Secret Project: The Living Refinery

“We estimate that during the next mission century most of Planet’s industries will be moved off-planet to Nessus Prime and other orbital facilities. Many of our industries will benefit greatly from the low gravity environments available in space, particularly those involving genetically engineered microbes.”

— CEO Nwabudike Morgan, “The Centauri Monopoly”

The video for the Living Refinery starts with lots of asteroids. Which is not terribly surprising given that this project requires Advanced Spaceflight to build. These are followed by a clip of some sort of space industrial facility on the surface of one of them. Then we see some close-ups of it busily at work. CEO Morgan’s voice over and the name of the facility lead us to believe that this is a refinery. And whatever its refining process, it seems to have an organic component that works much better in the microgravity of the asteroid belt.

The game effect of this project is to give the faction that builds it a permanent +2 bonus to its Support rating. Which, as we’ve seen, is primarily a military bonus. In theory, the player could possibly use the extra support cap to build even more terraformers. But by this point in the game, a Support bonus is almost assuredly going to used for military purposes.

This choice of bonus on Reynolds’s part is quite interesting in light of the fact that the downside for Democratic government is a -2 Support penalty. We have seen from projects like the Cloning Vats that he could have implemented this same benefit by removing the downside to Democracy, instead. The theory there could perhaps be that a Democratic government would be able to operate these far-flung colonial operations more efficiently than another form of government.

He wouldn’t even have had to change the quote. The implied canon is certainly consistent with Morgan running a form of Democracy. After all, we’ve already seen him give a speech to his shareholders about the potential in the new Nanominiaturization techniques. And we’re pretty sure that he isn’t engaged in any brutal wars that would necessitate a less cash-efficient government.

But Reynolds instead chose made it a flat +2 Support, like the Believers’ bonus, applicable to any Social Engineering choice. This still cancels out the penalty to Democracy. But it’s worth noting that it does so in a way that does not change the way the player sees the balance among his political choices.

The other thing that’s fascinating about this video is that it’s the first one in our science-fiction strategy game that’s recognizably “sci-fi”, from the perspective of the genre conventions forged in the post-war, pre-’60s Golden Age. Unless you count the introductory video, I suppose, with its shots of the colony ship flying to a distant star. But this shot of industry in the asteroid belt is definitely a classic image of the spacefaring future.

On reflection, that’s pretty amazing. It’s not as if there aren’t lots of classic sci-fi images available in the game for Reynolds to use. All the people are living in big domes as if they were on the Moon. Laser guns are one of the first re-inventions on Planet. And moving up the tree a little, the paratrooper-equivalents in SMAC use drop pods like in Starship Troopers.

I presume his reason for this reticence is that he wants to emphasize the futurism of the end-game as compared to the relative poverty of the early game. Very few people have a strong emotional reaction to the difference between “future” and “far future” in the same way that they do between “present” and “future”. So the time and effort Reynolds spent early on establishing the links between the player’s modern day and the early game was intended to get the player to identify with his faction, insofar as possible. Then when things get really out there on the tech tree, he still has in his pocket a bunch of sci-fi tropes that he can use to inspire that sense of wonder – or fear – that comes from contemplating the possibilities of the future.

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