Adaptive economics

Humans : correct in making the leap from wealth as currency to wealth as energy. But logic failure : wealth ultimately is extension of desire, fluctuating with emotions and state of mind. Desires : when all are supported in purely adaptable system, true wealth is achieved.

— Usurper Judaa Marr, “Human : Nature”

The introduction of alien factions in the Alien Crossfire expansion brings with it a host of questions, most of which relate to their modes of social organization. There is, by virtue of them being alien, bound to be quite a few and quite radical differences between how these aliens go about doing things and the more familiar human ways we’ve seen so far. They wouldn’t be alien if they simply conformed to the economic theory of this or that human thinker of centuries past.

This, however, points to an inherent contradiction of science fiction. Science fiction is by necessity written by humans, for humans, from a human point of view. No matter how elaborate, extrapolated or extraordinary the aliens depicted in sci fi writing become, they are still limited in scope to the point of view of a single species on a single planet. When authors seek inspiration for their strange and amazing extraterrestrial entities, this inspiration will by necessity come from somewhere close to home. Alien is as human does.

This is something of a drawback when it comes to empirical correctness and science-based science fiction. It does not, however, invalidate the notion of writing about aliens in the first place. They are not meant to be depictions of actually existing little (or, in the case of the progenitors, quite large) green men, but rather to perturb and upturn our habitual conceptions of what it means to be human. By confronting the Other, we mirror ourselves.

We can see this at play in the quote above. Marr comments on the limitations of human economic thinking, and points out that there is a better, more logical way of going about things. Wealth seen as merely the fulfillment of flimsy and temporary impulses is short-sighted, and tends to lead to the accumulation of ever more useless trinkets as one momentary fad gives way to another; wealth becomes the ability to give in to desire yet one more time, as the mood shifts. Marr’s alternative, then, is to move the ability to satisfy desires from the individual to societal institutions, in such a way that everyone can do it, whilst also contributing to the overall economy. An adaptive economy does not consist of wealthy individuals, but rather of a set of economic institutions which allow for the wealth to be realized where it needs to be, regardless of the size or nature of said need.

It should come as no surprise that Marr has Planned as his preferred societal choice; what has been said so far resonates with the old adage “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Perhaps it is only fitting that Marr’s ambition to become the supreme overmind of the galaxy is built on the backs of well-cared for citizens. Indeed, it might be the only way. If this is how he treats his minions before achieving godhood, the thinking might be, then imagine what manner of wealth he might bestow once the Transcendence is completed. It would, all things considered, be a very human thing to believe.

The Manifold Usurpers

There are different ways to look at Planet. One is to view it as a pristine place, akin to a temple, to be left alone to the gods, or preserved into some distant future for purposes yet unknown. A sacred place which hold many secrets, which shall remain secret for the good of the galaxy.

Or

You can view it as a big, fat, juicy battery filled with enough raw power to catapult yourself and your closest millions of friends directly into manifest godhood, just waiting for you to come around to push the metaphysical button. After that, the galaxy is your playground, to conquer at your leisure.

To say that the Usurpers are dedicated towards achieving transcendence would be a monumental understatement. It is the reason they arrived on Planet in the first place, and after the crash landing it is just about the only way off of this rock. The stakes are godhood or death; everything else is either a step towards the former, or a step away from the latter. To quote a famous rock group: nothing else matters.

This fanatical dedication to transcendence defines everything about the Usurper faction, as you might imagine. This includes its relationship to humanity. The fact that they in many ways share a common predicament with the humans – humanity, even though it does not know it yet, is also caught between transcendence and death – only serves to underscore just why peace is an impossibility. The very similarity makes it so: if humans are allowed to live, they will inevitably progress towards their own transcendence, potentially beating the Usurpers to it. The relative backwardness of humanity and their ignorance of what is truly at stake, only makes it more imperative to get a head start while the getting is good. In a race where there can only be one winner, fairness and even playing fields are to be avoided at all costs.

In mechanical terms, this translates into the Usurpers (and the Caretakers, too) being manifestly overpowered from the word go. A player who chooses the Usurper faction will have no difficulty steamrolling their opponents (very much including the Caretakers), and given the nature of the faction advantage, it only grows larger as the game progresses. While this is understandable from a narrative perspective – high-powered scientifically advanced aliens rebuilding their material foundation after a violent crash landing – it does highlight how perspectives on game balance (however asymmetrical) has changed over the decades. There are no “humans are weaker in the early game but stronger later on” considerations; the aliens are just stronger, full stop.

This does make for some interesting gameplay considerations, however. Playing with the seven expansion factions means being permanently at war with two of them (the aliens), and having diplomatic options with the other five. Or, if playing as either of the aliens, being permanently at war with the other alien faction, and ever so gradually finding yourself at war with everyone else. Whether this was intended, or an artifact of the Civ 2 era diplomacy system, where you could be at peace for years and years until you clicked on the communication button, thus reminding the other faction that a) you exist, b) that they hate you and c) this is a sufficient reason for an immediate declaration of war, – is an open question. Either way, playing without the aliens makes for somewhat more peaceful runs.

Speaking of unfair advantages, the aliens have an additional victory condition: they can construct subspace generators. Upon building six of these, a portal is opened to the home world, wherefrom untold legions can be summoned. While the game ends after their construction, it is heavily implied that the sheer quantity of troops, weapons and advanced tech brought forth through the gate overruns everyone else on Planet combined, and that resistance after that point is symbolic and utterly futile.

The question, then, is what the Usurpers intend to do once they have achieved their goal, either through local or external means. While the question, like for the other factions, largely remains unanswered, we do glean two things from the leader quotes of the respective alien factions. From the Caretakers, we learn that something like this has happened before, with terrible consequences. And from the Usurpers, we learn that despite all that, it is still worth it:

Risks of Flowering: considerable. But rewards of godhood: who can measure?

– Usurper Judaa Marr, “Courage : To Question”

Protagoras once said that man is the measure of all things. The Usurpers, utterly alien as they are, beg to differ.