Mechanics of Narrative

It is occasionally claimed that SMAC has one of the best stories ever presented in a video game.  This is an especially impressive achievement given that it is a strategy game where the action takes place at civilization-wide scales.  How is it possible to craft a compelling narrative in an impersonal god-game?  After all, the game design does not allow the player to interact with any recognizable characters directly.  In the game, the player spends his time setting empire-wide policies, controlling city production, and moving abstracted, sizable military formations.  So if there aren’t any characters, and if the plot (as defined by what happens when) is largely determined by the player, where is the grist for narrative?

Reynolds solved this problem through the use of a couple ingenious mechanisms that built upon existing elements in previous Civilization games.  First, he realized that the leaders of the various countries could serve as fully-realized characters.  Traditionally, Civilization games used real people throughout history that were identified in the popular imagination with the civ (e.g. Gandhi as the leader of India).  The art and the AI were set up to make these characters look and act like humorous caricatures of the personas that have come down to us through history.

But since SMAC was set in the future, and since the factions wouldn’t be based on real-world nations or civilizations, there was a unique opportunity here to create the leader characters that would serve as the central players.  Reynolds seized this opportunity to its fullest.  Each faction leader is a metonym for the faction as a whole.  We learn about their people, their culture, and their ideology largely through the words of their leaders.  And then these personality traits are reinforced by the actions the AI takes in the game – their declarations of war and peace, how they fight their wars, what technology they develop, and what social policies they prefer.

Secondly, Reynolds realized that there was a great opportunity to tell his story in the little details.  For instance, each faction leader has custom dialogue when you are engaged in diplomacy with them and when they are referred to as a third party (like when one leader is asking you to support them in a war against another faction).  This gives you insight both into how the leader would like to portray himself and his faction, as well as how other people who are less charitably-inclined to their viewpoints would see them.

In the Secret Project videos, which are analogous to the old Wonders of the World you could build back on Earth, you get a short, imaginative video like the intro that’s always coupled with a voiced quote, usually from one of the faction leaders.  This is a sharp contrast to the other entries in the series, where you usually get thirty seconds of forgettable footage of the real life wonder you just built.

And, most importantly, whenever a new technology is discovered or a type of building is first constructed, a quote is read.  The other entries in the series had quotes as well, but they were traditionally quotes from historical sources that had something to do with the technology that was just developed.  In SMAC, the technologies are fictional.  As are most of the quotes and their sources.  So these quotes are the meat of the narrative content of the game.  Together with the Secret Project videos, they flesh out the world of SMAC and punch way, way above their weight in supporting the gameplay to captivate the player’s imagination.  Accordingly, most of the content of this blog will consist of me pointing at one of these quotes and gushing about how awesome it is.  It’s also worth noting that they got pretty good voice actors to read these quotes.  In my opinion, each of the actors nails their character pretty firmly, and their performances do a lot to make these fictional people feel real.

The neatest thing about the decision to reveal the narrative through these quotes is that it enforces an order through the mechanic of the technology tree.  In the game, you can’t build a building (or a Secret Project) without acquiring the technology that enables it, and you can’t get technologies without researching their prerequisites first.  So the quotes have a rough, implied order to them.  This allows Reynolds to come up with a set of dramatic happenings which need not happen in the game the player is playing, but from which the attentive player can piece together a canonical version of the events that must have happened in an alternative universe.

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