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Can a 4X title hold insights into how games could handle storytelling?

The best – or at least the most famous – stories in video games are rarely the best video game stories. Yes, you can argue that the morally grimy ending of The Last of Us is up there with darker blockbuster movies, that the BioShock series’ philoso-scientific musings are at least at the Christopher Nolan level. But none of these games utilise the storytelling tools specific to the medium. Their narratives are simply well-presented, well-written slices of steady exposition interposed between segments of competent, if often generic, mechanics.

The best video game stories, on the other hand, take advantage of those gamey idiosyncrasies you won’t find in other media – mechanics, player agency, non-linearity – to play as big a part in the narrative as the writing. Plenty has been said about how walking simulators and the Souls series achieve this, but much less documented is the peculiar delights of storytelling in strategy games. And there’s one strategy series in particular that stands out.

Amplitude Studios’ Endless saga! If you ask me, Endless Legend and Endless Space 1 and 2 (as well as oddball tower defence title, Dungeons of the Endless) represent an interconnected masterclass in video game storytelling, working within the strict rulesets of 4X strategy to intertwine narrative and mechanics until they both hum with potential.

Stripped back, these games broadly follow the same rules as genre champion, Civilization. You build an empire, you expand it, and then you race towards one of several preset victory conditions – scientific, military, economic, whatever. Endless Space is set in a hard sci-fi universe of spaceships, planetary colonisation and black holes, while Endless Legend takes place on the fantasy world of Auriga, replete with dragon-people and magic, yet with a techy slant and strange races that set it apart from typical high fantasy. But where Civilization leaves players to form their own internal narratives within its mad mashup of iconic leaders, nations and Wonders, the Endless series contains a vast mythos that you uncover bit by bit each time you start a new game, manifesting itself in wonderfully written quests, factions and artefacts, some of which create narrative threads across the entire series.

Each time you begin a new instance of Endless, it’s not only a fresh start in a procedurally generated world or galaxy, but a plunge deeper into its lore. It’s like turning to a random page in an encyclopaedia that charts a forgotten land. In Endless Space 2, for instance, you may happen upon the Pilgrim faction; mystical-scientific space nomads obsessed with discovering the origin of the Endless – the mysterious, extinct interstellar species that once colonised the galaxy, leaving behind remnants of their technologies and creations.