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Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Entry updated 26 January 2015. Tagged: Game.

Videogame (1999). Firaxis Games (FG). Designed by Brian Reynolds, Sid Meier. Platforms: Win (1999); Mac (2000); Lin (2001).

Alpha Centauri is a 4X Game based on an attempt to colonize the eponymous solar system. It is much influenced by the designers' Civilization series of historical games, particularly Sid Meier's Civilization II (1996 MicroProse, Win; 1997 Mac; 1998 PS1) designed by Brian Reynolds, Douglas Caspian-Kaufman, Jeff Briggs, to which it is an unofficial sequel. In Civilization II, the player guides their chosen culture through human history, achieving victory by various alternative means including destroying all other civilizations and reaching Alpha Centauri. The game of Alpha Centauri begins with a Sublight colonization expedition arriving in the solar system, after escaping from an Earth destroying itself through war and Overpopulation. However, a mutiny occurs on board as the ship approaches its destination; seven different factions successfully land on the single habitable planet before the vessel is destroyed. The player adopts the role of leader of one of these groups, with the aim of achieving dominance over the others.

Gameplay revolves around exploring and settling the planet, making use of its resources, researching improvements in science and technology, and trading, negotiating and fighting with the other factions. Throughout the game players also have to deal with attacks by Psionically active hostile native life; eventually it emerges that the planet itself is a sentient Hive Mind which is resisting the human intrusion, in a manner reminiscent of Harry Harrison's Deathworld (1960). Victory can be achieved by military conquest, economic dominance, diplomatic supremacy or triggering a global Transcendence. This last condition is satisfied by unifying human consciousness with the planetary mind, creating a global Posthuman mentality. The need to balance many conflicting priorities, and the wide selection of choices available to the player, make Alpha Centauri's gameplay a richly varied experience.

The true source of the game's fascination, however, lies in the nature of the factions. Each expresses a different aspect of humanity, from military honour to enthusiastic capitalism to ecological pacifism. Thus the player's choice of faction represents a decision to adopt a particular personality within the game. That character is not fixed, however. As the game evolves players often find that tactical necessities encourage them to take actions which change the nature of their chosen society, an evolution which is made personal by the game's use of miniature stories to illustrate the consequences of such decisions. So a player leading an ecological group being destroyed by a capitalist invasion might choose to investigate the use of the native "mind worms" as weapons, and discover that the price of victory is becoming something they despise. Alpha Centauri's fictional world is intriguing and elaborately detailed, with something of the flavour of Frank Herbert's work. The game itself is one of the most accomplished examples of emergent narrative in Videogames to date.

Related works: Sid Meier's Alien Crossfire (1999 FG, Win; 2000 Mac; 2001 Lin) is an expansion pack which makes another seven factions available to the player, including two groups belonging to an alien race which have taken different sides in a civil war. GURPS Alpha Centauri (2003) designed by Jon Zeigler is a sourcebook for the GURPS (1986) RPG which details the milieu. Centauri Dawn (2000), Dragon Sun (2001) and Twilight of the Mind (2002), all by the game's story developer, Michael Ely, are spinoff novels. Each focuses on one of the common conflicts that develop during gameplay, between such pairings as militarists and peacekeepers or religious believers and scientists. Alpha Centauri: Power of the Mind Worms (2000) is a graphic novel written by Steve Darnell, describing the first attempts to make Psionic contact with the eponymous creatures. "Journey to Centauri" (1999 web) and "Centauri: Arrival" (1999 web), both by Michael Ely, are episodic short stories written to promote the game's initial release. [NT]

see also: Triple A.


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