At first all the arrangements for building the Tower of Babel were characterized by fairly good order; indeed the order was perhaps too perfect, too much thought was taken for guides, interpreters, accommodation for the workmen, and roads of communication, as if there were centuries before one to do the work in. In fact the general opinion at that time was that one simply could not build too slowly; a very little insistence on this would have sufficed to make one hesitate to lay the foundations at all.
– Franz Kafka, The City Coat of Arms, Datalinks
This blog will be an item-by-item exploration of all the things in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and its expansion Alien Crossfire. Both were released in 1999, and are widely considered to be among the classics of computer games in general, and of the Civilization series in particular. If you are reading this in the future, you probably came here looking for things related to these very games for purposes of nostalgia, and thus the setting needs very little in way of introduction; it is more than likely that you are going to navigate to your favorite chapter without further ado. If you are reading this in the present, and thus encounter the blog posts as they are posted: welcome.
My overall ambition is that you should not have to have played either SMAC or SMAX to follow what is going on in this blog. It will reduce the nostalgia factor, to be sure, but my aim is to write something where you can start at the beginning and get something out of by just following along for the ride. There will be names, concepts and other strange words thrown about, but – given that we will encounter and explore just about every science fiction trope there ever was – there will be something for everyone.
I suspect that the premise of this blog raises all manner of questions. The first such question is methodological, and concerns the definition of “all the things”. There are many things in SMAC, and more so in SMAX, some of them more memorable than others. There are 86 technologies, 49 buildings, 37 secret projects and 15 factions in the game, each accompanied by paratext in the form of in-universe quotes and voiceovers. There are also a smattering of books, comics and other media surrounding the game. This blog will concentrate on the things you encounter in the game, treating the paratext as part of the thing it describes. Unit equipment (such as weapons, armor and abilities) will similarly be treated in connection with the technology that enables them. In total, all the things add up to 187, each getting a post of its own.
In addition to this considerable amount of posts, there will also be a number of more general posts on the various stages of civilizational development, from the initial stage of setting up a fledgling human presence on Chiron, up to the more futuristic stages of transhumanistic nanorobotics. These posts will, for reasons of transparent convenience, follow the vertical trajectory of this tech tree visualization (pdf), from left to right, moving upwards. While a player may or may not notice the subtle differentiations between stages during gameplay, there is a point to acknowledge these different chapters and their implications in this blog series. If nothing else, it serves to divide up the reading into different chapters.
This hints at a second methodological consideration. There is a continuum between gameplay and narrative analysis, and any project of this kind will have to decide where it places itself on this scale. It would be possible to write from a purely gameplay point of view, detailing what each thing does and how to use them efficiently in one’s own games (thus placing the series in the genre of strategy guides). Conversely, it would be possible to write from a purely analytical point of view, not mentioning gameplay even once, focusing on aspects such as narrative, structure and intertextual references. This blog series will lean towards the latter, while not shying away from discussing gameplay elements and game mechanics from time to time. While submarine aircraft carriers are indeed strange, they are not as interesting as the social and historical trajectory that made them possible.
The reasoning behind this is that there are already strategy guides out there, such as Vel’s 200-page booklet. Moreover, the official game manual (pdf) does a good job of covering the basics. Writing another such guide for a twenty year old game would not be the best possible way to contribute to the world. Or, to rephrase: it would not make for an interesting read. Additionally, it makes the text accessible to readers who have not played the game, or any Civilization game for that matter; the reading experience is not contingent of knowing archaic interfaces or game conventions. And – let’s not pretend otherwise – Alpha Centauri is rather archaic in terms of being a computer game. To put it in perspective: you bought it on CD-ROM and installed it on Windows 98. Apps were still called “programs”.
All of this raises another set of questions that all relate to one single word: why? Why write such an extensive analysis of a twenty year old computer game? Of all the possible things that could have been written, why choose this one in particular? What gives?
A first reason is my habit of starting a new blog each year. This year needed a theme, and this is it. You can find the blogs from previous years enumerated and described here.
A related reason is that this is a finite project, with a definite beginning, middle and end. There are only so many blog posts to write, and a finite number of ways to go about writing them. Sitting myself down to do this in a systematic and interesting manner is a challenge, and I suspect I will find myself a better writer and analyst of media artifacts (mostly human) at the other end of it. It is a learning experience, as much as anything.
A second reason is that there is something of a lack of writing on old computer games, and that it would be a good thing for the medium in general to have more of it. Those of us who grew up playing these games when they were new are – albeit reluctantly – becoming old geezers, and the youngsters have no frame of reference for these things. Nor should they have; they are busy being young and doing things that are new and relevant now (the recent expansion of Civilization 6 not least among them). But if we do not write down our thoughts and reflections on these things, they will only exist as oral traditions, invisible to those who do not know to ask about them, and then simply forgotten as we become even older geezers. There is an archival component to this endeavor; these things should not exist as pre-Socratic fragments scattered across ancient and inactive online forums, gathered together by future scholars who may or may not get it.
A third reason is that if I did not do this, I would go around wondering what it would be like if I did. Once the idea got stuck, it started to spread like xenofungus. The only way forward is through.
One last thing needs to be addressed in this introduction, and that is the other blog project that did this: the Paean to SMAC. I am aware of it, and reading it was the inciting incident causing me to want to write my own version of it. There is an inspirational relationship between our endeavors, and I encourage you to read his words as well as mine (especially if you get here in medias res, and the late game posts have yet to be published). However, this is where all connections between our projects end. This is not a response to what he wrote or a critique of how he went about doing things. Both projects are reflections on the same thing, and when two persons say “I think”, they are both right.
That said, I do have to acknowledge that I have the advantage of hindsight. Being the second person to do something means that there is always an option to look at how the first person did it. Which is to say, I will write my posts and then take the briefest of looks at what my predecessor wrote. If I discover that I’ve made some glaring factual mistake that could easily be fixed, I will fix it. It would be somewhat pretentious to call this due diligence or shoulders of giants, but it is something along those lines.
One last point: I will publish one post a day until I either run out of posts or game. This places the date of completion somewhere in early September of 2018, so mark that in your calendar if you want to binge-read it all at once. If you follow along for the ride, however, please feel free to use the comment section; I suspect there will be a thing or two to comment upon as the future grows closer. Suggestions for further reading on the themes brought up are particularly welcome.
But enough with these preliminaries. As Kafka said, it is indeed possible to build too slowly. Let’s get started.