Games

These Sentient Space Mushrooms Teach an Important Lesson About Fascism

How 'Stellaris' engages with the darkest aspects of politics and power.

by Andreas Inderwildi
Jun 27 2017, 4:00pm

'Stellaris' images courtesy author

The mushroom people of the Suldlom Collective weren't created fascists. Warmongering and xenophobia were alien concepts to the early space-faring Suldlom. They may have been living under an autocratic Archprophet that sanctioned slavery, but, in a strange twist, the Suldlom ideology of collectivism was so entrenched that they actually preferred serving as slaves to being free fungoids. There was no conflict, no apparent cruelty. No dissenting voices.

Then there came the outsiders. The Suldlom discovered the boar-like, "primitive" Hadadeshi on a planet inside their territory and welcomed them into their theocracy, but those fierce individualists wanted no part of this utopia and rebelled. Angered, the Archprophet enslaved the ungrateful Hadadeshi, divided and force-migrated them to far-flung planets, sowing the seeds of future unrest all over the empire.

The grand strategy games of Paradox Entertainment are at their most interesting if you make a conscious effort to reject meta-gaming and min-maxing in favor of more organic playstyles. Even Stellaris, which plays more like a traditional 4X with a focus on victory conditions than, say, Crusader Kings 2, becomes a richer experience if you try to go with the flow. The Suldlom Collective wasn't created for victory. Neither was it cast as a beacon of freedom or a totalitarian hellscape. It was free of a preconceived destiny it had to live up to, and I was curious to see what it would become after dozens of hours of play.

Soon, the Suldlom Collective found itself a victim of alien aggressions, threatened on all sides and by rebels from within. It was time for the Archprophet's strong hand to secure the realm. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so the Suldlom forces annexed their former ally, the meek Shabtak Polity, as well as the already war-torn Nharr Colonies. There was much militaristic pride over this turning of the tables, and an expectation that the enemies of the Suldlom would soon receive their due punishment.

The pre-fascist Suldlom, surrounded by rivals and potential enemies.

Stellaris isn't a game "about" fascism. But being part game, part political simulation, it alludes to some of the mechanisms that drive fascism and thus cannot help but take a stance, express something about it through its systems. Despite the carefully cultivated amorality of most strategy games, there can be no political fence-sitting. Following Ian Bogost's term of "procedural rhetoric", which is concerned with how world views are expressed not through words but systems, the question is not whether it has anything to convey about fascism, but what.

Strategy games like Stellaris, with their constantly shifting power struggles, are adept at seducing players into a lust for domination (perhaps even humiliation) of others. The ponderous beasts of the turn-based or grand strategy genus are especially good at this. The sheer length of these games builds a sense of history, of past slights. The inexorable logic of the simulation, as evident when a much stronger foe invades and there's nothing you can do, creates grudges that can be nursed for perhaps a hundred hours or more. It oscillates between fantasies of victimhood and megalomania. Victory by force in these games is, unlike in a quick match of StarCraft, not just the result of a sports-like competition, but also of a hunger for power, or of disdain for nations or ideologies that stood in your way for far too long. Of course, you can often succeed through peaceful means, but brute force always beckons in the background. They brought this on themselves, you might think. It's a necessary evil, done for the greater good. Or even: it's just numbers, just a game.

It's the promise of a simple, easy solution to all your problems. Why bother with ineffectual diplomacy if you could just eradicate that pesky enemy? That's the fantasy, at least.

Suldlom fleets occupying a star system.

In the long run, the conquest of its enemies only brought about more problems for the Suldlom Collective. Dozens of alien species were integrated or enslaved into the empire, each group with its own explosive concoction of ideologies. And the more the empire expanded, the more difficult it became for the Collective to keep its own fungoids in line. In distant colonies far from the influence of their home world, Suldlom citizens began to question slavery, and even the Archprophet's teachings. While foreign aggressors were biding their time to strike back, the Suldlom Collective was almost torn apart from the inside, and longed for a distant past when its "essence" and ideological "purity" was still undiluted by alien elements.

One of the most ingenious systems of Stellaris is its elegant escalation of complexity. Every nation starts out homogeneous, with just one species whose members share the same cultural dogma and the same genetic traits. It gives the appearance of a "natural order" (all mushroom people are this way), and in most other games, it would stay that way. In Stellaris, however, whether through conquest, migration, or colonization, more and more species and views will settle within your borders over time. There are many real benefits to increasing diversity (different species may be able to colonize previously inaccessible planets, for example), but as your empire grows more complex, it is easy to yearn for a simple, idealized past.

Gradually, Stellaris becomes about the question of how to face the entropic forces of interstellar, multi-species multiculturalism, a question that concerns politics as well as ethics. Will you embrace the foreign and the diversity it brings with it, adjust your policies if necessary? Will you exclude – or even eradicate – it for fear of change and the challenges it brings? Or will you include it only to enslave and exploit it for the benefit of those who are at the center?

The increasingly-complicated population-management screen.

In the end, the Suldlom Collective decided to assimilate, to make the foreign its own; at first, it used old-fashioned propaganda, then orbital mind control stations, and finally even genetic modification to transform its diverse citizens into conformists. Over the course of many decades and a short period of desperate, genocidal purges against dissenters that will never appear in the Suldlom history books, divergence became a distant anomaly at the fringes of a harmonic nation—a place where everyone, Suldlom or not, embraced the slavery that bound them to the greater whole.

When I realized that I helped create a nightmare vision of an unchallenged, sustainable fascist world order encapsulating the better part of the galaxy, I stopped playing. Not just because things had gotten a bit too uncomfortable, but also because there was nothing worthwhile left to struggle against. The machinery of empire and pervasive coercion sustained itself without a hitch.

There are many aspects of fascism that are excluded from this simulation. Casting players in the role of a disembodied, almost godlike ruler, Stellaris struggles to comprehend fascism's populist nature and metastasis. Forcing the player to pick and choose from a menu of political ideologies ignores the way these systems historically bleed into each other, how fascism emerges from dying democracies not as a valid alternative in the political buffet, but as a cancer. And, perhaps, by allowing the player to succeed in building a stable totalitarian state, it ignores that real fascist regimes tend to end in flames and ruin.

Still, it succeeds in other regards. It shows that not all fascist ideologies are created equal. The Suldlom model of a deeply spiritual techno-theocracy that swallows and reshapes the Other rather than trying to eradicate it is just one of many ways in which fascism may rear its ugly head in Stellaris. It also manages to give an impression of fascism's blunt seduction by placing its tools just within the player's reach as promises of easy solutions.

Endgame for the Suldlom, a galaxy-spanning fascist hegemon.

Like most strategy games, Stellaris remains non-judgmental in the face of any atrocities committed by the player, but its world does react to them and gives those choices some moral weight and consequences. Other governments will judge and oppose you, citizens will rebel against you. There's no straightforward fulfilment of the totalitarian fantasy.

This seduction can work only in a fictionalized setting such as Stellaris' sci-fi world. In this world of spacefarers, the player is mostly free of the gravitational pull of outrage felt in the face of real-life incarnations of fascism, allowing them to get up close and personal without being repulsed. At the same time, the similarities are obvious enough that they may encourage players to think about actual political or historical parallels and to look at them from fresh angles.

In the end, Stellaris is not "about" fascism, as its simulation is geared towards escapist entertainment, not political theory. But precisely because of those reasons, it's treatment of fascism can be surprising, empathetic, and instructive. Not the worst way to learn something about the false promises and dangerous mechanisms of a totalitarian ideology.