force we collectively just accept the continued harm of, while also not being so depressingly evil that it’s no longer at least a little fun to think about. That this is mainly because constant forced exposure therapy means it takes a whole lotta’ evil to actually make us depressed is a gutpunch of a depressing thought in its own right, but hey ho!

You can still have a flitting gallows giggle at, say, cereal made of sugar and wood chippings marketing itself as health food, or Apple coming to rescue you from any vaguely unoptimised avenue for creativity as part of big tech’s quest to make sure you’re never forced to smell anything ever again. It’s much less fun to think about other dystopian banalities like factory farming or Britain’s flourishing arms trade, but advertising? This is an industry we celebrate proportionately to its skill in telling us stylish lies; its ability to disarm us so that we allow its open fist to reach deep into our chest and pull out, still beating, any sense of wholeness or contentment we might feel. Stellaris itself added its ‘Megacorp’ government type yonks ago, and I’ve since found it my go-to when I want to really hammer home the ‘exploit’ slice of the 4X pie.

A lovely menu screen in Stellaris The Machine Age
Image credit: Paradox Interactive

Since the 4X genre’s titular tenets (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) just work so dang well as subheaders on a corporate strategy document, Stellaris’ own Megacorp picks are little syncretic story moments just waiting to happen. Plus, they just suit my playstyle. I aspire not to paint the map, I only wish to dip a toothbrush in my colour and flick it hither and thither, leaving my mark about the galaxy without having to deal with spreadsheets the size of sandworms.

I call my empire the ‘United Earth Corporation’. This is actually something the game suggests to me, and I find its almost brazen lack of imagination more evocative than any of the other, arguably more interesting names I can come up with. We’re using the ‘Cybernetic Creed’ origin, which means we’ll start with several subfactions who just can’t agree on how to replace their fingers with fingers 2.0 and their toes with whisks correctly. We’re also running the ‘Augmentation Bazaars’ civic, which effectively lets us build Cyberpunk’s ripper docs on our planets. Start as you mean to go on, as they say, and I mean to go on to create a stratified class system of deeply unhappy giga-humans. Do you ever think about how all it would take is a single god to not realise the people in his 4X game represented sentient beings to result in an infinity of suffering for countless souls? Me neither!

We spread into space. We take planets. We make money. You know, Stellaris stuff. All the while, the new origin offers up a bevvy of story events with choices. Along with all the other DLC I own, Stellaris has morphed into an impressively exhausting machine for vomiting up a new story event every twenty seconds or so. I make the bad choices. Whenever I see a choice and think, “that sounds bad!” I make it. Brain slugs, eh? Sounds awful. Let’s do it! If they can adequatedly jostle for space with these fancy new craniums, they’ve earned their place here. It’s trickle down economics: whatever new bits of brain the body doesn’t reject and send trickling out of our earholes gets to stay.

It occurs to me that playing a videogame ironically as an evil corp is about as conducive to actual activism as tweeting, just with less irregular spread of serotonin drops. Numbly coaxing you into smirking at your participation in a spiritual revolution while pacifying your need to help enact any sort of material change. But I do think there is a certain emancipatory beauty in Stellaris, found in its evident love of exploration for its own sake and wide-eyed wonder in the macro, and dedication to representing every flavour of sci-fi trope imaginable in the micro. They can sell you stories, but they can’t sell you how to interpret them. Probably. Unfortunately for my population, I mainly just interpret them as the attached tiny modifiers at this point. I have machine brain, and the numbers must go up.

See, like all things in Stellaris, all this lovely storytelling basically just translates into the form of a few percentage modifiers. It’s what you make of it that counts, of course, but I’m deciding to take only the most literal minded approach to it as part of the roleplaying experience. As my society progresses, and more augmentations spread among the populace, we get ever closer to our ultimate goal of transcending the flesh. There’s a whole new traditions tree for cybernetics! It’s pretty transformative! Work really hard, and you’ll eventually unlock the ‘eat shit’ tradition perk. At least, that’s how I read it. “Reprocessing metabolic waste into digestible chemical components.” Yep. We’re all cyborg shitmunchers now. Bring on the future!

By admin

Related Post