“From the delicate strands,
between minds we weave our mesh:
a blanket to warm the soul.”
— Lady Deirdre Skye, “The Collected Poems”
The Telepathic Matrix secret project is much more important to the SMAC narrative than it might appear from the video alone. The gameplay context is critical for understanding what’s going on here and why it’s critical to Reynolds’s vision of SMAC’s far future. So let’s start with the brute facts.
The Telepathic Matrix is an application of the twelfth-tier Eudaimonia technology. It has two gameplay effects for the faction that possesses it: it improves Probe Team morale significantly; and it prevents drone riots in all of the faction’s bases.
It’s hard to overstate the effect that this blanket prevention of drone riots has on the player’s experience of the game. Up until now, the player has been forced to check each one of his bases every turn in order to ensure that they have not become unhappy, lest he is punished with a drone riot that costs him an entire base-turn’s worth of production.
There are many important mechanics in SMAC that are enforced largely in the background so as to keep the game running smoothly. The ecodamage rules are a good example of this pattern. But the drone riot rule isn’t one of them. Nullifying the drone riot mechanic after the game has painstakingly taught the player to follow it has a dramatically liberating effect on the way the game feels.
But it’s worth noting that this doesn’t pacify drones directly. If it did that, it would turn drones into content workers like police units or Recreation Commons do. Instead, it just overrides the rule that causes drone riots if the number of drones exceeds the number of talents in any given base. This distinction is made relevant through the interaction with the Golden Age mechanic. Even though drone riots are now impossible with the Telepathic Matrix, a base can’t go into a Golden Age as long as it has any. This means that happiness management and Psych energy spending aren’t rendered entirely pointless.
This has obvious implications for the player’s subsequent Social Engineering choices. Recall that the earlier Cloning Vats made Growth-focused choices inherently less attractive by enabling the maximum possible growth rate at every base. In much the same way, the Telepathic Matrix makes authoritarian, Police-focused social models less useful by providing the main social control benefit for free.
Given all of that, it is quite suggestive that Reynolds chose to make the other advantage of building the Telepathic Matrix a faction-wide spying bonus. Now there’s also less need for Probe bonuses. The net effect is that Thought Control, which provides large Police, Probe, and Morale bonuses, is a significantly less attractive social model than it would otherwise be.
This makes the peaceful tone of the video worth some contemplation. It certainly serves as a sharp contrast to the earlier Self-Aware Colony, which provided a similar police benefit in a much more disquieting, dystopian fashion. The Telepathic Matrix doesn’t appear to operate by forcing compliance out of the drones. Instead, the poem and the visuals lead the player to conclude that it operates by enabling powerful empaths to psychically comfort the poor and disaffected drones.
Stepping back a moment, we can see that ever since the mid-game got going in earnest, Reynolds has seemingly gone out of his way to refute or twist the classic images of ethical progress in SMAC. The future has grown increasingly inhuman. And it’s done so in ways that are intended to unsettle or disconcert the player. Consider that both of the future society choices that have been made available until now – Cybernetic and Thought Control – are much more likely to parse as different flavors of dystopia rather than as an ideal state of being to the typical player.
Only now, with the discovery of Eudaimonia and the Telepathic Matrix, do we see a significant reversal of that trend. The overall effect of this video is to grant some measure of hope for the future. At the very least, it finally seems like a place in which the typical player might actually want to live.
One of the common tropes in older futurism is the notion, a la Roddenberry or Carl Sagan, that futuristic people would necessarily have to be what we’d see as more morally evolved in addition to merely having cooler toys. Part of the point of SMAC is that this is certainly not true in the naïve sense.
And yet, we see here that the structure of the technology tree sets up something resembling teleology. The utopian Eudaimonia – with the radical freedom enabled by the Telepathic Matrix – is set up as the last word in the inherent philosophical back-and-forth that takes place over the course of the game. This is not dispositive, of course. Reynolds has been scrupulously careful to be fair. And just as in any fair debate, the side that gets the last word is not assured to be the winner on that account alone.