Jul 072009

I still remember reading the PC Gamer issue in which Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri received the highest rating that magazine had ever given, in which it was implied that this might be the greatest PC game of all time. An examination of subsequent “best of” lists shows that their prediction or their memories failed, but it’s worth asking what about the game so captivated its players. I think that in part — and this is something you would not expect to say for a game of this kind — this was due to the story. Other games in this genre, including subsequent entries in its sibling Civilization series, have no greater narrative arc than a grand national romance. Alpha Centauri rises above this tradition with truly differentiated factions that imbue the different societies with real character, an explicit historical story, and a implicit but definite narrative embodied by its technology tree. When these elements work together, this interwoven narrative stands as one of the game’s unique strengths. Yet these different influences can also create an unhappy tension with one another.

Alpha Centauri has an advantage over its cousins, the Civilization games, in that the different playable factions represent ideologies rather than nations. As Alex Galloway discusses in Gaming, the “civilizations” don’t represent anything more than stand-ins for particular assemblies of AI traits. Unique units aside, the different “civilizations” have few differences, for gameplay reasons and because most real civilizations have adopted very similar patterns of success. In Alpha Centauri this is true to a certain extent, but by using each faction to represent an ideology, the distinction can be taken much farther.

The factions have material differences between them from the get-go, strengths and weaknesses that encourage divergent modes of play. The ecological handiness of the Gaians rewards a priority on interacting with Planet, but hinders population growth. The academic prowess of the University encourages technology-first gameplay, but forces the player to work diligently to protect his secrets from being stolen. While most of the game’s “Secret Projects” can benefit any faction or style of play, certain ones become crucial for particular factions — denying them the ownership of these projects can be every bit as strategically important as obtaining the benefits for yourself. In this way each faction truly develops its own character, assisted in this by the recurrent voices of the faction leaders, whose writings and sayings provide context for many of the discoveries and projects.

These “characters” enter an overarching narrative of a fractured society landing on a new world (called “Chiron” or “Planet”) already inhabited by a semi-sentient collective intelligence. The various factions are competing with one another for territory and resources, and with the alien life form for dominance of planet. Relationships between factions remain mostly antagonistic, but the game imposes an arc on the interaction between the player and the lifeforms of Planet. Certain events are triggered by the player to make an explicit arc, while the game’s technology tree enforces its own narrative of cooperation. Scientific advancement relies on developing a further understanding of Planet, which in turn allows the cultivation of its lifeforms to produce the food, energy, and minerals necessary to survive or dominate. The apex of the scientific approach to victory is the fusing of human consciousness with the collective mind of Planet.

The problem is that this doesn’t seem like an outcome that would sit well with every faction, and would appeal to some for very different reasons. The Gaians would happily join with Planet because this idea lies at the core of their civilization anyway. The collectivist Hive would also appreciate the idea, but Chairman Yang would mostly enjoy the power it gave him over all life. Surely a collective consciousness would be anathema to the capitalists of Morgan Enterprises or the Survivalists — though for these factions one could just choose to pursue the economic domination or world conquest victory conditions. That would not escape the fact that these societies are forced to pursue scientific goals at odds with their philosophies along the way.

And what of the Lord’s Believers? To say nothing of the theological difficulty involved in acknowledging the existence of an intelligent lifeform not contemplated in scripture (and this would be socially important), the pursuit of immortality by giving up one’s soul to an alien creature must surely be horrific to them. If you assume their ideals are honestly held (and in all fairness, the game does not), conquering their neighbors by the sword or filthy lucre would be just as bad.

Of course, the tech tree holds just as much offense for the Gaians as it does for the Believers — surely a bunch of tree-hugging environmentalists would hate to develop synthetic fossil fuels and pollute a whole new planet! And why should they? This is, after all, science fiction… instead of supercomputers, why not let the Gaians learn how to engineer Planet’s xenofungus into a problem-solving neural net? Instead of learning to build tanks, why couldn’t they biologically engineer armored monsters from Planet’s mindworms and locusts? Of course, allowing truly varied alternative technology trees one creates a more difficult problem in terms of balancing, especially if some of the branches are mutually exclusive. However, Alpha Centauri would have benefited, in a narrative sense, from allowing tech trees that were more friendly or more inimical to Planet. An alternate endgame (perhaps one involving a new colonization effort?) might have been of benefit also.

This, then, is the respect in which Alpha Centauri‘s narrative falters. The technology tree creates an implicit story for every faction, and the problem with this is that it is the same story, for societies that are radically different. A more flexible and varied technology tree, with defined, exclusive routes towards more varied endgames and units, would have benefited the game by allowing each of its “characters” a destiny that fit, rather than contradicted, their principles.

Note: I played Alpha Centauri as part of the fun at Vintage Game Club. We’re starting our next game, Majora’s Mask(available via Ebay for N64 and Gamecube, and through Virtual Console on Wii), next Friday. If you’re interested, we’d love to have you join in the discussion.

  One Response to “Alpha Centauri’s narrative tension”

  1. Huh, you know, having mostly played as the Gaians, I've never had an issue with this story arc, but thinking about it now, you have a solid point.

    I did think that in some other levels, the way story emerges is interesting. The quotes for the research discoveries, taken from the various faction leaders, gave glimpses into their personality.

    There are more explicit examples. Like, if you develope mind worms, you choose your aide to become the first mind worm. If he or she dies in battle, there's one of those "Excerpts from the Book of Planet" (or whatever) about their death and, furthermore, if they died because of a war with another faction, and you manage to capture one of their cities, the city is renamed in honour of the aide.

    The first time I encountered this was years after first playing the game and it floored me. I cut my teeth on Civ 2, but like you mentioned, it's more about a grand narrative. But AC managed to weave a smaller personal story into what was just another faction war, and personalized it. It was neat.

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