It was a particularly nice summer week and most of my friends were away on vacation. That was fine by me, for I had other engagements. In the summer of ’97, I took a vacation in Master of Orion II. Staring at my flickering monitor, making imperious gestures at star-charts, obsessively meddling with starship designs and colony layouts, I was the unimpeachable, immortal ruler of the Darlock Empire. And, as the Darlocks eventually discovered to their dismay, putting a 16-year-old boy in a position of absolute power is perhaps not the best idea. With the power to decide the fate of millions, being in equal measure President of all planets in my dominion and Supreme Commander of the armed forces, it’s not particularly strange that I, normally peaceful and friendly in real life, would turn into a monstrous, war-mongering dictator.
Master of Orion II, even more than most 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) games, lends itself particularly well to playing a galactic tyrant. Your advisors address you directly, personally. The game can span centuries of in-game time. There are no internal events which can see you ousted from power. You play the role of a ruler who, probably through the use of advanced technology, cannot die from old age, and who cannot be removed from office, no matter how terribly he treats his subjects or screws up. Moreover, you get total control over the lives of the people in your empire. Not only can you decide which buildings are built in your colonies, but also which members of your population get to be workers, scientists or farmers. Got a world of technological marvel, filled with scientists studying the laws of the universe, but the nearest start-up colony needs food? Sorry, scientists, but you’re farmers for the next decade. People are rioting because they’re dying of starvation? Easily solved; just build a barracks, that’s far faster than waiting for infrastructure to fully develop. See, it wasn’t really my fault. The game made me a dictator, honest! I exaggerate somewhat, but the strong emphasis on the player being an actual character in charge of his people, while simultaneously creating such a distance between you and the same people (they are just another resource), does tend to turn you into a rather callous ruler.
Of course, these musings occurred far after the events of this particular game. While playing, I was simply directing the fate of my worlds, building a war-machine, toggling the occupations of my people for maximum effect and researching cool stuff, primarily involving bigger ships with bigger guns. Eventually, the supply of free planets to settle runs out and you naturally turn to your neighbor’s systems. And, when persuading them to give you some more worlds, it helps to have bigger guns than they do.
Dealing with other galactic civilizations brought out the real jerk in me. Normally safely tucked away in a far corner of my mind, the jerk finally had the chance to show himself and really run riot. While your subjects are basically faceless numbers on a spreadsheet (no matter how cute their on-screen representations are), the other civilizations are your peers and equals. Master of Orion II may cast you as a dictator of your people (whether you are one or not) by virtue of its colony management system, but as far as your interaction with the rest of the universe is concerned, you have no such excuse. I didn’t have to play as a jerk. It is entirely possible to win a peaceful victory by having a number of allies declare you president of the galaxy, or even save the universe from an ancient race, the Antarans.
But where’s the fun in that? Some of the other races are so belligerent that you are forced to defend yourself and once you have a giant war-fleet staffed with people who can mind-control entire planetary populations, so ran the reasoning of my far younger self, it’s a shame not to use it. And so it was that, after the Great Alliance rid the universe of the repulsive Silicoids and the inscrutable Klackon hive mind, the tenuous peace was almost immediately shattered when some of my smaller allies saw my massive fleet descending on their outer colonies. If I’d had a moustache at that age, I’d have twirled it vigorously.
I made one rather crucial error though. Not being versed in Machiavellian state-craft, I made the rookie mistake of allying myself with the biggest and baddest power in the galaxy, next to myself, so that I had time to gobble up the little bit-players. I should have done it the other way around, of course, teaming up with the little guys to bring down the biggest wolf in the pack, but such subtlety was lost on me in those days. All I could consider was tearing up the place with my buddies, the Psilons, who had the Creative trait, like my custom Darlocks. As veterans of MoO II know, Creative is the most broken ability in the game: Where normally you have to make hard choices in your research at each tier, a Creative race receives all research at a specific tier by just researching one project. The power-gap between my team-up and the other races was, at that point in the game, downright obscene; the Psilons and I were basically stealing candy from a baby.
The wars lasted for generations with the beleaguered races of the universe throwing everything they had at my technological might, but my inexorable advance ploughed through their domains like a force of nature. Their efforts to repel me were valiant and, on the surface, successful. While my researchers were busy exploring the inner workings of reality, my ageing fleet, not reinforced in decades, finally met its end. The battered remnants of my opponents breathed a collective sigh of relief, believing that they had weathered the worst of the storm. My latest acquisitions were quickly retaken and demands for immediate cessation of hostilities and copious reparations were sent to me in due course.
The “mhu-ha-ha-ha,” straight from my belly, must have been heard a block away, as I prepared my response to these paltry demands, as well as showing why I hadn’t reinforced my fleet. For my factory-worlds had been busy, very busy, indeed. They had been churning out doom stars; vast, round ships, as big as a moon. Yes, MoO II lets you build the equivalent of Death Stars. And when any game gives me the option to build Death Stars, then by all the gods, I am going to queue them by the truck-load. The final phase of the war was a mere formality, but a very brutal one. Not wanting the hassle of securing a ton of planets from constant streams of liberation attempts, all but the choicest worlds were simply vaporized by a press of the big, red button. My vast swarm of planet-killers ended all opposition, permanently.
And then there were two. Just me and my Psilon allies, dividing the universe neatly in half. The star-charts presented a rather disconcerting picture, however, as the Psilons apparently had the decency of conquering their opponents, instead of simply blowing them to bits. Thus, the Psilon Empire was almost twice as large as mine. Now, that was a problem.
I could have ended it then and achieved a somewhat dubious victory as savior of the universe. Just build a dimensional gate, stuff my dozens of doom stars through it, and vanquish the evil Antarans.
But that wasn’t the role that I was playing. I was the vengeful tyrant of the Darlocks; I couldn’t fathom peace. And so multiple Psilon worlds suddenly found themselves in my greedy grasp. Bafflingly, no attempts were made to retake my bloody spoils of war. Instead, one single fleet was now en route to my capital planet, leaving the Psilon hinterland virtually unprotected. Scratching my head, I recalled all my fleets to my home-world and prepared for what was undoubtedly the deciding battle for galactic rule. The Psilon fleet arrived. My CPU was nearly brought to its knees by rendering the immense number of ships. Not my ships, though. Row upon row upon row of Psilon doom stars invaded my home-world, outnumbering my entire fleet ten-to-one. In the first exchange, I destroyed two of them, maybe, before my mighty war-machine was squashed like a gnat. As a final rebuke, they took my capital as if it was nothing.
I surrendered. I’d like to believe that my advisors presented my head on a plate as, all over the galaxy, people celebrated my inglorious demise, hailing the wise Psilons as masters of the universe. With a grin, I closed the game. I could have reloaded and beaten the Antarans, but that was not how the story should go. No, I played the part of petty tyrant and, like virtually all such dictators, was humiliatingly brought low by my own hubris. Satisfied, I turned off the computer and enjoyed the rest of my vacation like any ordinary, humble Earth boy.
Alex Donks is a Dutch philosophy bachelor and amateur writer making his first forays as a freelancer. For the past few years he’s mainly written music reviews for Diabolical Conquest magazine and articles for the Dutch site Dorkside.