Secret Project: The Xenoempathy Dome

“I believe Planet will talk to us if we are willing to listen. These fungal stalks behave as multistate relays: taken together, the neural net connectivity must be staggering. Can a planet be said to have achieved sentience?”

— Lady Deirdre Skye, Arguments in Council

This quote is probably the most important one in the game. It establishes with certainty what had previously only been mysteriously hinted at: Planet is alive. And not in a metaphorical sense. Nor in an anthropomorphized-for-simplicity complex-systems-analysis sort of way. It is quite literally a living, thinking being, albeit one that is necessarily profoundly alien to human experience.

And it turns out that that the fungus tiles that the player has been paving over to make way for farms and mines are actually little pieces of its massive world-brain. The analogy would be if a colony of dust mites flew up your nose and started tearing up little pieces of your brain to make cozy little mite-burrows. Chances are you wouldn’t appreciate it much.

In canon, this extremely surprising fact seems to be playing in favor of the Gaians. Which makes sense. With their religious devotion to ecological balance, they’re the ones who are the most ideologically predisposed toward recognizing what’s actually going on here on this alien world. And even then, it takes them a third of the tech tree and a substantial outpouring of mineral resources on secret projects to actually understand what they’re seeing.

Which brings up an interesting question. What, exactly, is the Xenoempathy Dome? What does it do? The video is just several shots of pink fungus set to soothing piano music, after all. It’s emotionally resonant – having empathy with the alien planet is calmer and more reassuring than you might think. Especially given the existence of mind worms. But it doesn’t do a lot to explain to the player what’s actually going on here.

In the gameplay, building the Xenoempathy Dome gives a few related effects. First, it allows all ground units to treat xenofungus squares as roads. This is really great because until now, fungus squares were more difficult to traverse than normal terrain. They would always consume a unit’s whole move to enter and sometimes, depending on the Planet rating of the faction, the move would just fail. With the Xenoempathy Dome, a unit’s movement speed is tripled and moves never fail. Essentially, every unit now moves through the fungus like the mind worms do.

Second, it doubles the rate by which formers can plant or remove fungus from the map. Before, it didn’t make a lot of sense to be able to plant fungus, as it was just a useless obstacle. But now, it’s almost as fast as building a road. Better, in fact, since rival factions’ units can use your roads but they can’t use your fungus highways.

And, finally, it gives a lifecycle (morale) bonus to any mind worm units artificially produced by the faction. Since psi combat is all morale-based, and thus independent of weapons or armor technology, this is a significant bonus for a faction that’s relying on psi attacks to make up the difference.

So, putting all that together with the quote and the required technology, I think that the Xenoempathy Dome is best interpreted as a souped-up Centauri Preserve. Building and operating it – presumably with lots of empaths in trance states listening to dreamlike piano music concordant with New-Age style – is what Lady Deirdre means when she urges her fellow Council members to be willing to listen to Planet. And the collection of benefits are coming from sub-rational conversations with Planet. The empaths make regular requests (like help me get through this fungal patch, or help grow some more fungus here) and the Planetmind can be made to acquiesce to these requests.

This is the sort of revelation that, in less artful hands, would be liable to shatter the typical player’s suspension of disbelief. It would be easy for this to come off as a cheap gimmick or a wild flight of fancy. But, like the best science-fiction authors, Reynolds has been setting up this technical mystery from the very first turn of the game. And he’s done enough of the legwork to know what sorts of intermediate questions he needs to get the player to ask before they’d be willing to take this leap. It really is brilliantly done.

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6 thoughts on “Secret Project: The Xenoempathy Dome

    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      In certain circumstances. Especially in the early game. It’s much easier in the expansion with the airborne psi-boils. But mostly it’s a way to not lose so badly if you’re behind on weapons tech.

      — Edit —

      I guess I should modify my answer now that a friendly passerby has reminded me that you can raise airborne mindworms in vanilla! Locusts of Chiron are terrifying. They’re almost as good as needlejets. I’d say they’re certainly good enough to beat the AI if you focus your efforts on getting the lifecycle bonuses. I would still say that the main advantage of leaning on psi weapons is that it enables you to leverage your Planet score into military might while getting builder-type techs instead of needing to research the weapons technologies first.

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      1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

        Wow, really? It’s been years since I’ve played a psi-focused game in vanilla. And I haven’t gotten to Centauri Psi yet and needed to look it up. I could have sworn Locusts of Chiron were an expansion feature, along with the fungal towers, the sealurks, and the spore launchers.

        But I just looked it up and you’re right! I wonder if they did something in the expansion to make Locusts pop more often in the late game. Or maybe my memory’s just faulty.

        Either way, thank you so much for taking the time out to make the correction!

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