Once Upon a Future History ('98 Week)

“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.

Comments

Oh my God, I just had an amazing flashback. I'm not even trying to be glib with the whole time warp thing going on right now on the site.

Around 10 years ago, I didn't have money to buy games so I played a lot of demos. One demo was for this pretty neat strategy game where you could make alliances, go to war and do other cool things, but it was in outer space! It was awesome!

Then I forgot about the game and only remember it in pained flashbacks in which I regret not knowing the name of the game.

Flash-forward about 8 years, when I started to have money for games. I am immeadiately drawn to sci-fi and strategy games. From the games press and fan sites (like this) I hear echoes of a great game called Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri? Psshaww! That game is for old people. I have no history with that relic.

Today.

GWJ experiences a time warp and I see screenshots for a new game.

Alpha Cen- wait... I recognize those pictures...

The demo from my youth... it was Alpha Centauri!

So, uh... where can I pick this up?

Truly, are there not 7 factions?

IMAGE(http://imgur.com/5qRpK.png)

grobstein wrote:

Truly, are there not 7 factions?

Maybe they'll add one more before release.

Man, I remember when this game came out. I heard rumblings of it, but I never got around to playing it myself. I was never in to RTS games. Interestingly, it was ported to Mac and Linux a while ago...

We hold life to be sacred, but we also know the foundation of life consists in a stream of codes not so different from the successive frames of a watchvid. Why then cannot we cut one code short here, and start another there? Is life so fragile that it can withstand no tampering? Does the sacred brook no improvement?

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
"Dynamics of Mind"

Goddamn i miss Alpha Centauri, They never make games like that anymore =/

@DorkmasterFlek, it was never an RTS....

edit: i Hated Sister Miriam, that bitch!

Ah, Alpha Centauri. The game were the planet was the biggest bastard, not the other players.

I miss being able to torture my own civilians! And mix and match tech on the units! Hello, drop ships!

Man, they did a great job on that game.

Grubber788 wrote:

The demo from my youth... it was Alpha Centauri!

So, uh... where can I pick this up?

In your favorite game store, check out the large PC section, it will surely be there prominently displayed. Luckily, the PC games have huge distinctive boxes, which is clearly the optimum marketing strategy that will not be changed anytime soon.

In realtime news, I want GoG.com to get a hold of Alpha Centauri with Alien Crossfire expansion. I have the expansion, but it's, umm, a very special edition that I somehow found on the interwebs...

From the perspective of this post, I will have lost two years to this game at some point in the near future

grobstein wrote:

Truly, are there not 7 factions?

What's sad is I actually installed and played the game several times. I still managed to miscount somehow.

No, don't tell me. Alpha Centauri's next up for GoG.com.

You guys are evil, I even dreamed I was back in college in the late 90's last night. Ugh. If there's going to be a "good old days" I look back at throughout my life, it's going to be 1996-2000.

I will love this game, of that I am pretty certain. I can foresee that it is the only game where I will play as the tree-hugging hippies and their barmy worms.

Probably.

[Notes from a time traveller to Grubber788] - a number of companies have released this game as part of their cheap game ranges, usually including the patch to make it compatible with Windows XP and Vista [End]

...Windows what now ?

If life is fair, this thread includes a link to Alpha Centauri on GoG. I have it and the expansion, but it would just be so much easier to have this added to my GoG account.

"Trees are stupid."
~CEO Nwabudike Morgan. Strip Mine your Way to Success.

Also, this.

I wish we'd had some awesome tie-in with GoG on all this. But we don't. Sorry, no inside scoops here!

Certis wrote:

I wish we'd had some awesome tie-in with GoG on all this. But we don't. Sorry, no inside scoops here!

Can't you just use your magic CEO powers to make something happen?

I've been on a sci-fi old school kick as of late. I've been going back and trying out the old games like Alien Legacy, Master of Orion, Reunion and even Dune.

Why did the games industry dump this genre of games like a hot potato? All of these games are so awesome.

He can warp space-time, but he holds no sway over GOG. Who are those people!?

Amoebic wrote:

He can warp space-time, but he holds no sway over GOG. Who are those people!?

He can't violate the Prime Directive and interfere with our commerce system.

Woah. The only Civ I ever played was III, but my interest is piqued as can be.

I suspect that the reason why Space Fantasy is more common than Science Fiction is because it's easier to write and lots of people can't tell the difference.

I'm a bit slow today, I started reading this and thought some sort of remake was in the works. Now I'm sad.

I love this game so much. Which always struck me as a bit odd, since I never liked the civ games. Playing multiplayer and having both sides get utterly nuked by Planet is still one of my fondest gaming memories.

This and Master of Orion 2 are the two games permanently installed on my laptop. Considering its scarcity, buying Alien Crossfire may be one of my best gaming purchases ever.

I suddenly crave Peanut-Butter and Banana sandwiches.

This was a game that had this as one of its mini-movies: The Dream Twister.

Alpha Centauri is that game that I would take with me if stuck on a desert island. Even after all these years and all that's come after it. It is pure awesome.

Edit: Also, I'm surprised on the GOG site that AC isn't higher up on the poll for new games to bring to GOG. Even though I have an old copy of the Alpha Centarui Alien Crossfire Planetary Pack and have it installed on my computer (after lots of finagling), I would gladly drop 10 bucks for a GOG copy.

A lot of the secret project movies come from Baraka which is absolutely stunning in Blu-ray.

DorkmasterFlek wrote:

Man, I remember when this game came out. I heard rumblings of it, but I never got around to playing it myself. I was never in to RTS games. Interestingly, it was ported to Mac and Linux a while ago...

I actually beta-tested the Linux version of this -- it was back in Linux's brief gaming heyday, when Loki Software was porting major Windows releases left, right and centre. Unfortunately, that beta period was the last time I played it. I didn't pick up the final version, and Loki folded not long after, so it's nigh-on impossible to find now.

RoutineMachine wrote:

I suspect that the reason why Space Fantasy is more common than Science Fiction is because it's easier to write and lots of people can't tell the difference.

You're probably right.

Never played this, sadly. Wish I could get it somewhere.