Game: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri
Release Date (Windows): February 12, 1999
Release Date (Mac OS): February 15, 1999
CrossOver Profile: Read Here
WineHQ AppDB entry: Read Here
IMG Review: Read Here
Test Platform: MacBook (Late-2006; GMA 950, 10.6.8, CX 11.2), MacBook Air (11.6", 2010; GeForce 320M, 10.7.4, CX 11.2), MacBook Pro (Late-2006; 128 MB Radeon Mobility X1600, 10.7.4, CX 11.2)
"Curiosity will never let me go..."
The news surrounding NASA's successful landing of Curiosity, the Mars Planetary Laboratory rover, always fills me with an immense amount of joy and wonder. It takes me back to the excitement and fun surrounding the landings of the now-famed Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and before it, Mars Pathfinder. The perennial question that always seems to come up around these moments is "why". Why explore space in the first place? Why spend all of that immense funding, resources, time and effort to get little packages of metal and silicon to some distant planet, when what we should be doing is putting that towards getting much bigger packages of food, water and medicine to our not-so-distant global neighbours?
There has always existed that inexhaustible hope that one day, we will find the ability to answer those questions. For many, that hope lies in the dream that one day, we will find the means, the will and the knowledge to rise above that which dragged humanity down in the mud, to rise and start again - quite literally - among the stars. That's why I always thought of it as fitting that the introductory movie to Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri uses its blatantly stock, now almost-cliché imagery to such effective use. We see the thin, starving African child looking at us, and the Middle Eastern and Asian men and women praying, looking on, as humanity takes its steps to towards space.
We always want to find a means, someway, somehow, to redeem ourselves for sins past and manifold; redemption and renewal are constant themes in the religious, social, and mythological stories found around the world, in cultures both ancient and modern. The stories in which human beings have left behind earth to live among the stars are, of course, no exception. The colonized worlds of the Federation in Gene Rodenberry's Star Trek universe left behind a barbarous past on Earth to enjoy peace and prosperity within a galactic community (well, for the most part). Issac Asimov's Foundation saga outlined a far-futuristic benevolent Empire for humanity, one so prosperous and widespread within the galaxy that Earth itself would have long passed into myth. It's on this note that Alpha Centauri begins. A hopeful chance for a better tomorrow amidst the catastrophe and conflagration of the present. It almost reminds you of Fallout. Of course, we all know how Fallout's vault-dwellers ended up, and we of course also know how humanity's great hope in this game will end up too. It's an ending to a story worthy of Ron Perlman's immortal words: "War. War never changes."
"The war has changed..."
It seems like the ending of almost every story we tell is just an opening to a new beginning, and this has been one the of narrative strengths of video games as a medium. If you hadn't played the game, you'd have thought that the assassination of the UN Starship Unity's captain, and the subsequent destruction of the ship, was the end of the story of our brave colonists. However, it is merely but the beginning stage of our experience as players. Into this political maelstrom we are thrust, cast as leaders of factions not divided by petty geographical borders or racial heritage, but by something far stronger, and arguably far more dangerous: ideology and belief. The question you had to ask yourself wasn't "What civilization should I lead?" but instead was, "What do I want to believe in?" Whether you believed in being a Tree-Hugging Hippie, a Contrite Peacenik, a Religious Zealot, or a Militaristic Patriot, all of your choices had a tantalizing set of strengths and weaknesses, in addition to a morally justifiable ground upon which to stand. Sure, you may have been conquering land and taking cities, just like in every other 4X strategy game you'd played before, but this was potentially something deeper - in a war between duelling beliefs, an idea is not as easy to kill as a fortified Synthmetal Garrison.
Given the grand, sweeping futuristic context presented to the player, it was no coincidence that the team at Firaxis Games, led by famed game designer Brian Reynolds, consulted some of the greatest works of science fiction to help create the world of Alpha Centauri. If the massively successful Civilization II had drawn upon the greatest moments in history as the basis for its world, then any game which would hope to succeed it would have to draw upon the greatest visionaries for the future for the world to come. The "Suggested Reading" section at the end of the game's exhaustive manual outlines the books that Reynolds and his team used as inspiration to flesh out the world of the game, and it reads like a shortlist of some of the most hardcore SF/F available, including Frank Herbert's Dune, and Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. With some Issac Asimov and Carl Sagan tossed in for good measure, of course. Later, ruthless iteration and playtesting of the game at its earliest stages led to a finely-tuned set of play mechanics that were well-balanced for both single-player and multiplayer game scenarios.