Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On Alpha Centauri, everyone can hear you scream. They are all psychic.

Civilization IV

I am not a huge video game person.  I haven't the manual dexterity to play real time games and I find first person shooters dull.  I do like the occasional turn based strategy game, though.  And among the best of those over the years has come from the studio of Sid Meier.  If I had a nickel for every hour of the various iterations of Civilization I have played over the years, I would could fill a sock big enough to clobber Godzilla.  Recently, I got a copy of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, a game beloved by many of his devotees, but one that I didn't have the PC capacity for when it was new.  By the time I had the computer to support it, I had moved on to Civ IV and the graphics of AC were a little hard to digest.

Alpha Centauri.  See what I mean?
In most of the later versions of Civilization, one of the ways to win the game is to build a colonization ship and send it to... wait for it... Alpha Centauri!  On the surface, AC is a sequel game in which you find out what happens to those colonists once they get to their new planet. Not content to make "just a sequel," the Sid Meier crew created a fascinating and complex back story for the colonists, why they are scattered all over the planet, and why they don't always get along.  In addition, as the game unfolds, the player discovers the story of the new planet and the life forms that already inhabit the land masses.

In the back story, mankind has begun suffer from the long term effects of living as if our planet was an infinite resource.  Earth is dying and threatens to take the human race with it.  In an effort to save humanity, the nations of the Earth begin the Unity Mission, a colony ship effort to send a representative sample of humanity to the nearest habitable planet.  Being the horrible creatures that humans usually are, the colonists pack all of their ideologies and prejudices in their luggage and carry them along.  Ten thousand colonists start the trip to Alpha Centauri.  And they almost make it.

On entry into the system, a collision with some space debris turns tragic.  One of the cryogenic bays is completely destroyed, killing hundreds of colonists in one terrible moment.  As the crew tries desperately to repair the ship, the deep factionalization causes riot and mutiny.  A brutal act of sabotage seals the fate of the Unity Mission and the remaining colonists start a mad dash for the escape pods.

This cartoon came from Virtual Shackles.  If you like video games and/or
web  comics  the have something for you.  go check them out.

Sister Myriam.  The greatest
example of the preceeding
 punch  line.
In the game proper, the player takes control of one of the factions and tries to lead that group to leadership of the whole planet.  The process takes hundreds of years in game.  At the beginning, the player controls a single unit, explores the map for supplies, and creates the first colonies on the planet. Before planetary communications can be established, each group of colonists is completely isolated and left to their own devices.  The leaders of the various factions naturally create colonies that reflect their ideology.  When those colonies finally do initiate contact with the others,  the expected conflicts erupt.  Some leaders are more reasonable than others.  Which is to say that some of the leaders are completely implacable and the others are just ludicrously stubborn. In addition to this, it seems that Alpha Centauri is not quite as devoid of sentient life as the colonists first thought. Some of that sentient life even has telepathic powers, causing technological and ethical ripples in the game.

Fortunately, the fine folks at Steve Jackson Games thought a role-playing game based on this property was a good idea.  Their book is is a valuable resource for any game set on Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, even if GURPS isn't your system of choice.  It does a very good job of explaining the technology available. Author Jon E. Zeigler does an even better job of neutrally describing the various factions and leaders without portraying them as the total knobs that they are.  GURPS Alpha Centauri examines how to run a campaign at several different points in the progression of the video game.

The game idea that interests me begins with even before the players leave the Unity.  As members of the ship crew, they can remain largely above the ideological squabbling, at least at first.  When it all goes tits up, they will have a limited amount of time to save comrades and gather supplies before escaping in an emergency crew evacuation pod (one separate from the pods dedicated to all of the main factions).  Once they land survival becomes the first order of business.  A wide variety of adventures could then be in store as the players work to build their own immediate shelter into a budding colony.  Scouting forays to recover supply pods can intermingle with first contact missions with the local flora.  As the players establish themselves, they will gradually come in contact with some of the other, likely factionalized, survivors.  Do they join with one of the factions and risk alienating others?  Do they try to remain independent and risk aggression from the more warlike leaders?  Does someone do the colonization effort a favor and shoot Sister Myriam in the face?  And most importantly, will they be able to make Alpha Centauri the next chapter of the human story instead of just the last one?

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