Secret Project: The Voice of Planet

“Imagine the entire contents of the planetary datalinks, the sum total of human knowledge, blasted into the Planetmind’s fragile neural network with the full power of every reactor on the planet. Thousands of years of civilization compressed into a single searing burst of revelation. That is our last-ditch attempt to win humanity a reprieve from extinction at the hands of an awakening alien god.”

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Planet Speaks”

The construction of the Voice of Planet secret project is supposed to represent the climax of the game’s narrative. Ever since the mid-game bled over into the late game, SMAC’s technology tree has been set up to hand out powerful rewards as if they were candy, making manifest the nigh-infinite promise of the future and greatly accelerating the player’s faction’s forward progress.

Simultaneously, though, the game’s lore has been sounding several ominous notes. In particular, Sister Miriam got a substantial amount of spotlight in which to decry and eventually attempt to escape what she saw as the oncoming, hopelessly immoral future. Several otherwise excellent late-game secret projects are delivered as poisoned pills in this sense.

Reynolds has also gone out of his way to amp up the menace from Planet, as well. The quote from Sentient Econometrics warns that Planet’s attempted metamorphosis into a sentient being inevitably wipes out what may as well essentially be the entire ecosystem in a massive cataclysm. The destruction of Lab Three and the implied war between the University and the Gaians should definitely best seen as the first salvo in that conflict.

The game mechanics are intended to support this by making severe ecodamage likely. This should be even worse if the planet has been filled up by large bases working many mines and boreholes, amplified by factories granting 100-150% multipliers. All this ecodamage is intended to cause late game fungal pops that are usually accompanied by massive stacks of mind worms. Which are often the much scarier Locusts of Chiron instead of the less difficult to deal with standard variety.

And, in fact, from this perspective the increased tile yields for fungus can easily feed the problem. Matter Transmission makes fungus tiles yield two minerals, which is as good as a forest. Then making it all the way to the Threshold of Transcendence so that the Voice of Planet can be built makes them yield three. Recall that a mine on optimal terrain only yields four minerals.

The upshot of all this is that fungus pops don’t actually shut down mineral production like they used to in the mid game. The old mechanism was supposed to be something of a negative feedback loop. Too much industry leads to a local reaction from Planet, which then forces and/or encourages the player to moderate that base’s mineral output.

But the player will naturally be working the terrain that’s available to him. So when fungus starts yielding good output – and especially good mineral output – the ecodamage response stops reducing base production. In fact, it can actually increase it if fungus starts replacing farms and forests. The feedback loop could theoretically enter a runaway state.

Enough of this is then supposed to trigger the global warming rule to start flooding out coastal terrain. This will quite likely kill lots of people all over the globe. And, overall, just make it feel like the planet really is in the process of rising up to cause imminent Armageddon.

And it seems like this is how things went down in the implied canon. I wouldn’t be surprised if the University opened up on the Gaians with Singularity Planet Busters after their Singularity Laser drop troopers and Gravship-supported Hovertanks didn’t prove immediately decisive against the heavily psi-focused Gaian armies. The use of these weapons would have counted as a massive atrocity, which would have increased global warming and thus the intensity of the endgame apocalypse.

After a few years of this, Zakharov has run the numbers and decided that he can’t win his war. And, at this rate, humanity is certainly doomed. So he orders the construction of the Voice of Planet. His description of the act as a last-ditch effort and his characterization of Planet as an alien god make it seem like this is more of a surrender than anything else. For all the miraculous technology at his disposal, his faction is somehow virtually helpless before the power of the awakening gestalt Planet-being.

Thematically, Zakharov was the perfect choice for the faction leader to build this project and deliver the quote. See, he’s arguably the most aggressively secular leader. If he stands for anything, he stands for humanity’s quest to gain the power of the gods through the scientific project. And he’s not exactly subtle about his Promethean ambitions. I mean, he named his series of educational texts “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”, and I’m sure he meant the allusion as a dig at Sister Miriam and everything she stood for.

Now just take a moment to imagine what it must be like to be in his position. Here he stands at the end of time. He’s an immortal cyborg superhuman. He possesses all the secrets of the universe. He’s created at least one universe to help bend this one to his own ends. He may as well be a god himself. And after everything he has accomplished, after learning every last secret Reynolds has hidden on the technology tree, he still has to humble himself before an alien god and beg to be spared.

We’ve already seen how he values the acquisition of knowledge above all else. It’s literally baked into the game as his favorite Social Engineering choice. It is thus perfectly fitting that when he is finally forced to make his prostrations, his offering is the sum total of the datalinks themselves. This is a beautiful image; it works on every literary level.

The associated video depicts this act as a bunch of rapidly cycling images. They’re all actually from the previous secret project videos. Which is a brilliant way to represent the sum total of human knowledge at the end of the game. The Secret Projects are intended to represent humanity’s greatest accomplishments, after all. And by virtue of being evocative video clips instead of mere text, they likely represent the player’s most vivid memories of the canon, as opposed to his own gameplay experiences. So this video calls back to the entirety of the SMAC era in a way that would remind both Zakharov and the player of the best parts of the time they’ve spent on Planet.

Once it’s actually built in the game, the Voice of Planet only does two things. First, it grants a final lifecycle bonus to any alien life built by the faction, which is perhaps the most pointless mechanical bonus in the whole game. Second, it then opens up the Ascent to Transcendence project for construction. Since the faction that ascends first wins the game, and since any faction can try to build it as soon as the Voice of Planet goes up, the idea is that the Voice of Planet is supposed to kick off an in-game race. This last struggle serves as the game’s short denouement before its ultimate conclusion.

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4 thoughts on “Secret Project: The Voice of Planet

  1. CCC

    Blasting the contents of the planetary datalinks into Planet’s neural network may not have been an offering. It may have been an attempt to forcibly change Planet from an alien, child-like super-intelligence to a knowledgeable, human-like super-intelligence – that is, from a being that strongly sympathises with (and can perhaps by, if not controlled, then at least steered by) Lady Diedre’s new religion to someone (something?) that the University can reason with, negotiate with…

    You don’t generally speak about “blasting” something into a “fragile” something when you’re talking about a gift.

    Also, I don’t think Zhakarov was ever very good in dealing with children.

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      1. beleester

        The Book of Planet interludes spell this out a bit more – it’s a direct connection to the Datalinks, and it has two purposes. First, it’s meant to allow Planet to speak clearly instead of sending you weird psychic visions. But second, it’s used to forestall the thing that you mentioned where Planet grows out of control, becomes nearly-sentient, and then collapses the ecosystem, killing everyone. The interlude after you build it shows that you turn it on right before the “growth dream” starts, and uses the same line as Zakharov about the “awakening alien god.”

        It’s not clear if the original purpose was to let Planet speak or to stop it growing out of control, but it successfully does both. The next time Planet talks to you, it’s rather more understandable, and it has a plan to help you survive the growth, which leads to Transcendence.

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