2.2.09

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

We got our first computer when I was about eleven or twelve -- it was second hand, from a guy my mother knew from work. The foreign, imposing looking thing (a Packard Bell) came with the various software the previous owner had received when he bought it. Two of those disks were games. The first was ‘Baldur’s Gate’, which is amazing and I’ll talk about it another time. The second was ‘Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri’.

Sid Meier, for those who don’t know, is the creator of the ‘Civilization’ series -- the most well known and successful turn-based strategy game on the PC. Turn-based is as opposed to real-time (things like ‘Warcraft’ and ‘Age of Empires’) where time is of the essence and there is a lot of frenzied clicking. In ‘Civilization’, the map is broken up into squares, and you can take as long as you like to decide where next to move a particular unit. Obviously, the pace of the game can be glacial, although I think that is peculiarly apt for an experience which traces an alternative history of humankind from cavemen to astronauts. It also allows the strategy aspect to be more complex and involving.

One of the interesting things about the game is that conquest is not the only way of winning. In ‘Civilization II’, victory could also be gained by establishing the first off-world human colony at Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own. Initially, Sid Meier had wanted to continue work on making a ‘Civilization III’, but he had also decided to leave Microprose to set up his own games development company called Firaxis, which cast the future of the franchise in doubt. Instead, Meier and his team created a different kind of sequel -- following the human colonists to Alpha Centauri and applying ‘Civilization’ gameplay in a science fiction setting.

And thank God for that. For ‘Alpha Centauri’ turned out to be more complicated and exiting that the game that spawned it. Foremost among its achievements is that it takes its science fiction seriously. The ‘tech tree’ starts off with innovations that help the colonists survive and build societies in an alien environment, but moves on to things like matter transportation, manipulating gravity, nanotechnology and genetic engineering. The game ties this new knowledge to the old with pop-up quotes by real world philosophers and poets. On Alpha Centauri, the entire intellectual history of Earth is stored in the ‘Datalinks’ -- like wikipedia but cooler. These little details add a great deal of depth to the societies you are controlling, and are a testament to how far the developers have gone to construct a believable and enticing future world.

Unlike most strategy games, ‘Alpha Centauri’ has a genuine plot running alongside the traditional story told by most strategy games -- of the evolution of human societies through history. Mankind isn’t alone on their new planet. The barbarians in ‘Civilization’ are turned into deadly native mind-worms that attack all the different factions. As you advance up the tech tree, you learn that these creatures are in fact the planet’s immune system, reacting to the human presence and its industrial pollution. They are the foot-soldiers of the ecosystem, which is a sentient group mind composed of all life on the planet. Although victory against the other human factions can be achieved through diplomatic, economic and military means, the game’s story offers another avenue -- uniting human consciousness and all the information in the Datalinks to the Planetmind. The game describes it as an ‘ascent to transcendence’ -- where our material shells are left behind and we are free to play around in the world of ideas. This is great science fiction -- recalling classic works by authors like James Blish, Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov.

The game’s most brilliant idea is to divide the seven different factions, not by race or nationality, but by ideology. Hence you have the survivalist Spartan Federation, the technocratic University of Planet, the collectivist Human Hive, the fundamentalist Lord’s Believers, the free market Morgan Industries, the environmentalist Gaia’s Stepdaughters and the UN Charter upholding Peacekeeping Forces. Each faction leader’s character is fleshed out by pop-up quotes from their various published works, revealing their ideas and motivations, and again adding depth to the different societies in the game. Moreover, the game allows you to test-drive these seven different paths to the future, and forces you to compare their different visions. Like all great science fiction, you leave it thinking about big ideas and unanswerable questions.

All this, and its also unbelievably playable. Admittedly, some time has to be spent familiarizing yourself with the game, but the story and the characters are enticing enough to make you do it. And when you’re comfortable with it, there’s no end to the stuff you can play with -- diplomatic relations, research, secret projects, social models, terraforming, military campaigns, designing units, searching for resources, it goes on and on. No wonder PC Gamer gave the game a score of 98%, only matched by Half Life 2. It is really that awesome. It is a shining example of how good games can be.

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