Many games have opened at the end of civilisation, but only Alpha Centauri could open at the end of Civilization – repositioning Civ’s victory condition of manned flight to Alpha Centauri from a conclusion to a prelude. For those who pursued that victory it’s a sobering beginning, proposing that regardless of how enlightened or ruthless your climb to power was, the Earth of 2060 you leave behind is at critical mass: a map that’s been played out, save for the drawn-out bickering over the last exhausted resource tiles. In a case of life imitating turn-based strategy, those who had never touched a Civ title would be likely to find the setting just as plausible.
The second sucker-punch of social commentary is that ‘The Future Of Mankind’, the colony ship Unity’s expedition to an altogether new world, seems doomed to repeat mankind’s past. Critically sabotaged and its captain assassinated, the Unity’s crew disintegrates ahead of the ship, splitting into seven factions to fill the ideological vacuum left in mutual co-operation’s place. Here, at planetfall, the actual game begins: a to-and-fro of land and resources that, even at the time of its release, could be mistaken for Civilization with a red tileset. Though Alpha Centauri’s greater sophistications as a strategy game have become more obvious with time, what’s more affecting, and still unique, is the density of expression behind it – the same kind of old-fashioned, consensual storytelling that once drew universes out of ASCII.
Speculative sci-fi risks dating badly in any medium, but the deftness of Alpha Centauri’s design is to focus on the human elements and let the technical follow. Freed from Civ’s knowing, but still jarring, anachronisms, it’s ironically a more constant and believable experience than its forebear – presenting a culture with sufficiently advanced technology, then logically accelerating from it. Choosing a faction isn’t an enforced roleplay of assuming its ideology, but of actively shaping it, a two-way relationship between the direction you climb the technology tree and the impact technology makes on your society. As that society solidifies from pioneer scrabbling to formative utopia, the game’s social-engineering model provides a philosophical test-bed – allowing hybrid values of militant environmentalism, or benevolent profiteering. Units are provided as a combination of technologies rather than a technology unto themselves, able to be dismantled and repurposed as your faction’s priorities shift.
Though the language of turn-based strategy is one of units, commodities and strategies, ask an Alpha Centauri player what they found most memorable and they’ll talk about faction leaders (or perhaps Planet Buster warheads – but we’ll get to those players later). What’s remarkable about the game’s seven leaders is that their personalities are developed almost subliminally: from a single portrait, from the spoken monologues that accompany tech tree developments, from their life in photographs in the corner of a commlink – home towns, first steps, first loves, family, graduation, spacewalk. While their regimes cast immediately identifiable shadows over the planetary surface – whether the totalitarian Chairman Yang’s legacy of stripmines and scorched earth, the green belts of Lady Dierdre’s Gaians or the prolific but ascetic settlements of Sister Miriam – this defines only their figurehead: the heart remains elusive.
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