Confused? Don’t be. You see, I’ve been to Alpha Centauri and back, and was lucky to escape without permanent damage. Don’t worry, I’m not writing this with a colander on my head, waiting for the aliens to come and pick me up. I’m referring to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, a computer video game that takes place in that nearest star system to ours.
My journey started when I began a search for video games for my son—I wanted to offer him something that involved a bit more strategy than the arcade style, action-oriented games he’d been playing, but without substituting the frustrating and time-sucking puzzles that often take the place of strategy in making a game more “sophisticated.”
Despite the expertise implied by that last sentence, I’m not a big video gamer, in part because I simply don’t have as much free time as I did as a pre- and early teen, when games like Tunnels of Doom (1982), for the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A home computer, and Project: Space Station (1987) for the Commodore 64, occupied considerable amounts of my time.
(The latter game was particularly memorable, because aside from requiring players to oversee NASA’s budget, invest and collect revenues, pilot the shuttle, and build space stations, it also featured fictional crew selection responsibilities. If you put Sid Baxter, a physicist who according to his crew profile strives to “procedurize our processes,” or Alan Puhassis, a communications specialist who lives by the maxim “a place for everything and everything in its place,” on a lengthy mission with Ernest Finworth, a chemist with a labratory that’s “a minefield of half-finished experiments,” you’d be asking for personality conflicts, delayed work, or worse.)
Some quick research revealed several glowing reviews for Alpha Centauri. The game was released in 1999, almost 20 years ago, by the makers of the Civilization series of games. I saw its age as a positive, since the era before flashy, super-realistic graphics depended much more on good game structure and story. (As evidence, I submit the game Civilization: Beyond Earth, released by the same company in 2014, and meant to be a spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri. That game has garnered some good reviews, but not the overwhelming accolades and endorsements that Alpha Centauri receives, even now.)
Alpha Centauri certainly seemed worth a try. And I wouldn’t be a responsible parent if I didn’t sample the game a few times myself before passing it on to my kids, would I?
The game’s premise is that in the far future, Earth has been all but destroyed by social and political unrest, in addition to ecological damage. The United Nations sends a colonization ship to Chiron, an Earthlike planet in the Alpha Centauri system. Upon planetfall, the ship’s population is scattered, divided into seven factions with philosophies based on collectivism, religion, science, military power, ecology, humanitarianism, and capitalism. The game begins as you take control of one of the seven groups, and as you interact with the others, diplomacy, military might, and your particular vision of humanity’s future all need to be considered. There’s also terraforming, research, choosing a societal model, and environmental considerations—from dealing with the native lifeforms, to changing sea levels. You win the game by conquering the planet—alone or with allies—or by being elected supreme leader in a diplomatic victory. But you can also win by cornering the global energy market or “transcending” beyond humanity.
Heady stuff for a video game, but more importantly, fun and quite addictive. Several times when everyone else in my house went to sleep early, I indulged in some gaming time, only to be informed by brightness at the window shades and birds chirping that I’d pulled an all-nighter. Those bleary-eyed mornings featured cereal boxes placed in the refrigerator and other sleep-deprived silliness.
Sleeping or awake, my thoughts and dreams harbored nagging, game-related doubts: Would Chairman Yang of The Hive honor the treaty we’d signed? Should I pursue a balanced research strategy, or put all my efforts into achieving spaceflight before the other factions? Faced with limited resources, was it better for my citizens to be happier or more secure? And shouldn’t I go decide the answers to these questions right now?
Having fallen deep into this particular rabbit-hole, I soon tracked down an array of old Alpha Centauri spin-off products. Within a few months, I’d read the graphic novel and all three installments of the paperback novel trilogy—the last of which cost me $23, having appreciated in value over time, like a fine wine.
Further evidence of the game’s lasting appeal is the existence of Alpha Centauri 2, a website for fans that still boasts plenty of activity. “BUncle” (his screen name), the co-owner and administrator of the site, explained Alpha Centauri’s lasting appeal: “[..]there’s nothing to beat good game design—with something added that makes it special; personality and story. There’s something there for everyone of a patient mindset, in a grand and exotic setting.”
If all of this motivates you to try playing Alpha Centauri, the game can be downloaded at gog.com. The cost? Just $6—plus a hundred or so hours of your time, not to mention eyestrain and temporary carpal tunnel symptoms. (I did specify that I was able to escape without permanent damage.)
I’ve “transcended” past Alpha Centauri for the time being, but rather than move beyond humanity, I’ve decided to hang around with you lot and play the game’s sequel, Alien Crossfire, for a while. Wish me luck. Or at least, sleep.
Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com. His most recent discovery, a long-lost letter from Winston Churchill, can be viewed at decasp.com. His latest book, The End of Spamming the Spammers (with Dieter P. Bieny) is available at Amazon. Project: Space Station can be played free at appsforcats.com, and a Tunnels of Doom reboot can be found at dreamcodex.com.