Secret Project: The Empath Guild

“Symbols are the key to telepathy. The mind wraps its secrets in symbols; when we discover the symbols that shape our enemy’s thought, we can penetrate the vault of his mind.”

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Our Secret War”

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for this video.  Whether or not symbols end up being the key to some magical future telepathy, they certainly are very valuable to the more mundane sort of empathy.  Believe it or not, this quote and the accompanying video actually taught me something important about how people work.  If you can understand a person’s precious symbols in the way that they perceive them, you’re nine-tenths of the way to understanding who they are and predicting their future behavior.

Because of that, I think it’s worth taking a moment to look at the logos that Reynolds chose to represent each of the characters.  They weren’t chosen at random.  Reynolds and his team put thought into the symbols and what they would mean to the fictional future people who treasure them.  We’ll start with Deirdre and the Gaians, as they were the ones that built the Empath Guild in canon.

Gaia’s Stepdaughters:


I’ve always thought this was a pretty cool image.  Like all the SMAC symbols, it’s clearly trying to be more stylized than photorealistic.  But the theme for this one is apparent.  We have a precious red rose surrounded by a rigid barrier of dangerous-looking thorns.  Which is exactly how the Gaians see themselves.  They stand for both the flourishing of the rose – the beauty that is the fruit of a billion years of Earthly evolution – as well as the thorns that keep it safe in a dangerous alien world.

Human Hive:


I’ve always enjoyed the Hive’s shade of blue.  Not only is it a pleasant color in and of itself, it has always reminded me of the sci-fi future.  The clean lines (all circles and straight lines) emphasize the idea of designed, Platonic perfection.  Which is certainly the point.  Yang wants his people focused on the future and the utopia to come.

It’s worth noting that Reynolds resisted the urge to incorporate any Communist symbolism here, despite Yang’s collectivism and respect for the Asian communist tradition.  Instead, he has chosen a stylized Yin-Yang as his faction’s symbol, nestled in a circle that keeps it isolated from the outside world.

University of Planet:


The University, on the other hand, has gone with a ’50s-era symbol of the atom as their core symbol.  It’s an inspired choice from the perspective of the effect it is likely to have on the target audience.  Nothing says “Science!” quite like a stylized Nuclear Age image of the atom in all its glory.

It’s an open question whether or not this is likely to mean the same thing between the late ’90s and the time the colony ship launched.  But I think that this actually makes a lot of sense.  After all, the University is likely to idolize the academics that made up the Heroic Age of Physics.  The guys who worked out general relativity and the standard model of quantum mechanics, along with their peers who built the atomic bomb and the rockets that put men on the moon, embody the reason why the University thinks that they must exist.  So I can see them hearkening back to a symbol that echoes that earlier age of academic greatness.

Morgan Industries:


Ah, CEO Morgan.  I can’t help but appreciate a guy who’s willing to name his new sovereign corporation after himself.  And then he even goes so far as to put his name on the logo!

The logo itself, shorn of the self-promotion, is actually pretty interesting.  He’s chosen gold as his primary color, of course.  Even though they measure wealth in energy in the future, there’s no reason to believe gold will lose its cultural tie to the idea of wealth any time soon.

The pyramid with the circle in it is another nice touch.  It’s reminiscent of the Masonic pyramid with the eye on it that famously resides on the US one dollar bill.  A secret builder conspiracy to rule the world actually sounds a lot like Morgan’s plans for planetary domination.

Spartan Federation:


As befits their name, the Spartan logo is almost brutally simplistic.  It’s just a rigid hexagon with an arrow pointing down.  That’s it.  In the game it’s often depicted in black and white: a black arrow piercing a white field.

I suspect the hexagon is intended to evoke complicated hex-based wargames, whether professional or hobbyist.  Or maybe it’s just because it’s a simple shape with a lot of sharp angles.  But I’ve often wondered why the Spartan arrow is pointing down.

Traditionally, when people are being aspirational, they like things that point upward.  Up is usually associated with the sky, heaven, or even just forward like on a street sign.  Down, on the other hand, usually means the opposite.  Not things people usually want to associate with their core identity.

The best explanation I can think of for this is probably a reference to Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  In it, he has his main characters discuss the proper orientation one should take to win at zero-G laser tag.  And they conclude that the correct answer is to think of the enemy’s gate as down.  This insight goes on to become something of a catchphrase the characters use when they seek victory through unconventional means.

This reference isn’t as silly as it might seem.  In real life, Ender’s Game is on the US Marine Corps reading list alongside the perennial classic Starship Troopers.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Colonel Santiago would still think it profound.  Certainly, one could expect the player-base of SMAC to be familiar with the allusion.

The Lord’s Believers:


The Believers live and fight under the sign of cross.  But there a bunch of different cross-type symbols out there to choose from.  Theologically, we have seen that Miriam’s faith seems to have more in common with radical Protestantism than Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.  Therefore, one may have expected the Believers to prefer the stark simplicity of the wooden cross.

Instead, though, Reynolds has chosen for the Believers a pattern that resembles something one might find in a stained glass window of a cathedral.  From this, it would seem that they see themselves as protectors of a sacred and potentially delicate heritage.  The effect is similar to the Gaians’ symbol, though obviously that which is held sacred is rather different.

U.N. Peacekeepers:


The Peacekeepers’ logo is the most straightforward of all.  It’s the real-life U.N. logo with the stars in place of the continents of Earth, all wrapped in the olive branches of peace.  This was almost assuredly the emblem under which the spaceship launched.  All of the scattered wreckage of the Unity must bear this mark.  So it is no wonder that Brother Lal and his Peacekeepers see themselves as the legitimate heirs to the formal authority that launched the mission.


11 thoughts on “Secret Project: The Empath Guild

  1. Anonymous

    The arrow is pointing down because it is the eyeslits and feathered crest of a helmet, the wearer with his head down to begin the charge.


    1. Rafe Saltman

      Omega, the last, finality. The letter that looks most like Libra, the scales. And a remarkable absence of Alpha, the first, which normally goes together with Omega in describing God. So God is with Miriam’s Believers in his ending aspects of revelation and judgement, not his beginning aspects of creation and commandment.


  2. Chris C

    The Spartan logo, to me, appears to be an inversion or perversion of the peace symbol, where the inverted V of the peace symbol’s flag semaphores has been vertically flipped to becomes a V or U forming part of an arrow. The arrow is then circumscribed by a more brutal hexagon rather than a circle to complete the overall appearance.

    The shaft of the arrow is also not connected to the bottom, which would prevent it from being a “D” in the flag semaphores used in the peace symbol (D for disarmament).

    The arrow may have also been oriented downwards in order to avoid similarity to the peace symbol, and to emphasize applying force downwards from an advantaged position. Interestingly enough, the ancient Greek Sparta’s symbol was a lambda (inverted V), and the logo could have played up to that with an arrow facing upwards.


  3. Michael

    Yet another thought on the Spartan symbol: many old illustrations of warfare in the time of the original Spartans show spears being held overhand so that the spear can be used while the shield is held in place. The downward spear is a rough approximation of what you would see if that spear was being used on you. This makes it threatening, but also a sign of defensiveness as the shield is held in place–a sign, to the Gaian empaths, of the fragility behind the Spartan threat?

    How much of the Guild’s development was a willingness to pay people to have debates just like this one? 😉


  4. mountaintiger

    The Hive’s fairly light touch of communism seems correct for Yang’s vision: while the early Hive should remind players of real world Communist dictatorships (a police state focused on industrial development, with a militaristic edge) and the Hive’s base namelist includes explicit nods to socialism, Yang’s vision is not the eventual transition to a world of egalitarian abundance, as was theoretically the idea behind Soviet development and is the idea of most socialist and communist strands of though, but the adaptation of the population to view material deprivation as a positive good (beginning with the contemplation of the Chairman’s teachings and continuing on to the transhuman developments to which he often gives voice).

    It’s an interesting aspect of the game (and an indication of when it was made, I think) that the primary counterpoint to the radically capitalistic Morganites is not the Hive or a more traditionally communist faction but the Gaians. Certainly the Hive’s natural economic choice is Planned, which will provoke conflict with the Morganites, but the more natural conflicts for the Hive are with the Peacekeepers (mutually averse to the other’s social engineering preference) and Believers (preference in the same category as the Hive’s preference).


  5. Phoenix

    I’m not a philosopher, but the first thing that hit me in the video (today, not almost two decades ago,when I first played SMAC) were the choices of color in Hive’s logo. It’s not just blue, like the symbol used elsewhere, but blue and orange. Now, it may not have meant anything in late 90’s, but my mind immediately jumped to tvtropes and The trope describes morale value that may seem alien to us, and if you think about it, Yang’s vision of future is furthest from our current values from all the leaders. While not trully alien, what he wants the humanity to be is hardest to understand to most 20th/21st century humans.


  6. Brian Shanahan

    The Spartan logo is a stylisation of the classical Spartan helmet (more correctly the Corinthian helmet), where an arrow shape flange descends from the middle of the brow to cover the nose as far as the top of the upper lip, leaving a gap on each side wide at they eyes and narrowing until the base of the cheeks.

    Which harks back to the whole philosophy of the Spartan faction, be better than the others in war not more numerous.



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