Game Pile: The Ur-Quan Heresies (Star Control 2)

Surely I’ve done this already.

Surely.

Digging back through my history on this blog, I’m stunned to find that I never did an article espousing the classic MS-DOS era space exploration game, Star Control 2. In fact, if you go back looking for it, the closest you get to me commenting on it is that I once said Mass Effect 2 is a worthy second Star Control 2, a point that doesn’t feel like hyperbole in hindsight. It only took eighteen years for them to catch up.

Star Control 2 was a 1992 PC Game, which was released on a handful of platforms, including the 3D0. In the past few years, it’s been subject to a mess of copyright nonsense, and I’m mostly disinterested in talking about that, except to mention that Stardock is a bad company run by a raging asshole who a reasonable industry would have driven out.

Anyway.

Star Control 2 is a game that’s hard for me to talk about because it is both so old that it’s really quite annoying to play and yet so important you’ve played thousands of games that do all the game and infrastructure bits better. Star Control 2 is a game from 1992 that might as well have been an MMO for the scope of its lore and its attempted breadth of interactions; you explore, you map planets, you collect information, you do space battles, you manage resources, you connect story tidbits between people, you negotiate treaties and you can even manage multiple routes towards races collaborating on the way to the end of the game, which is about destroying an important military resources of an empire that would otherwise be the doom of all freedom in the galaxy.

It is a lot and it was distributed on two 3.5 inch floppies.

I never got to the end of this game as a kid because the game was really quite vast. You can make mistakes in the game that mean some tasks take ages, and you need to sometimes compensate for weaknesses in one area with strengths in another – like being really good at ship-to-ship combat to make up for being terrible at fuel management (damn Slylandro probes).

I don’t really want to talk to you about Star Control 2, the game though. You can go download the Ur-Quan Masters and play the game for yourself. Instead I want to talk to you about specific lore from this game universe, to talk about one of the things that this game world is about.

I want to talk to you about the Ur-Quan.

The Ur-Quan are the dominant force in the galaxy in Star Control 2, the starting galactic empire that you have to rise up against, and your first encounter with their culture is arriving at earth and finding out that they have wrapped Earth in a slave dome – a red shield that locks them in and keeps them stuck there. The explanation is that the Ur-Quan offered earth two choices: Imprisonment on their own world, or to exist as a thrall race obeying the will of the Ur-Quan as they went about the rest of the galaxy, doing that imprisonment-or-enslavement deal. That’s your first impression; they took over Earth and Earth chose safety under the dome, rather than being slaved.

The process of learning about the Ur-Quan after this point is through piecing things together, bit by bit, sometimes in combat encounters, sometimes asking other cultures, sometimes by piecing together old artifacts or uncovering seemingly unrelated details. The narrative you uncover runs pretty much something like this.

First, Ur-quans are big. They’re about ten meters long and two meters thick and comparable to big, carnivorous caterpillars. They’re from a planet where most life forms are predatory, and they were the apex predators, meaning that from their evolutionary perspective, the single most dangerous thing was one another. This made them territorial and violent, and meant that civilisation developed slowly for them, but it did develop. Around the point they had nuclear power, a race called the Taalo showed up, and the Taalo are for lack of a better term, sentient thinking rocks. Taalo were exploring their region of space, met the Ur-Quan and suddenly, the Ur-Quan had people they could engage with who didn’t trigger their immensely violent territorial instincts. And with someone to cooperate with, someone who could help them cooperate, the Ur-Quan were able to step from what we consider 20th century tech into the stars.

From there, the Ur-Quan started building their own coalition in space, always with their friends, the Taalo, serving as their communicators. They made a coalition of related spirits, with the Ur-Quan serving as the powerful shock troopers and combat forces protecting their friends, and the Taalo as their reasonable companions, helping them communicate when they struggled.

Then, one day, an Ur-Quan came to a planet of things called the Dnyarri, and it all fell apart.

The Dnyarri were psychic creatures capable of taking over the minds of larger creatures; they mind-controlled the Ur-Quan into being their thralls, then used them to take over their own coalition. What the Dnyarri couldn’t subjugate, the Ur-Quan were made to kill – and since the Taalo, sentient rocks, were immune to the Dnyarri, the Ur-Quan were made to kill their best friends. What ensued was centuries of Ur-Quan ownership by the Dynarri – who were sadistic, brutal and capricious, dedicating Ur-Quan to expanding their empire, and even splitting the race in two strains, a militaristic combat group and a researcher group. These groups weren’t given names at the time, but they lived as permanent, psychic slaves of the Dynarri for generation upon generation.

But every story has an ‘until one day,’ and one day, an Ur-Quan scientist named Kzer-Za discovered that when experiencing pain – when experiencing excruciating pain – the Dnyarri couldn’t maintain control over their minds. That they could be free, for a moment, and that moment was the moment in which Kzer-Za injected themself with lethal toxin, and seized upon a chance to broadcast to every Ur-Quan on the planet what they had done.

The revolution began.

On that planet, every Ur-Quan slave took whatever moment they had of Dnyarri frailty to injure themselves, plunging themselves into pain to shake off the Dnyarri’s control, and then slaughtered every Dnyarri they could. The Ur-Quan scientists, modelled on Kzer-za, when freed, built devices, devices called excruciators, that kept them in unending, brutal pain on the edge of death. The Ur-Quan then built ships, launched themselves, and began a brutal, endless purge in pain of the Dnyarri, killing every last one of their slavers.

That would be the point where the Ur-Quan story, if it ended, would be an easy place to pick up. It would be the place where this culture had thrown off its slave masters, and now the task of rebuilding went on. The thing is, the Ur-Quan were not left unscarred by the experience, and they were, to start with, territorial monsters who saw every other Ur-Quan as a threat, and they had built an interplanetary civilisation through the assistance of the Taalo, a friend culture that had been integrated into their own, and who they had been forced to kill.

It kinda fucked them up.

A lot.

The Ur-Quan decided that to simply exterminate Dnyarri was inadequate punishment. They had to do something to them that would be of equal degradation as to what they did to the Ur-Quan. They genetically engineered the Dnyarri, so that no Dnyarri would ever be sentient again, mentally degraded to the point where they could serve only as communicators – known as the ‘talking pets’ – with other races that did not speak the language of the Ur-Quan. This is a harm that literally cannot be done as revenge: no Dnyarri born with the modifications would have ever been one of the Dnyarri that enslaved an Ur-Quan. But then the Ur-Quan had to grapple with their territorial nature and the way that they’d been split in twain as a culture: green scientist Ur-Quan versus black combatant Ur-Quan, now put to claim an identity and a place in their civilisation.

The Green took upon themselves the name of Kzer-Za. The black, the name Kohr-Ah. The Kzer-Za, administrators, scientists, and bookkeepers, devised a doctrine for ensuring their species future, known as the Path of Now and Forever. The rationale was that in order to protect the Ur-Quan from ever suffering a cultural trauma that required the Excruciators ever again, they would simply find every other sentient, space-faring race, and offer them three options:

  • Permanent encasement in an unbreakable slave dome
  • Permanent slavery as battle thralls
  • Annihilation

Now I introduce this because the alternative perspective is the more ridiculous one. The Kohr-Ah took up what they called The Eternal Doctrine. These Kohr-Ah believed in reincarnation; that all forms of sentient life were reincarnated as other kinds of sentient life, which meant that the most reliable way to ensure no non-Ur-Quan would enslave an Ur-Quan was to simply kill everyone until there was nothing but Ur-Quan left. Every non-Ur-Quan killed would be reincarnated, eventually as an Ur-Quan, and this path of omnicide would scourge the galaxy of non-Ur-Quan life.

These positions are equally untenable, preposterous, and monstrous.

And they are mutually incompatible.

From the perspective of the heavily traumatised, mentally broken, culturally damaged Ur-Quan, with their layers of problems, they make complete sense.  Except if one works, the other one must be wrong, because being the only right option is all that can justify these monstrous campaigns of genocide. Therefore, they immediately fight with one another, but also enact those campaigns. The Kzer-Za build an empire, including thrall races, enslaving and annihilating everyone what’s in their path, while the Kohr-Ah just went on decades long galaxy spanning death marches that left completely obliterated cultures in their wake.

And this is the enemy that you have to defeat, in Star Control 2.

You can’t beat them by killing them or blowing up their planets.  Your only chance to defeat them is to find a spaceship that gave them their unstoppable military edge, rally all the forces in the galaxy against them, and stop the death march, winning the game…

But you don’t get to fix them.

There’s no mentally damaged, missing piece to their puzzle. There’s no presentation of a way to cure literally centuries of trauma. The Ur-Quan are behaving in a way that is reasonable to them, and there’s no real way presented to cure a culture of that kind of wound. In later games, the Ur-Quan would join the Alliance of Free Stars, struggling to deal with the difficulty of being what they are, of being shaped the way they are.

And this is a story you have to unpack, bit by bit. You start learning it by uttering The Words, words that were once said to the Ur-Quan in a way that started the Doctrinal conflict, the phrase Stop! What you are doing is wrong! Why do you do this thing? And you learn from there. This is the scope of Star Control 2. Where you do not deal with pilots and ships, but with cultures and taboos and long, wide, civilisation-spanning scars.

And this is just one culture, out of a dozen or more.

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