“Just as the human memory is not a passive recorder but a tool in the construction of the self, so history has never been a simple record of the past, but a means of shaping peoples.” - Arthur C. Clarke
Golden-age science fiction was always about history. The long, sweeping arcs of the human race played out over centuries. But instead of the past, the titans of the golden age wrote about the history of the future. Mankind's path through the centuries and the cosmos, their paths intertwined towards some bright and shining future.
Of all the things we accept as mundane, video games are perhaps the most like science fiction. So why hasn’t science fiction been explored better in the video gaming space? Sure, we have tons of science fantasy such as Star Wars, and I’m sure we’ll see much more of that once the prequels finally arrive. But what about science fiction? What about following mankind's destiny towards the stars? Heroes building a better world through science and reason? The history of the human race that’s yet to come?
After learning both Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds re-joined forces at Firaxis for Alpha Centauri, I pulled every string I could in order to get a preview copy. While I expected a new take on Civilization, I got way more than that. Civilization explores the possibilities of history. Alpha Centauri explores the potential of mankind's future history. But it’s not just about mankind's future, it’s your personal future history. Each game lets mankind follow a different path among the stars. It’s full of possibility.
There are 7 factions in Alpha Centauri, each representing a philosophy from Earth that splintered aboard the colony ship during the long interstellar travel. You can choose your faction, just as you can with any strategy game. But here, you’re choosing to align yourself with an idea. Is acquiring knowledge the goal of mankind, whatever the cost? What about the survival of the group? Is sheer power the ultimate goal? There are a faction for each of these choices. Your first act is choosing an origin story for your history, who are the people from the fallen Earth who lead us into the future?
What sets apart Alpha Centauri as science fiction is that instead of the author’s story you’re telling your own story. You aren’t stuck with Asimov’s 3 laws, you can write your own laws any way you want. This is also what sets Alpha Centauri apart from it's predecessor, Civilization. Instead of picking civics from the annals of history, you engage in social engineering for your future society. You’re not just replaying history and making slight tweaks, and you're not just re-enacting the ages of Earth's past with lasers and spaceships. You’re charting a new course for the human race by using the ideas of science fiction. Psychic utopias based on alien technology and high-tech police state dystopias are all possible here. You choose.
While I’m completely in love with golden-age science fiction, it’s themes are pretty clear. The triumph of science and reason over the past, the stoic and clever scientists remaking the world for the better, the fearful and reactionary people who fight the coming of the new age. It’s fairly black and white, at least during the 50s and early 60s era of science fiction. Alpha Centauri turns this on it’s head. It is still just as triumphant and forward-looking as the writing that clearly inspired it. But the drumbeat of progress doesn’t just match to the beat of the author's rhythm, it beats to your rhythm. I doubt there’s many 50s-era science fiction stories where a faction of fundamentalist Christians discover alien psionics and achieve enlightenment through science, but that’s entirely possible with the rules of Alpha Centauri. Each faction feels that theirs is the path to humanity’s future, and you get to decide who is right.
You decide through winning the game. The rules are also thoroughly a product of triumphalist science fiction. At it’s heart, it’s still very much Civilization II, however the differences are key. In Alpha Centauri, you can use the terraformers (workers) to do more than improve the map, you can completely remake it. You can literally rewrite the world by your own hand, through science. It doesn’t stop there, you can also customize every unit you build, right down to the basic starting units. There are no “spearmen” in Alpha Centauri. They can’t reach back into history for an archetype of a soldier during a given era. And instead of using the trappings of science fantasy to imagine it as a re-enactment of WWII with lasers, Alpha Centauri stays true to the fundamental idea of science fiction. We don’t know what plasma-wielding warriors will do. There’s numerous possibilities. The history of the future is yet unwritten, so instead of writing it in stone as an author like Heinlein would do, Alpha Centauri says “here’s a pen”.
Which is what sets Alpha Centauri apart as a work of science fiction as well. There are tons of ideas thoroughly explored through the various writings of the faction leaders, from cybernetic modification to psionics to the possibilities of alien life. Yet they all are just possibilities. Nothing’s set in stone. Among the stars, anything is possible. At it’s heart, that’s what golden-age science fiction is all about. And there’s no other game that expresses that better than Alpha Centauri.