A lot of the posts on Odin Gaming focus on Stellaris which allows for the construction of megastructures. Megastructures, in their broadest sense, are large artificial objects. There’s no consensus on exactly what constitutes a megastructure beyond this, though I would argue that the clue is in the name.
A megastructure is any artificial structure with at least one dimension exceeding 1 megametre, or 1000 km.
Stellaris is not the only game utilising megastructures as a game mechanic. Various iterations of the Space Empires, Master of Orion, and Galactic Civilizations series allowed the building of megastructures, amongst others. Megastructures are also inserted into games by way of mods. These make for popular additions to the base game; everyone, it seems, enjoys the status and power that comes with these colossal feats of engineering.
Historical Megastructures in Video Games
Judging by the relative prevalence of megastructures in sci-fi games, one might think that these exist strictly in some potential future. However, humanity has already managed to construct two structures with at least one dimension exceeding 1000 km. The Great Wall of China and the Banaue rice terraces of the Phillipines. Amazingly, both of these structures are well over 2000 years old and were constructed without any modern engineering methods. These are feats that haven’t been matched since.
At more than 6,000 km in length (actual numbers vary, depending on how one counts), The Great Wall of China is the first and only known structure I would consider to meet the strict definition of “megastructure” I gave above. The Banaue rice terraces have an estimated total length of more than 20,000 km and an area of more than 10,000 square km.
The Great Wall of China
Many of you will already be shouting – Civilization! The Great Wall in Civ 6 exists as a unique tile improvement for China, though this could quite easily look a little less than great…
In previous iterations, the Great Wall was a wonder in its own right. Civ 5 and Civ 4 had the Great Wall dynamically encircling the creator’s civilisation to create an impressive structure on the world map.
The Banaue Rice Terraces
By comparison, the Banaue rice terraces are relatively unloved in the world of video games, even in the likes of Civilization. One can build terrace farms as the Inca in Civ 5 and 6, but that doesn’t really capture the essence of the Banaue rice terraces.
As is often the case, modders come to the rescue. Pouakai and sukritact have created a new Banaue rice terraces wonder for Civ 5, which simply adds some additional rice resources. One could also try the Chinese Rice Terrace, created by Vojuln, which pushes the existing rice terrace a little closer to the megastructure in question.
Hypothetical Megastructures in Video Games
Megastructures get really interesting when one projects technology forwards. What will the humans 1000 years hence be capable of? What about in 1,000,000 years? Are these structures already being constructed by advanced species other than humans? (Tabby’s Star caused headlines in 2017 and brought megastructures into everyday conversation, for a time.)
Of course, with video games, one can be those future humans or advanced aliens and actually get to work building them. There are as many types of hypothetical megastructure as there are people that have stopped to think about them, so this article will focus on just a few popular ones: space elevators, arcologies, Bishop Rings, Dyson spheres, Matrioshka brains, and Ringworlds.
A space elevator, popularised in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise, would allow for travel from the surface of a planet to space without the use of rockets (or at least large rockets). It would consist of a tether joining an anchor at the equator with a counterweight (e.g. an asteroid) in orbit . On Earth, such a tether would be made from a material with an extremely high specific strength (strength per unit density). This material doesn’t yet exist in significant quantities, but carbon nanotubes, diamond nanothreads, and graphene have all been proposed as candidates.
The exacting requirements of the material used to construct such a tether would be reduced in lower gravity environments, such as on the Moon or Mars. Kevlar, for example, would be sufficient in those particular environments. The tether would extend beyond geostationary orbit at ~36,000 km, so the space elevator easily meets the requirements of megastructure.
Being tantalising close to realisation (by comparison to some of the other entries in this list), the space elevator has received some attention in the gaming world. Civ 4 includes the Space Elevator wonder; one can add such a wonder in Civ 5 using the Future Worlds mod by bouncymischa. It’s also available to be built in a non-Earth location in Alpha Centauri.
Arcologies are an architectural concept allowing for densely populated habitats that minimise ecological impact. Typically they are considered in the context of humans, but let’s not let that limit or imaginations.
One of the earliest examples of arcologies in popular media is The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson. In it, the Sun has been extinguished and the remainder of humanity live inside a metal pyramid many miles tall. Interestingly, as this was published in 1912, the mechanism of the Sun’s energy was not yet known. At any rate, this is a very interesting piece, which H. P. Lovecraft himself described as “one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written”. Worth a look, then?
In the gaming world, arcologies have featured in multiple SimCity instalments; they’re seen in SimCity 2000, SimCity Creator, and SimCity (2013). More recently, the giant domes of Surviving Mars could also be considered arcologies, though one can also specifically create Arcology Spires at their centre. The lesser-known Block’hood is all about building arcology-style structures for humans and other species. Stellaris allows for the construction of arcology districts on ecumenopolis worlds. Ecumenopoleis, planet-wide cities, are arguably the natural evolution of arcologies, though it would be difficult to state that their ecological impact is minimised, given that they totally define a planet’s surface. Ecumenopoleis notably featured in the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, one of my all-time favourites in sci-fi.
Conspicuously absent from the Civilization series, arcologies can be added to Civ 4 with a number of mods, my favourite being Caveman 2 Cosmos. It draws you into an historical simulation – no, a bonafide anthropological study – like no other.
Bishop Rings are simply rotating space habitats. They are one of a class of space-based structures, including Banks Orbitals and Ringworlds (discussed later). Perhaps their most famous modern incarnation is the eponymous ring installations of the Halo universe. As initially envisioned by Forrest Bishop of the Institute of Atomic-Scale Engineering, the habitat would have a radius of 1,000 km, making it dead-on for a megastructure.
More broadly, rotating space habitats have featured in many video games, as they’re essentially the go-to to introduce artificial gravity without speculative technologies. As already alluded to, the Halo Array of the Halo franchise consists of ring-shaped worlds (“Halos”) and a control station (“the Ark”), all created by the ancient Forerunners. Ian M. Banks’ “Orbital” concept of The Culture Series are similar to the shape and design of these Halos.
Extending/generalising the idea slightly, one finds “habitats” in Stellaris. Habitats have gone from strength-to-strength in Stellaris and attract attention from the legion of modders in that community. One of my favourites is Abandoned Habitats by Violent Beetle, which distributes habitats ready for settling throughout the galaxy. If you want to improve the strategic significance of habitats, you might consider PJs :: Better Habitats by PrinceJonn.
A Dyson sphere is a megastructure that would totally encompass a star in order to most effectively capture energy for later use. The concept is one that would represent a significant step-change in the energy utilisation of a civilisation, capturing the energy of an entire star rather than, say, a single planet or a portion of the energy available on a planet (as we do today). This would represent a so-called Type II civilisation on the Kardashev scale. The underlying hypothesis here is that, as a civilisation grows, it has an ever-increasing need for energy. Inevitably, it would require the energy output of an entire star. This thought experiment was proposed by Freeman Dyson in 1960, hence the name.
The exact composition of the megastructure is not strictly defined, but Olaf Stapledon, who first described the concept in his novel Star Maker, in which he said that a star would be “surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use.”
There is no shortage of references to Dyson spheres in popular culture, and video games are no exception. Readers of this blog might be particular aware of references in Freelancer or Space Empires IV and V (where they were called “sphereworlds”). More likely, though, you’re aware of the ability to construct Dyson spheres in Stellaris where they provide massive energy bonuses.
A matrioshka brain is a megastructure in which Dyson spheres are nested. The name follows from the “Russian nesting” matryoshka dolls. Energy wasted by the inner spheres is utilised by successive outer spheres. Specifically, the contained star’s energy would be used to drive computer systems.
Matrioshka brains are one of my favourite sci-fi concepts. Robert Bradbury discusses them in Year Million : Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge, a series of commissioned essays by notable journalists and scholars. (This is a mind-bending book but extremely approachable – highly recommended!) Bradbury described matrioshka brains (or MBrains, as he calls them) as so:
MBrains… would comprise swarm-like shells made from a tremendous number of co-orbiting solar sail-like structures. Careful planning is required, as they specialized sunlight catchers and reflectors have to be organised to… allow through the solar radiant energy they’d capture; such an architecture has the ability to transmit, reflect, or refract any solar energy it receives to any (nonblocked) point in the solar system.
What to do with all of this energy? Bradbury suggests that humans might migrate their minds to be rendered in software and hardware in these MBrains. Therein, they’d live an entirely virtual and utopian lifestyle. This is explored further by Charles Stross in his novel Accelerando.
Ignoring the concept of simulated realities, matrioshka brains don’t pop up too frequently in video games, though you can add them to Stellaris with one of my favourite mods, Gigastructural Engineering & More by Elowiny, Random™, James Fire, and Cephalon Sithalo. This adds a lot of megastructures besides, but the matrioshka brain in particular is one that brings me back!
Ringworlds are an enormous version of Bishop rings. They were popularised in the 1970 novel Ringworld by Larry Niven. These objects centre on their host star and are constructed to a diameter of hundreds of millions of kilometres. The idea is that the inner surface of the ring will be habitable.
Ringworlds require enormous quantities of matter (with properties more extreme than any known material). They are a proposed “efficient” use of matter in a solar system to provide maximum habitable surface area. I believe the best way to grasp the concept of a ringworld is to read Niven’s aforementioned novel!
The ringworld concept holds a special place in my heart; the Odin Gaming banner scene is based upon an inhabited ringworld with the ringworld curving into the distance.
Ringworlds are, of course, one of the megastructures the player can construct in Stellaris, but also feature in Star Ruler 2, and in the Space Empires series. And if you fancy starting on a ringworld in Stellaris, you can use the Ringworld Home mod by csrr!