What I’ve just done to Stellaris: seven more thingsfeatured

I’m winding up a wagon-load of work on Paradox’s Stellaris. This is about what I wrote, and what I learnt while I was writing it.

Paradox gave me a very open brief, but stories of unwise trespass and cosmic horror are what I’m known for – and that’s what I saw people anticipating in the comments here. So I’ve gone full-on space-ghost-story – Event Horizon meets the Twilight Zone.

They did, however, ask me to do a linked series of events, and I can see why – even though Stellaris thrives on a healthy mesh of little unrelated events that you encounter some of on each playthrough. There is so much content in the game that adding a three dozen more beans to the stew wouldn’t make much odds, whereas adding, as it were, a rich and spicy sausage is something you’ll notice. So it’s a substantial sausage – an interactive novelette in size.

Here’s some things I found useful when I was putting it together.

1. If a narrative event runs as an interrupt, make sure the first sentence is a grabber. When you’re playing Stellaris, you spend much of your time with the (real-time) game running at high speed, mentally juggling multiple goals, waiting for a planet to get colonised or a fleet to reach its destination. If a window pops up to say SOMETHING SOMETHING FLAVOUR, it’s immediately tempting to mouse over the reward and click ‘OK’ without following the detail. The first sentence needs to justify its presence – give the player a cue for urgency (‘EVERYTHING IS ON FIRE on Pharos III’), for exaample, or just a strong image. I like the intro for one of the vanilla events in Stellaris: “Immense, ragged planes of shadow drift across Pharos II’s face.” Concrete, intriguing, unfussy.

2. Choices engage attention. Much more simply, when that text event pops up, if there are two choices whose outcome isn’t immediately obvious, that will slow you the hell down and encourage you to engage. One-button click-to-advance is a billboard by the road – it might catch your attention, but it’s telling you it’s disposable. Two buttons, though, is a fork in the road.

3. People forget… especially in strategy games. Once again, it’s worth pointing out that when someone is playing a strategy game, especially a 4x, their brain is busy.

Players rarely remember as much of the copy or the story as game writers want them to. We have to review, gloss, repeat in different formulations. It can feel patronising to say ‘Pharos III, where the asteroid hit the nun that one time’, but the player might have forgotten all about that nun. They will likely welcome a quick reminder; and this will also often give them the reason to care from (1).

4. If you’re working with an unfamiliar toolset, double your time estimates, right out of the gate. I stumbled a bit on my initial estimates for Stellaris, because I was so used to writing so fast in the Failbetter CMS; I knew there’d be spin-up time, but it was a little worse than I expected. It’s not just the technology (and I had a very helpful in-house expert); it’s the whole concept, the approach, the conventions. It’s easy to underestimate what you don’t know. Fortunately, I didn’t get much behind, because

5. There’s no substitute for familiarity with the game. I’ve got 75 hours in Stellaris, and it made all the difference, especially with the last point. I’ve been on both sides of this fence, as both client and contractor. I know now that decent familiarity can’t be faked. I know too that hiring people who know and like your game is a big deal. It’s not a substitute for competence, but it means they get it, it means they’ll take much less prep, and it means there’s a good chance they actually want to work for you and aren’t just filling in time between deadlines.

6. Beg, borrow or build characters. I said in my previous post that it was hard to write a story with no characters. Of course that was shorthand. There are characters in Stellaris, or things that perform those functions – the player / their empire, rival empires, free-floating space beasties. But they don’t have distinct motives and arcs in smaller stories.

But Stellaris does have named leaders with quirks. They’re more like equippable items than characters, but wherever I could, I made one into a mini-protagonist or antagonist. Clausewitz, the Paradox scripting engine, is sophisticated enough to support this (and it isn’t a novel approach – original Stellaris did similar things sometimes too.) This immediately gives the narrative, however short, someone to hinge around.

7. Name meaningful names. So you’ve got three hundred words, split into several chunks over time to tell a story about the discovery of a mysterious alien corpse. The player will be switching between this and other stories, and the primary game. How do you help them keep track of what was going on?

Well, one thing: for God’s sake don’t keep referring to ‘the mysterious alien corpse’ if you can help it. It’s vague, it’s clumsy and it pumps your word count up needlessly. Sometimes you just have to (see point 3: people forget) but wherever possible, find a label that will stick.

I tend to prefer evocative real words or phrases. The corpse I put in Stellaris, for instance, is the Messenger. You can overdo this (and I have overdone it sometimes), and invented words, especially if they have some aesthetic or etymological relevance, are fine – like the Cybrex in vanilla Stellaris, or peligin [from pelagic/fuligin] in Sunless Sea. But this is the first work I’ve done that’s going to be localised, and I didn’t want to make life any harder for the translators than necessary.

So I favoured poetry over neology: the Coils of God, the Horizon Signal, the Worm-in-Waiting. I’m reasonably confident those phrases will be memorable.

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