The humans are back on their bullshit. This once-promising species, who had somehow managed to advance through the cybernetic and solar ages while always on the verge of burning out their entire planet’s resources, had actually gotten it together and sent out a starship to a system that harbored another advanced civilization. But instead of peaceful cooperation, conflict broke out and the jittery apes went all out, annihilating the aliens to extinction. Welcome to The Fermi Paradox, a game in development about how life finds a way… or doesn’t.
Millions dead, all hope of interspecies connection lost, and why? Was humanity just made paranoid from its own history of internal wars and oppression? Or perhaps yours truly, unbeknownst to the billions of sentient lives in the galaxy, had secretly been influencing the development of their societies.
These are some of the many questions you might ask yourself while playing The Fermi Paradox. This upcoming indie title from Anomaly Games is a kind of god sim, clearly inspired by 4X strategy, with the potential to be a compelling generator of emergent science fiction stories altogether inspiring, somber, and goofy.
God is a gardener
In The Fermi Paradox, the player takes on the role of the “galactic gardener.” You see the entire galaxy laid out before you and can zoom in to specific systems to observe them. Various civilizations are present, with different traits and technology levels, and new ones may emerge.
In contrast to typical civ games, you aren’t in direct control of any of them. Instead, you can influence their development in subtle ways, hopefully pushing them towards development, away from extinction, and eventually to peaceful contact with each other.
Of course, there’s that dang paradox to overcome — “the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations and various high estimates for their probability” — and most runs will see you find out which explanation screws up contact this time. It’s a challenge to steer those greedy, angry civilizations towards each other with success. And even when I do, my big dumb children of the stars can still succumb to their worst instincts, as in the introductory paragraph, drawn from actual play.
By what measure a civilization?
The vertical slice I tried to experience the gameplay of The Fermi Paradox started with two advanced civilizations in the galaxy. One was the humans of the Sol system, roughly at our own real-life modern level. Humans are notable for their high level of inequality and are dangerously close to climate disaster. The four-eyed, genderless Prun, a technologically advanced and peaceful society of horse-like aliens, made up the other. Both civilizations were capable of sending radio waves into space, a critical stage in the game for overcoming the titular paradox.
Each civilization has several metrics, such as technology level, harm potential, population, resources, and, most interestingly, a utopia or dystopia stat. At this stage, it’s not completely clear what is going on behind the scenes, though it’s easy to intuit some things. A larger population will advance faster but consume more resources; a high harm potential increases the odds of violent reactions at events. But the most important resource belongs only to the player.
Player input in The Fermi Paradox comes in the form of semi-random events that occur on a timer. A civilization reaches some crisis or turning point, and you can influence their direction by selecting one of three choices. Usually, the “good” choice costs synthesis, the “bad” choice grants it, and the neutral one leaves it the same. “Good” in this sense means results that progress tech, sustainability, and utopia. Bad choices tend to reduce resources or population. These include things like repression of dissidents, religious intolerance, or devastating world wars. And building killer robots. Each event also comes with a quotation, usually by a famous writer, historian, scientist, or politician. There are occasionally song lyrics and sometimes completely fictional alien pundits. Mikhail Bakunin, Gandhi, Philip K. Dick, Carl Sagan, and Metallica all throw their two cents in.
Choosing when to bank synthesis and when to spend it can lead to some interesting ethical calculus. Often I found myself lacking the points at a crucial point of contact. I had nudged my human civilization to embrace punk music on a global scale, but by the time it reached the aliens, I didn’t have enough synthesis points to get them to react to it in any way but suspicion or fear. This lack of musical taste led to deadly hostilities further down the line.
At one point a Stone Age civilization of aggressive humanoid rodents broke out into warring tribes and threatened to battle unto near-extinction. Not good, but these were a bunch of maniacs anyway. So I escalated it and banked those synthesis points to boost my more enlightened, high-tech species.
Synthesis towards what?
Given the ethical problems posed in managing your key resources, there are certainly value judgments implied here. The Fermi Paradox doesn’t just use science fiction as window dressing. It tries to engage with philosophical and political questions in the tradition of the literary genre. Anomaly Games is headed by Jörg Reisig, who previously worked as a programmer on Yager’s story-heavy shooter, Spec Ops: The Line. As we see from his love of quotations, Reisig is clearly not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve.
In a discussion about the ideas behind the game, Reisig clarified Fermi Paradox‘s “hard” sci-fi — no “space magic.” Starships in The Fermi Paradox are generation ships populated by millions and become distinct entities that can develop very differently from their original culture. Needless to say, this tendency of ship populations to go wayward also screwed my plans to overcome the paradox.
Flipping the 4X genre
Recently, there has been some discussion of how classic civilization-building games uncritically reproduce a linearly progressive, colonial view of history that prioritizes expansion, resource exploitation, conquest, etc.
Reisig admits an appreciation for civ-style 4X games like Stellaris, but he designed The Fermi Paradox to highlight a different value system. ”I even would say … we could call it a reverse 4X game because you play the galaxy itself, not any one faction,” said the designer, but the subversion goes beyond that. ”Something I don’t like (in other games) is that you never have to be afraid of your own military, so in The Fermi Paradox, overdeveloping the military can protect a civilization in some cases but (also offers) the potential for harming itself.” The same goes for the economy, where it’s possible for a civilization to collapse its ecosystem.
A sci-fi story generator
The Fermi Paradox is more of a narrative game than a numbers game, and trying to guide these species while they constantly see-saw on the brink of disaster can create some tense and absurd stories. The game’s macro perspective keeps enough of a distance from tragic events that it’s easy to take in stride with some cynical humor. If The Fermi Paradox ships with enough depth to generate a wide variety of stories, I can see players having fun sharing their own stories online.
In one try I couldn’t prevent the Prun from (unsuccessfully) attacking Earth. Later, when a fleet of human exiles reached the Prun home system, despite my best efforts, they decided to pay the Prun in kind, exterminating the species and conquering the sector as a new, rival human civilization. In the meantime, back on the Sol system, the human commonwealth developed quantum computing and common cybernetic implants. Then underwater cities. It’s quantum-hydro-cyberpunk and then… oh no, resources depleted in just 30 years? Good thing the demo ended just then.
Sometimes things get downright silly. A society of Stone Age headless giants decided to get really into… headhunting. But while the headless headhunters were busying developing poisoned weapons, they were also composing beautiful epics about their history.
So when can we make contact?
Playing this game has taught me patience and planning on a galactic scale. So I’m prepared to give The Fermi Paradox all the time it needs to get ready. It doesn’t have a release date, and there’s still a lot to be done on art and writing. I also hope that the game systems become less opaque.
But what’s here so far shows great potential for fun and thoughtful emergent storytelling. I look forward to what’s possible in a complete game, guiding many civilizations from prehistory to the interstellar age. Fans of science fiction and big-picture strategy games should definitely keep listening for the signals.