“And the Lord said, ‘Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.'”
— The Conclave Bible, Datalinks
On it’s own, the video for the Universal Translator isn’t all that impressive. All we see is a robot rolling up to an obelisk. It scans the alien sigils and renders them into English somehow. And that’s really it.
Over the top of the visuals, the player hears a selection from the Bible. Chances are the player will vaguely recognize that it’s from the part in Genesis where the story of the Tower of Babel is related. But even if he does not, there’s enough in the quote to make clear the central point of the tale.
A people that is not divided by language or custom is capable of many amazing feats. Including among them feats that God does not seem to find pleasing. Such as, for instance, building a giant tower to rival Heaven. Just as God drove the man out of the Garden of Eden before he could eat of the tree of life, so too did He confound the language of the people to set them against one another.
So it’s intriguing to note that this age-old problem seems to have been one of the only ones the colonists managed to leave behind them on Earth. The initial separation of the people into factions based on ideology instead of ones based on tribe seems to have nipped classic nationalism in the bud. Plus, everybody on the colony ship seems to speak English well enough. So even before they start developing psionic powers, chances are there aren’t really any significant linguistic barriers among the people on Planet.
Of course, in SMAC, this development isn’t exciting because it lets people talk to other people. If the player hadn’t pieced it together before now, the video makes it obvious: it’s all about the archaeology.
Which is a good excuse to take a moment to talk about the alien artifacts scattered around Planet. During the exploration phase at the beginning of the game, opening up a Unity survey pod can cause lots of different things to happen. Most of them are good things, especially at the beginning of the game, to reward players for exploring the map.
Two of these beneficial discoveries are evidence of previous alien presence on Planet. The first is finding an alien monolith, just like the ones that can always be found at the Ruins. The second is discovering a small, movable alien artifact.
When returned to a base, these artifacts can be consumed to grant free minerals to a prototype or a secret project under construction. In the early game, this is a huge boost. It can determine whether or not the player ends up scoring one of the important first projects. Optionally, if the base has a Network Node, an artifact can be linked to it instead. If this is done, the artifact is consumed and the faction immediately gains a free technology.
With that context, it is possible to understand why the Universal Translator does what it does. Once a faction has the Homo Superior technology, it becomes possible to build a facility that immediately grants two free technological advances, just as if two alien artifacts were suddenly decoded. Given typical late-game tech costs, this is almost assuredly a very good deal in cost/benefit terms.
As a secondary ability, it enables any number of other alien artifacts to be linked to this base for free technologies. Normally, only one can be linked per Network Node. This second power is decidedly marginal, since by this point in the game it is almost certain that the player will have used any artifacts he might have come across earlier. But it’s thematically important.
Crucially, though, Reynolds never clues the player into whatever secrets these alien relics might hold about their creators. Where the aliens came from, what the purpose of their technology is, why they’re no longer around – these all remain clouded in mystery. This is true even though this project strongly implies that the people on Planet make considerable progress on these questions.
But it’s critical to keep in mind that the gameplay only reflects the results of this exploration with technology. In other words, it speeds the player’s faction further into the future. It would have come just the same even had there never been any aliens in the first place. As experienced by the player, the future is fundamentally human.