By now, the player will likely have encountered a few page-long story sequences describing various discoveries. For instance, upon exploring the Ruins – a terrain formation that consists of eight strange alien monoliths arranged in a square pattern on the map – the player is treated to a story describing the faction leader heading out there on a speeder to marvel at the structure and wonder who could possibly have built it. Reynolds has the good sense to never attempt to answer this question in the original SMAC, which does wonders for making the world feel mysterious even upon several replays. It is a major reason why the original SMAC is a superior experience to the game as expanded in Alien Crossfire.
As the player’s faction grows, and especially as it starts to make use of the more advanced terraforming options, the player will likely notice a little red indicator on their base management screen reporting “Eco-damage” followed by a number. As the player experiments with assigning citizens, it quickly becomes clear that this number is associated with mineral production. The more minerals, the more ecodamage. But it isn’t immediately obvious what this number means. There are no in-game dialogs or explanations of this number. It’s just sort of there. And since the game makes it very clear that you want more minerals to build units, base facilities, and secret projects, chances are the player won’t worry too much about it and just let it roll.
Well, after a couple of turns of running a base with non-zero ecodamage, the player is likely to discover what it means when he becomes victim to what is called a “fungal pop”. During the turn roll, the game reports that one of the squares around this base has suddenly been overrun with fungus. This instantly destroys most of the improvements that were on the square just as if a terraformer had used the “plant fungus” option. Chances are the player didn’t want that square to be fungus – he wanted the farm or mine that was there before – so this is not a pleasant surprise.
This may seem unfair. But Reynolds does a good job of establishing that it is at least possible. See, while military units are exploring the map, they can come across Unity pods that fell from the colony ship and scattered all over Chiron when it crashed. They often include cool bonuses like free energy, instant early-game techs representing knowledge or equipment from Earth, or working scout speeders. But sometimes the pods have been overrun by mind worms. And, occasionally, opening one sometimes sparks what the game refers to as a “xenofungus bloom” that instantly covers many tiles around the pod with fungus that wasn’t there before. This represents growth that is much, much faster than anything the player ever sees human forests manage. Along with giving the player an immediate new obstacle to overcome, this also serves to warn the player that the fungus isn’t just a static thing.
So now we learn that human industrial activity can also spark fungal growth. But the game doesn’t stop there. When this first happens, it shows the player a little story of a dream the faction leader he is playing has while he’s undergoing longevity treatments. In the dream, he gets the sense that Planet itself – or something that’s speaking for it – is in his mind talking to him. It’s trying to tell him something. A warning, maybe? Upon waking, he tries to dismiss this experience as just a strange dream. But because the game rules support the story sequence with the fungal pop, the player has no doubt that the experience is real and important.
In classic Reynolds fashion, this little vignette serves several purposes in an amazingly economic fashion. First, it establishes why the faction leaders never change over the course of the game, even though it purportedly lasts hundreds of years. Even low-tier SMAC technology appears to enable significant life extension. Even if it’s expensive, each faction seems to be easily able to afford it for their supreme leader.
Second, it introduces Planet itself as a new character along the lines of the other faction leaders. The player has been struggling against the mind worms and the planet as he’s set about building up his faction. But that was always a man versus environment style of conflict. Now, with this story, we see that it’s something else. There’s another mind out there to grapple with. And it’s probably whatever Lady Deirdre had noticed before as the mind that is guiding the ecology of the planet.
Third, we see that Planet and the humans have interests that are naturally at odds. The SMAC colonists need minerals to survive and thrive on their new world. And it turns out that Planet is significantly harmed by their terraforming efforts. So this means that a faction’s Planet score is, in some sense, a diplomatic measure. So thematically it makes sense that if a faction is an ally of the Planet, it would be easier to make the mind worms their allies, since the worms aren’t just feral beasts.