The Fermi Paradox 1

The Fermi Paradox (Early Access) Review

Challenging and thought-provoking

Numbers can be maddening. Our own Milky Way galaxy is estimated to contain between 100 and 400 billion stars, and we now know that many of those stars have planetary systems (and that “many” may even be “most” or “nearly all”). If the average star is circled by somewhere between one planet and our own solar system’s nine, that would mean that the number of planets in the galaxy could be anywhere from 100 billion to 3.6 trillion.

And the universe is estimated to contain as many as two trillion galaxies.

Given these numbers, it seems ludicrous to believe that we could be the only planet capable of looking up and wondering if there’s anyone else out there.

And yet, we have yet to confirm the existence of life anywhere else in the universe. There are tantalising hints that Mars and Venus may have been habitable in the past. The moons Europa and Enceladus show signs of liquid water beneath their ice crusts, which might harbour life based on geothermal energy.

But still, so far nothing. Earth is the only body in the universe on which life is known to have arisen. And until the confirmation of any sort of life anywhere other than here, the fact remains that we may indeed be alone.

Impossibly big

This incongruity between the literally unimaginable number of possible places for life to exist and our apparent solitude has been described as the Fermi Paradox (so called as a result of a lunchtime conversation about the possibility of extraterrestrial life at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1950 that ended with the physicist Enrico Fermi saying something to the effect of “But where is everybody?”), and this paradox provides both the inspiration for–and the title of–a new game from Anomaly Games, currently in Early Access on Steam.

As a game, The Fermi Paradox is a civilisation simulator that tasks the player with nudging along (or hindering) the development of intelligent life on a number of planets in a corner of the Milky Way with a stated goal of bringing these civilisations into contact across the stars. This is, rightly, a challenging prospect, as while the development of life on various planets is treated as a fairly commonplace event, the emergence of intelligent life is much less frequent; at any point in its development a civilisation may be eradicated by war, famine, or the consequences of its own technology. There’s no guarantee that any particular civilisation will ever develop the capacity to send or detect electromagnetic signals capable of reaching across the stars, much less physical travel to other systems.

A boundless galaxy

The difficult part of trying to assess a civilisation simulator like The Fermi Paradox is that there’s so, so much work put into it that any individual player might never see. If I was frustrated by the way the game seemed limited to common wisdom assumptions about the linear nature of technological progress (Bronze Age precedes Iron Age precedes the age of nautical exploration precedes…), I was delighted by the art and text that would shift to reflect the details of the game’s fictional cultures. 

My most successful species was a group of intelligent dolphins that went on to colonise three other systems (one of which had been previously inhabited, but was no longer by the time the dolphins arrived). The first group to leave the Sol system were outcasts who wore cyberpunk visors. The group left behind developed a symbiotic relationship with artificial intelligence and started referring to themselves as “digital siblings.” Later they barely survived a nuclear war and became “digital remnant fragments” (meanwhile, the outcasts started calling themselves “neo-dolphins,” and eventually came to live under the tyranny of a sentient space canon). While I think a great deal of the terminology would be similar, I’d love to see the artwork that would open up had I chosen dinosaurs as the dominant species instead.

But then I have to come back to the numbers again (after all, for all the delight of the narrative moments and visual art, every simulator is essentially a math engine under the hood). I can wish that the game operated in a bit less of a zero-sum fashion between societies, especially those connected by nothing more than the player’s attention. Story and development events have divergent outcomes depending, in part, on simple player choice, but influenced even more through the expenditure of points that the player accrues slowly over time, or more quickly by opting for negative outcomes. 

Thus the successful progress of any one society is aided by the suffering of any other. If my dolphins discovered uninhabited worlds in the course of their exploration it was, at least in one case, because some time ago I had allowed one planet’s population to exterminate itself in order to hoard enough points, allowing the dolphins to survive the disasters they would inevitably encounter.

Where is everybody?

There’s a comment there on the reality of “unpopulated spaces” here on earth that may or may not have anything to do with Fermi. Space may be empty, but our planet is anything but, and the “empty” spaces we have colonised have frequently been built at the expense of the very real people who were there last year, or yesterday, or are still there today. 

In the stars, “Where is everybody?” is a question that may have no answer. Here on earth, it is a question we simply would prefer not to answer.