It probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that my civilisation of space dolphins has morphed into a porn conglomerate. We’ve overcome our petty terrestrial struggles and journeyed towards the stars. We were, perhaps arrogantly, confident of our own ascension into a more enlightened society. Then, the government got scared and made a bizzaro-world version of The Simpsons mandatory viewing, spreading dulling propaganda throughout a once-curious populace.
How does all of that even work, with the flippers? Best not to think about it. This is just one corner of the universe, and I’ve got other civilisations to cultivate.
Recently released into Steam Early Access, The Fermi Paradox bills itself as a strategy game, but I’d describe it more as a deeply procedural visual novel. Your decisions affect entire civilisations rather than individual characters, but it’s a similar experience; pleasantly sedate and literary.
The galaxy bears only basic life at first, but as you resolve flare icons and progress time, the first signs of more complicated cultures appear. Through a series of economic, cultural, ethical, military, and environmental decisions, you’ll guide these civilisations from the stone age to singularity.
Your end goal is to nurture four different civilisations to technological singularity, then research a final technology that unites the universe. Along the way, civilisations can go extinct through various catastrophic events. The more civilisations you let bite the big doom biscuit, the more difficult it becomes to reach that final tech.
To this end, you’ll be reckoning with a numeric resource called ‘Synthesis’. Progressing time by activating flares always gives you a small amount of Synthesis, but you’re also able to resolve negative events to give you a bonus. Keeping a stockpile of the stuff is important for more significant events, where you’ll need to spend it avert disasters or bestow huge benefits.
It’s all visually and sonically quite lovely, perfect for short coffee break sessions while you watch your civs evolve through an astounding number of procedural permutations, but the cracks start to show during long sessions. You can go the route of having a few spare civilisations of ill-fated sods that you farm for synthesis by putting them through hell, which seems like such an obvious approach it can’t have gone unnoticed, and feels at odds with the spirit the game is going for.
While the procedural elements can result in some creative, surprising events, the structure itself can feel limiting. All civilisations progress through the same ‘ages’ as mankind, and technological leaps bring with them familiar cultural effects: a Cold War, hippy counterculture, memes, ‘fake news’. It’s as if our personal path through history represents a universal constant, even for species with wildly different biology.
These events can be funny when, for example, your planet of space dinos invent rock n’ roll, but it also feels oddly unimaginative. It can feel less like you’re on a journey through the lifespan of a civilisation, and more on a crash course through the Western canon of history and speculative science fiction.
This isn’t to downplay how engrossing it can be though, especially when you start to realise exactly how multiple different, seemingly random permutations coalesce together to provide the blossoming, emergent tale of your civs. It’s not Rimworld, with these all being pre-written narrative events, but they do slowly build a unique history for each civ. Exactly how dynamic the interaction between these procedural histories, future events, and other civs actually are isn’t entirely clear, but it can certainly feel like a pretty stunning achievement at points.