“The first living thing to go through the device was a small white rat. I still have him, in fact. As you can see, the damage was not so great as they say.”
— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “See How They Run”
If I had to pick a single quote to introduce someone to Zakharov’s personality, it would be this one. It has it all. In three amazingly efficient sentences, Reynolds gets across so many points about the man. His love for cutting-edge science and technology is made manifest in how he’s still personally invested in the research process. And that’s really saying something when one contemplates how many centuries must certainly have passed since Planetfall.
But we also get a glimpse of his dark side. This quote is probably from an interview or a documentary. Either way, it’s definitely meant for public consumption. And he demonstrates in it a perfectly callous attitude towards cute, fuzzy little creatures. Not only does he have no regret for horribly mangling the white rat, he has gone so far as to proudly keep it on his desk as a memento.
The context leads one to presume that he didn’t plan to bring up the rat beforehand. The selection Reynolds presents here is best read as an aside. But in the third sentence, he can’t help but correct what he sees as the public’s mistaken impression of the exact degree of the poor rat’s horrible injuries. It’s mangled, yes, but it’s not mangled.
We already knew that he cares deeply about being right. It’s no accident that Reynolds chose him to introduce Intellectual Integrity so many tiers ago. But the depth of the pedantry he displays here is impressive enough to verge on autism. Given this attitude, it’s completely unsurprising that a faction founded by Zakharov and his like-minded clique would have an especially difficult problem managing their disaffected lower classes.
Moving on to the gameplay effects, Matter Transmission is the foundational technology for the second of the two final chains in the tree. It’s a thirteenth-tier economic technology that combines the previous mastery over matter represented by Matter Editation with the mysterious Secrets of Alpha Centauri to unlock the functional equivalent of the Star Trek teleporter.
Reynolds posits that this dramatic technology has three immediate applications. First, it enables the creation of Psi Gates. These are base facilities that allow units to instantly teleport between any two bases that possess one. Second, it allows the creation of the Bulk Matter Transmitter secret project, which grants bonus minerals at every base. And, finally, it allows the Blink Displacer unit ability, which lets units ignore any bonuses a defending unit might have from fortifications like Perimeter Defenses or Tachyon Fields.
As we have seen, the trend in SMAC is to advance toward a decisive conclusion in the end-game. This is in keeping with the tradition of the broader “4X” genre of empire-building games, of which the Civilization series of games is an exemplar. The idea is that it should be worthwhile to build up one’s own empire in the early game before clashing with rivals in the mid-game. If no one has won by the time the end of the tech tree approaches, then the advanced technologies should make it possible to break the stalemate and reach a decision.
This technology represents the ne plus ultra of this trend. Psi Gates shrink the attackers’ supply lines to virtually zero regardless of the terrain. Meanwhile, Blink Displacers strip away the bonuses that keep static defenders competitive even with their lower base strengths. And if there still aren’t enough units to be had, the Bulk Matter Transmitter greatly increases the productivity of the leading faction.
Enforcing this pattern to this degree enables Reynolds to expect games that only allow the Conquest victory condition to eventually end, even if every surviving faction entirely completes the technology tree. But the primary focus of SMAC is the single-player experience using the default rules. And from that perspective, the main effect of this technology is to add fuel to a rising feeling of all-consuming power.
To see how this works, recall that the player has spent much of the game focused intently on the problem of moving his units around the map of Planet. Since he’s winning, this generally means working out the logistics of building new units back in his core bases and then moving them into enemy territory. Once they arrive, he then has to form his armies up to assault enemy bases, clear them of defenders, and then add them to his growing conquests.
All of these problems are so much easier with the magic of Matter Transmission at his command. High-tech warfare against backwards rivals is often so easy that it can already feel a little like cheating. But these bonuses usually push the advantage past the point of ludicrous and into what may as well be omnipotence. Therefore, I’d argue that these rules are best read as Reynolds rewarding the player with the keys to the kingdom. By playing this long and this well, he’s earned the right to do whatever he wants with the military aspect of the game.