Posted by: Ben | March 29, 2009

DOSBox Live Arcade: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

(Videogame. PC. Firaxis/Electronic Arts. 1999)

The title is unfortunate, recalling those companies that will name a star after you if you send them money. Try asking for Alpha Centauri. Every single one of them will say “You can’t have that, it’s Sid Meier’s.” Of course, they could try to sell it to you anyway, but that would just be unscrupulous. And if they know a bit more about stars than you expect them to and think they can try to sell you a single one of the binary stars, you have my permisson to go ballistic and shout at them “Are you mental, what in God’s name is the point of owning half a binary system? By the time I’ve negotiated orbital fees with Sid I’ll be about eight hundred trillion dollars down on the deal!” Not coincidentally, Alpha Centauri is not available in the shops.

The plot of Alpha Centauri does its job in motivating you to go and play it, and furthermore it’s compelling as fiction. Following the events of Civilization II, in which you (yes, you) boldly led the planet into a Malthusian apocalypse, a group of intrepid colonists escape the mushroom clouds and the looting in the interstellar colony ship that you (yes you) spent the last of your gold building when you should have been making sure your SDI defence grid was functioning. But just as they’re approaching a habitable planet, faction warfare breaks out. There’s Deirdrie the environmentalist, Morgan the capitalist, Yang the communist, Lal the diplomat, Zakharov the academic, Miriam the fundamentalist, and Santiago the militarist. Yes, this is a game where you can play as a (Christian) fundamentalist.

The genius is right there in the opening sequence, when the colonists vow “never to repeat the mistakes of earth.” Those mistakes presumably referring to genocide, injustice and catastrophic environmental indifference. You then arrive on the surface of Planet, which if you play it properly will soon be a war zone, ripped apart by Planet Killer missiles and uncontrolled global warming as you defend the ideology of your choice. There hasn’t been a more eloquent statement of the human race’s tendency to destruction since Bill Hicks described us as “a virus with shoes.”

And it all works, too. There’s a tech tree comparable in size and complexity to a particularly old and bad-tempered oak, and while I was unable to prevent the scientists of my gay-marriage free, stem-cell free fundamentalist Christian utopia from meddling with human DNA, I was at least able to gain some comfort from cutting their funding and creating an army of genetically enhanced supersoldiers to spread the Word of God through force of arms.

Oh, there’s a downside. There’s always a downside. The Civilization games are heavily dependent on micromanagement, since your AI city governors can only be trusted to run your empire into the ground, and once you reach a critical mass of cities, the process of deciding what to build and commanding each individual unit slows the pace of the game to zero and sucks out the fun, especially when you factor in the way your people become both more pacifist and more prone to riot as your economy becomes more liberal, refusing to share your enthusiasm for making war on the heathen despite the fact that they’ve socially self-selected for their ideological support for the regime. But this isn’t necessarily a game to be played through to the end. It’s one to experience.

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