Thursday, July 23, 2020

Reach For The Stars

I just lost my first game of Stellaris!

It was pretty fun, and I expect I will lose more games in the future.

Stellaris has been on my radar for a while. I've been longing for a big, meaty strategy game to dig into, but have been underwhelmed by the last few incarnations of Civilization, which has historically been my go-to. Even after picking up Civ VI for free on the Epic Games Store recently, I think I only played for like thirty minutes before getting bored and annoyed and haven't picked it back up again. Stellaris has a really great reputation, and I'd thoroughly enjoyed my previous experiences with Europa Universalis 3, so I was delighted to receive it as a gift from my ever-reliable brother and dig into it.

The learning curve for these games is brutal. The Stellaris tutorial is significantly better than the EU3 one, which was absolutely broken, but even so it's pretty overwhelming at first. There are dozens and dozens of menus and windows and orders to familiarize yourself with, and all systems are interconnected. I think I have it more or less all in my head now, but I'm also pretty sure that I had to shove out some childhood memories to make room for it.

Learning the game is also challenging because it has changed so much. That is one of the things Paradox has a great reputation for: like many midsized publishers, they are fantastic about continually updating their games for years and years, adding new features and improving the balance and fixing bugs. But that also means that existing information can become outdated. The details on the official wiki seem to be accurate, but in general Googling for questions I had wasn't very fruitful: many of the guides and stuff written for Stellaris came out soon after the game's launch, and the version of the game I'm playing now is quite different from that one. To pick one example at random, it seems like the entire way you expand your borders is different from before. It sounds like in earlier versions of the game, your borders would automatically push out over time based on your Pops and other factors. In the current version, though, you expand your territory by building an Outpost. How do you build an Output? By issuing the "Build Starbase" order. This will build an Outpost, which is NOT a Starbase. If you want a Starbase, you have to build a Starbase, then open your Starbase, then click the "Upgrade to Starbase" option to change your Starbase into a Starbase. A Starbase that isn't a Starbase doesn't count against your Starbase limit, while a Starbase that is a Starbase does count towards it. Obviously.

Stellaris, like the other Paradox games, is termed a Grand Strategy game. It has a lot of similarities to the Civ (or, in this case, Alpha Centauri) franchise as it goes beyond individual battles or even military conflict in general: you must juggle political, social, technological, and economic concerns. Often times you can "win" by, say, having a large military that you never need to deploy, successfully deterring potential rivals; or by carefully forging alliances to exert a sphere of soft-power influence. This does scratch a pretty powerful itch of mine, as I love games that you can win without needing to fight, or at least not have that be the sole focus.

One major difference between Civ games and Paradox games, though, is that the whole concept of "winning" is significantly more ephemeral in the latter. Civ has always had very well-defined victory conditions: conquer the entire world, or be the first civ to land on Alpha Centauri, or merge with the global consciousness, or whatever: you get a nice victory screen and a tidy end to your story. Paradox, though, arguably is creating simulations more than games. There isn't a dynamic where there's one winner and six losers; instead, there are, like, fifty different nation-states that are each trying to do their best. It ends up falling to the player to define for themself what they want to do. Simply surviving is a very worthy and challenging goal. (One that I've failed!) I'm very, very far from the endgame in Stellaris, but from what I can tell, it looks like the kind of default position is to have the highest score in the year that the game ends (2500, I believe?), which is very similar to how EU3 wound up.

In keeping with the simulation theme, Paradox games don't have immortal beings with absolute dictatorial sway over their nations from 4000 BC until 2100 AD. Instead, a wide variety of leaders will come, make an impact, age and then pass. In my particular game, I was playing as Earth, which starts the game with a Democratic government. My President had won office with a mandate to increase production of Alloys. She succeeded, but was voted out of office nonetheless. It's an interesting dynamic to have imperfect tools to work with; one of my Governors became Corrupt, and I needed to decide whether to keep him in place and accept the increase in Crime or whether to replace him with a less-experienced but more trustworthy replacement.

Much like Civ, I do really dig the early, exploration-heavy phase of the game. The way this plays out in Stellaris is really interesting. Your map is the galaxy, and you move between star systems, which are the nodes of the map. But not every node is directly connected to every other node. Instead, you basically end up with connected constellations, and can only move between particular systems. This raises all sorts of interesting strategic implications: certain systems may act as hubs, and be important because they link together many other systems; while some systems are chokepoints with only two connecting systems, and could be crucial to block enemies' movements.

The exploration phase reminded me a lot of my mega-game of EU3, where I gradually mapped the world from Mecklenburg. But in Stellaris I had a lot more explorers active. I think in EU3 I only had like two armies who traveled through the entirety of Africa, the Middle-East and Asia, while in my short game of Stellaris I built something like 12-15 Science vessels and they were all active. In both games exploration is really important to discover where potential rivals and allies live and what resources you might exploit. In EU3 I was very motivated by trying to discover new Centers of Trade so I could dominate them economically; in Stellaris I was hunting for Anomalies to research and candidates for new planets to settle.

I think I may switch up my exploration strategy in my next game. Unlike EU3, Stellaris differentiates between merely entering a territory and surveying it. A ship may go from A to B to C, which will reveal what planets are in each system and how they are connected. Or it may actually survey each system, which takes much more time but reveals how many resources the system holds, where they are located, and the location of any anomalies.

In my game, I surveyed every system as I came across it, which is pretty cool, but may not have been all that useful: I was sometimes surveying stars that were like 25 hops away from Earth, which I couldn't possibly have claimed no matter how cool they were. Anyways, I'm wondering now if it might be a better strategy to explore in two waves: send out some early ships that just go as fast and as deep as they can, so you can quickly discover your neighbors and the geometry of the galaxy; and then send a second, bigger wave to properly survey the previously-discovered systems. That way you could focus on strategically-important areas, too.

Anomalies turned out to be a really great way to inject some storytelling into the game. Big strategy games are usually very light on the in-game narrative, which does leave a lot of space for players to tell their own stories ("Gandhi is such a warmongering jerk!!"), but can also make the game feel sterile. One of the (many, many) things I love about Fall from Heaven 2 is how its Events and unique encounters provide color, texture, and narrative thrust to the world. In Stellaris, the overall 4X experience is typically abstract, but when you explore an anomaly it gets really specific and wonderful. They are short but vivid descriptions, enticing fragments of past civilizations, their follies or their triumphs or the blank mysteries they left behind. Or hints of science beyond our comprehension, or dimensions beyond our own. They're always surprising. The mechanical effects are usually rather simple but welcome: permanently adding resources to a nearby planet, say, or giving a sizable chunk of Society research. Every once in a while, you actually get to choose from a multi-choice dialog prompt: for example, upon discovering that the object you've been researching is the deceased remains of an extinct species, you can let the coffin continue on its journey, or take it for further studies. I'm always a big fan of choice in games, and it's a delight to have one here.

I think my growth pattern was basically fine in this game. I discovered Alpha Centauri early during the tutorial and established a colony there, which grew large enough to be independent after a couple of decades. Much later I belatedly surveyed Sirius and found another promising planet and had planted a colony there. Those two planets and Earth were the only highly-compatible worlds I came across, with everything else Desert planets or similar with only around 30% habitability. But even if I had found another planet I think I was near the limits of my Administrative Capacity (?) to manage them.

It took me a while to figure out how building works on planets: there's a nice big obvious button by available Building slots to bring up a window of all the new things you can construct, but I didn't realize until pretty late that you can also build Districts by clicking the much smaller grids off to the left. I think that in most cases the Districts are more cost-effective, so they're better options if you just need to make some more Jobs or Housing available for your Pops. I suspect that in longer-running games planets will tend to specialize, which would make Buildings more important to get multiplicative bonuses to your production.

Diplomatically, my game started out pretty fine. It took a while for me to make first contact, and the first aliens I met were pretty friendly xenophiles. We signed a lot of treaties and agreements. I didn't realize until later that these agreements inhibit your ability to expand into unclaimed territory, so I might be more cautious in the future about signing those.

I also encountered a couple of Fallen Empires. This is a cool mechanic that I don't think I've seen in other games. You, and most of the AI factions, are young up-and-comers at the start of the tech tree and just starting to expand from a single planet. The Fallen Empires, though, are ancient Prothean-style civilizations who have existed for millennia. They have large territories and advanced technology and sizable fleets; but they are stagnant and decadent, and do not grow or advance like the other AI factions do. So, early in the game they are overwhelmingly powerful and not to be trifled with, but beyond a certain point you (or other up-and-coming galactic civilizations) can take them on, conquer and loot their empires. I think that will be a really interesting dynamic.

I found a few other empires, finally encountering one that would be my doom. They were Spiritualist Xenophobes, religious bigots who wanted to wipe all heathen aliens out of existence. I had a bad feeling about them.

Looking at the map, I saw a way to potentially block their expansion. I began to to prioritize my Output construction in that direction: if I could reach the chokepoint before them, then I would have dozens and dozens of star systems on my side of the divide, which I could then explore, claim and settle at my leisure. But if they broke through, then it would be almost impossible to contain them, and I would need to maintain a border that would span a half-dozen systems.

I threw all of my Influence towards building a series of Outposts reaching towards that chokepoint. After some foolish early expansions, I'd come to realize that the best way to expand territory is system-by-system. Building an Outpost three systems away costs exactly as much Influence as building an Outpost in each of those three systems. At least in my game, Influence was the gating factor as I was swimming in Alloys and drowning in Minerals.

My prospective foes were expanding, but less single-mindedly than me, branching in some other directions besides the one I was worried about. I moved my Fleet down into the sector I intended to claim to keep a close eye on them, as my Construction Ships laid track all the way down.

And then, when I was just one hop away from the chokepoint, I saw something terrible: a foreign Construction Ship entering "my" system! The only conceivable reason to be here was to build. I was too late.

Or... was I?

I mulled things over. I didn't want a war, and wasn't really prepared for a war. But declaring a war would keep them from taking that system. And it would buy me some time. Maybe, if I could reinforce my position, and build that Output, then turn my Starbase into a Starbase and get some defenses into it, I could actually defend this position. Using EU3 as a baseline, I hoped that I could survive for a respectable length of time, then sue for a white peace, keeping my border intact.

On the other hand, my prospective opponents already hated me, with a -1000 attitude modifier. I didn't have any allies or mutual-defense treaties. I had never built a new combat ship during the entire game. I had never fought a war in Stellaris before and didn't know what it would entail.

But... it's just a game, eh? Why not go for it! So I did.

And, well, yeah. It was a fun game, and I lost.

But I had a blast! Overall, Stellaris feels like a blend of Europa Universalis 3 and Mass Effect 1, which is exactly what I wanted. There's the same joy of discovery, beautiful galaxy, fascinating aliens and inspiring technology that ME1 had, with the strategic depth and enormous timeline of EU3.

I feel like I know all the basics now. I'm sure there are more mechanics to come;  I had just unlocked Sectors right before the game's end, never learned how to use wormholes, never unlocked any of the unique resources. I think I'll probably play at least more pacifistic Earth-focused game and hopefully get a bit further before branching out into some other governments and playstyles. I have a lot more to look forward to!

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The Fall of the Third Reich

As alluded to in my previous post, I went on a bit of a YouTube bender in the midst of reading Capital and Ideology. This was actually a momentous occasion, as it is the first time in my approximately 14 years of using YouTube that the algorithm did something good. Usually it suggests inane, offensive or redundant content, so it was a pleasant surprise that, for the first time in my entire life, I was actually seeing YouTube recommendations pointing me towards unexpected things that turned out to be delightful.

This all started with the aforementioned short The New Spirit, also known as "Taxes to Beat the Axis". This is a really remarkable piece, filled with education, humor, drama and spectacle. The Sixteenth Amendment was only a few decades old, and the idea of a progressive income tax was relatively novel.

The first section is really funny, with Donald's swings from enthusiasm to sulking and back again. It's really interesting to see historical artifacts in there, like old-fashioned ink blotters. But the most stunning section is the final few minutes. We pull out from Donald's private domestic zaniness and witness his enthusiastic run across America, gaining a broad perspective of the entire continent: all bound together, united, with the mass communication of the radio tying California with the East Coast, seeing the unique beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the Texan desserts and the Louisiana delta. And that dissolves into the awe-inspiring and shocking militancy of the final minutes: we see the fruits of that great united nation, putting to work the wealth of the nation, her factories busy, churning out the weapons to defeat fascism. I think the part of this short that sticks with me the most is the way the narrator says "Guns, guns, all kinds of guns!", his quivering tone suggesting a mixture of reverence and titillation.

That's actually the second video I saw when searching "Taxes to Beat the Axis" on YouTube. The first one I saw is sort of a sequel, "The Spirit of 43". This is the one I vaguely remember seeing at the Ground Round in my childhood, along with a video I can't seem to find anywhere that updated Aesop's Fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper and ended with the Grasshopper relaxing to a luxurious winter thanks to his stash of War Bonds. Anyways, The Spirit of 43 strikes a markedly different tone in many ways from the earlier work. This is a more internal struggle, with Donald reaching within himself to do the right thing instead of responding to an authoritative voice.

I'm struck again and again by the sense of collective struggle in these shorts. The government is us, it's we the people putting our resources together - "Your taxes, my taxes, our taxes" - to accomplish something important. I really wish we could reclaim that sense of all being in this together.

Another interesting artifact is the cartoons of Tex Avery, including Blitz Wolf.  This is less nuanced (who would have ever thought that Donald Duck would be the avatar of nuance?!), but crams in a ton of gags and is really fun to watch. Where Donald appeals to your mind, Avery appeals to your fighting spirit, with tons of slapstick and scenery-chewing. This is nominally a program to sell war bonds, but that appeal feels very perfunctory and tacked-on, not integrated into the story like the Donald shorts.

From here, I took a detour into a longer and more structured form of propaganda: Why We Fight. This amazing series of films from Frank Capra hold up impressively well today, both as history and as art.

So, just to state the obvious: Yes, this is propaganda. It was developed by the United States government to shape public perceptions of the war; more specifically, to convince a generally isolationist populace of the need to fight in Europe and Asia, and to convince conscripted young men that this cause was worth killing and dying for.

That said, it comes off as surprisingly nuanced propaganda. I was kind of impressed at how deeply it delved into the history of the rise of Hitler in Germany: it covers the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the punishing payments extracted from Germany, the hyperinflation this led to, and the human misery and desperation accompanying it. The narrator's overall message is along the lines of "The Germans were going through hard times, and they made the mistake of believing that the Nazis had the answers. Of course, we all have gone through hard times. In America we worked through our problems democratically, establishing the New Deal and fixing our economy while continuing to live freely." It carefully threads a needle, the same one Piketty delicately traces, of explaining how the prior actions of the Allies laid the groundwork for Hitler's rise to power, while remaining very clear that his actions were inexcusable.

The big overriding proposition of this series is that World War II is a cataclysmic battle between two incompatible worlds, the Free World of the allies and the Slave World of the axis. The Free World is implicitly denoted by FDR's famous Four Freedoms: Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The Axis only promises freedom from want and tramples on all the others. I was struck by how the films stressed America's diversity, making a note that Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Christians and everyone else shares equal rights to practice their faith. It also is (to my ears) surprisingly friendly towards the left, repeatedly decrying how Hitler and Mussolini suppressed socialist movements in Europe and praising the freedoms granted to labor unions in the US.

As history it works well and thoroughly, not starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the invasion of Poland in 1939, but the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. We see how long aggression had gone unchecked, how many times belligerent nations broke treaties without repercussions, how often the League of Nations tutted their tongues and did nothing. Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 follows the same vein. The narrator spells it out very clearly and darkly: The people in the United States asked, Why should we care that some Africans in huts have been attacked, or some Asians in rice paddies? The message is clear: we should have cared, we had a moral duty to care, and we're only in this mess now because we neglected to act when the victims were people who didn't look or speak like us.

That narrator is a constant companion through the series. It's fascinating and instructive to compare this to The Triumph of the Will. From what I understand, Capra intended this series to be a sort of response to or antidote for that famous Nazi propaganda movie. They are completely different beasts, though. Triumph of the Will has almost no dialogue, just sweeping and inspiring imagery of crowds and movement, mass roaring chants; there are selections from speeches by Nazi leaders, but the real power is the response to those words, not the words themselves. It's a film designed to overwhelm your senses, to inspire awe.

So, it's interesting that Why We Fight is such a dialogue-heavy series. We're getting a history lesson, and following troop movements on a map, and hearing glosses on major events. It cajoles, it pontificates, it debates, it states. It's doing a lot, but what it's trying to feel most like is an appeal to reason: it lays out evidence, makes arguments, and asks you to accept its conclusions.

The more I think about this, the more perfect this comparison is. When you're producing propaganda in the service of democracy, you're emulating democracy, and making each viewer its own citizen, capable of making up his or her own mind, and hoping we all pull together in the right direction in the end. When making propaganda in service of fascism, though, it's all about the mass movement, about unity, about unquestioning devotion and obedience. One picks you up, the other sweeps you away.

The nature of those arguments is also very well done. The movies frequently quote from Mein Kampf and various speeches from leaders in all three Axis nations, using their own words to illustrate the danger these countries pose. Sometimes it is highlighting the grandiose ambitions and despicable philosophy they hold. Other times it is to highlight their hypocrisy and treachery; one very effective example comes in part two, The Nazis Strike, replaying a speech from Hitler where he makes specific promises against any claim of territory on each of his European neighbors. The film returns to that speech again and again after each new border is breached, replaying his earlier words as an ironic counterpart to his later actions. It's making a clear argument that diplomacy with such a man is impossible. It also is stunningly similar to the technique recently popularized by Jon Stewart and now deployed by a variety of news-oriented comedians, highlighting the hypocrisy of politicians by playing old footage of them stating one thing alongside new footage of them saying or doing the opposite.

The series isn't perfectly high-minded, of course. While the movies rightfully decry the Nazi philosophy of Aryan supremacy, they're completely silent on America's own history of racial injustice, making no mention of the Jim Crow South or the Chinese Exclusion Act or the internment of Japanese Americans. It generally avoids racial and national characterizations, but does slip in a couple of suggestions that, say, the Germans have a history of aggression (while also going out of its way to show that America has been a good home for Germans, highlighting the many ethnic Germans serving in high ranks of American government and military).

Finally, I wanted to note that the editing of these films is really remarkable. It's surprisingly fast and kinetic, with the kind of rapid cuts and disorienting shifts in action that I tend to associate with 21st-century Hollywood movies. The aerial combat scenes as in The Battle of Britain are particularly effective, exhilarating and tense.

It's really interesting to see the shift between high-level and low-level information. Some of the US War Department's films were aimed to educate (or "educate") the populace about the broad contours of the war: why we were fighting, the theaters in which we were operating, what territory had been lost or reclaimed. Others were much more low-level: what you, the viewer, ought to be doing (or not doing). Those Donald Duck cartoons above are a great example of this: you should be paying your taxes to support the war effort. There was similar propaganda around discreet communications ("Loose Lips Sink Ships"), self-sufficiency (Victory Gardens), and volunteering for military or non-military duty.

A particularly fascinating sub-genre were films aimed directly at servicemembers. With a drafted, non-professional military that consisted mostly of young single men, there was a... very particular tone used to impart important lessons. Lewd and funny, it's kind of shocking that these were actual government films, but I can see why they might be more effective than a straight training movie.

I'm mostly thinking of Private Snafu here. The pedigree of these cartoons is kind of insane: Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) wrote the scripts, Chuck Jones animated them, and Mel Blanc voiced them. Unlike Why We Fight, these were not distributed for broader public consumption, and were exclusively viewed by members of the armed forces.

I think the humor still holds up well, with the unfortunate and major exception of the blatant racism. Unlike the Disney cartoons, which used anthropomorphized animals and vehicles to depict our foes, or Why We Fight, which uses actual footage of foreign leaders and soldiers, the Snafu cartoons include painful racial characterizations, particularly of the Japanese, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has viewed, say, Buck Rogers comics of the era. It is tempting to contextualize this and point out that we were at war with the Japanese, but you can't escape the major differences between how our European adversaries were depicted compared to our Asian adversaries.

Maybe the biggest impact all of these historical and artistic artifacts have on me is a new appreciation for the massive difference between the pre-1970s civilian army versus our modern professional army. Don't get me wrong, I am extremely glad that we no longer have a draft! But when I look back at history, it's striking how there was such a unified sense of purpose in our conflicts: everyone was serving in the war or directly affected by it; even when opposing war, as in Vietnam, it was a national issue that impacted everyone. Today, it seems like our wars are parceled out and self-contained, with citizens duly funding the expenses via our taxes but having no sense that it is "our" fight, "our" purpose. That seems to me like a dangerous trend. Whether a war is just or not, it is being fought on our behalf even if not by our personal bodies, and I kind of wish we paid the same degree of attention to our missions in Afghanistan that we once did to our missions on Pacific atolls or European beaches.