20 Years of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
On February 12, 1999, the only video game that truly changed my life was released.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC for short) was, at its heart, a derivative of the popular turn based strategy game Civilization 2, reskinned in a science fiction setting as the result of intellectual property complications around the Civilization series. But the push to a new setting struck a rich vein of innovation that brought new ideas to the series.
The Civilization series was (and still is) based on Earth’s real history, and to this end it tried to reflect real political, economic, social, and military developments. The map was made of tiles reflecting real terrain; players selected their civilizations from historical options, each represented by a notable historical leader but with no differentiation beyond color on the map; military units corresponded to real historical developments.
SMAC, freed from correspondence to actual history, embraced modular systems. Rather than, for example, Plains and Grasslands being distinct, fixed terrains, the game simulated erosion and rainfall patterns to give tiles a few characteristics (How wet is it? How rocky? How high?), from which resource yields were determined. And instead of doing this once at the start of the game, these values could be dynamically recalculated, allowing players with the appropriate technologies to build massive condensers to increase rainfall on nearby tiles, or raise and lower terrain to change patterns across larger areas. Once planted, forests could spread dynamically, as could the planet’s native fungus, and they player could, intentionally or inadvertently, trigger climate changes with dramatic impacts on sea levels.
The handful of governments in Civilization 2 were replaced by four Social Engineering axes, allowing players to choose their faction’s system of government, economic style, social values, and, eventually, to implement a future society, ranging from a Eudaimonic commitment to realizing individual happiness to a totalitarian system of Thought Control, each providing bonuses and (usually) penalties to a longer list of categories. The factions received their primary mechanical definition at this level, both through inherent bonuses and penalties to different areas and through preferences and aversions to social engineering choices. So the capitalist Morganites will never be able to enact a Planned economy and will, in the hands of the AI, always choose a Free Market; their primary foil, then environmentalist Gaians, prefer a Green economy and abhor the environmental destruction unleashed by the Free Market option.
At a bare mechanical level, this system serves to push games in certain directions-the Gaians are likely to hate the Morganites due to the latter’s embrace of the former’s aversion; the Morganites won’t be quite as quick to dislike the Gaians (after all, while they may not properly embrace the market, at least they aren’t Communists), but a lesser degree of tension will prevail. Other factions are in more direct opposition: the UN Peacekeepers, clinging to a vision of democracy and universal human rights, face off with the Human Hive, dedicated to creating a strictly hierarchical society maintained by as much force as necessary; the amoral scientism of the University of Planet runs directly up against the religious convictions of the Lord’s Believers.
What captured my imagination at 12, though, was above all how these mechanical identities were expressed in the game’s worldbuilding. SMAC’s fundamental tone is quite dark: the introduction compares leaving an Earth ravaged by war and ecological disaster, one which apparently saw civilization collapse and humanity disappear soon after the game’s start, to leaving the Garden of Eden and proceeds to introduce the factions as the splinters of a desperate United Nations mission to colonize Alpha Centauri. Soon after beginning the game, the player encounters native life (mechanically a replacement for the Civilization games’ barbarians) in the form of worms said to disable their human and animal prey with horrifying hallucinations before leaving their larvae to consume the victims. Many of the technologies developed over the course of the game suggest disturbing developments ripped straight from dystopian literature. And as the factions expand and develop their economies, they increasingly risk creating familiar ecological problems.
Yet the game never loses sight of the difference that human choices make, both in the competing voices of the faction leaders presented throughout the game and in the mechanical expression of its themes. Though they might have access to the same tools, one cannot escape the conclusion that the faction leaders would create entirely different societies given the chance. And, with a variety of voices whispering in their ear, players must choose whether to crack down on unrest by force or to address its root causes; whether to make use of powerful but destructive terraforming techniques or to learn to base an economy on less ecologically disruptive techniques; whether to pursue military dominance or peaceful coexistence; and ultimately what to do about Planet’s unusual native lifeforms.
When I play SMAC now, it is in large part for nostalgia-the game’s mechanics have aged poorly, combining a great deal of micromanagement with a primitive AI unable to compete with a competent player even when given massive advantages. Yet every time I boot it up and watch the introductory video, I am once again struck by the sense of possibility the game engenders and by the writing’s ability to make even visions I abhor appear seductive at times. And I remember how, more than any other game I have played, it inspired me to learn about the literature and philosophy from which it drew inspiration. If you haven’t played it before, I encourage you to seek it out (the rise of digital distribution has been a godsend for these old games); if you have, I encourage you to fire it up for just one more turn.