“Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden. He drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”
-The Conclave Bible, Datalinks
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (which we fondly refer to here as SMAC, both as an acronym and in reference to its potent addictive properties) opens in an odd way for a science fiction game. Most such games open with spaceships, star travel, or some futuristic technology. They seek to hook the imagination. But our game begins much more humbly.
SMAC begins with a largely static image of the stars as a woman reads a passage from the book of Genesis, telling the story of man’s final and irrevocable expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The reading goes on for about twenty seconds, which is long enough for the lack of action to be quite noticeable. The effect is that we, the players, are being invited to join the woman in literary contemplation. This, in and of itself, is a strange thing to find in a game – and a strategy game, no less!
The attentive viewer will notice that as the woman ends her quotation, she cites her source as “The Conclave Bible, Datalinks”. Odd … one would normally expect chapter and verse from a bible quote. What are the Datalinks? And which edition is the Conclave Bible?
There isn’t much time to dwell on those questions, though. As the woman finishes, the music strikes up and we are treated to a series of disjointed images from the Earth we know. The context isn’t clear, but the message certainly is. These are scenes of chaos: fire; military equipment; rioting crowds; nuclear explosions; escalating debt – each one flashes by just after it has time to register. The world is out of control. It’s literally on fire. And it’s hurtling toward calamity.
Then we see a close-up of a Space Shuttle launch, shot from the gantry. From this angle we’re looking down at the craft and we can see the fire billowing out all around as the vessel begins to rise. The fire rhymes with the images of chaos we’ve just seen, with the key difference that this fire is being used for a constructive purpose.
The music then enters a lull as we see a shot of the space shuttle rising into the sky from an Earthbound camera. Overlaid atop this shuttle launch are a few other interesting cuts. We see a crowded third world marketplace, a praying old man, a factory belching smoke into the air, and a striking image of a young girl looking through the guardrails along the edge of a balcony. As we watch the girl and the Shuttle, the music fades to almost nothingness. For a brief moment, the chaos has receded.
Then the image abruptly flashes to the negative – an effect used a couple of times during the previous scenes – as the music picks back up to full bore. She then fades away, leaving us with just the image of the Shuttle. Finally, that too fades away, melting into a giant CG spaceship flying away from Earth.
The rest of the opening video is a description of the premise of the game. In short, the ship is a colony ship, fleeing the ravages and chaos of Earth to a planet orbiting the Alpha Centauri star system. When the ship arrives in the system, something goes wrong. The ship is destroyed in orbit and the colonists are forced into the seven escape pods that land somewhere on the planet. Each one is dominated by one of the most powerful, charismatic leaders on the ship, with his or her own strong ideological program and vision for the future. It is these personalities and ideologies that will form the basis of the conflicts within the game. We close with the sight of the pods each entering the atmosphere of an alien planet. Only when we begin the game will we get to see what happens next.
Even the badly dated late ’90s computer graphics and the terrible resolution can’t detract from the fact that this video is pure genius from start to finish. First off, it admirably performs its ostensible function as an introduction. In two and a half minutes, we learn just enough of what is going on here and why it is important to be intrigued, without suffering through a major datadump or bathing in technobabble. For instance, we know almost nothing about the planet the colonists are landing on. But that’s just fine – because neither do they! We’ll learn about it alongside the colonists.
Second, the structure of the video serves as good foreshadowing for the structure of the rest of the game. Much of what we learn about the game comes from videos like this when Secret Projects are constructed, or from the quotes that accompany the discovery of new technologies. SMAC players will routinely be presented with quotes whose true importance is only clear in context and with contemplation.
Third, the choice of this particular Bible quote is inspired. The primary theme of the early years of colonization is that it’s hard. The land is bleak, the people all live in domes because the air is deadly, and each nutrient and mineral in the early game is arduously wrung from a Planet that’s doing its best to literally kill you. Compared to this, life on Earth was as lush and easy as it was in the Garden of Eden.
A theme that recurs later in the game is that after the colonization there is never any further contact from Earth. The choice of quote sows the seeds of this idea by including the Cherubim and the flaming sword that prevent man from returning to his blissful state. In the context of SMAC, the loss of the colony ship means that the interstellar void is functionally unbridgeable. You’d have better luck with the Cherubim.
Fourth, the video does a great job of saying without words just what’s at stake. The hopes and dreams of the praying man and the young girl are riding on the Shuttle. The colony ship – the next evolution of the Shuttle – carried it to the stars. But it was launched by the very same fire that consumed the Earth. It also, necessarily, brings with it chaos and turmoil.
Finally, the fact that the colonists sort based on ideology rather than national or racial backgrounds means that the game will fundamentally be about the conflict among these visions for the future, on the ideologically blank slate of an alien world. What sort of society will we build? How should we live? What parts of humanity’s inheritance are worth carrying forward and which parts are better left behind? Each of the seven factions has radically different answers to these questions, answers that are necessarily incompatible.
Only one faction can win the game. And it ends when one faction is able to impose its will on the others so firmly that the ideological question is settled for all time.
 Actually, the vision behind the game came almost entirely from Brian Reynolds. Sid just put his name on it for marketing purposes. Pretty much all of the praise found in this entire blog should accrue to Reynolds.