Technology: Transcendent Thought

“Eternity lies ahead of us, and behind.
Have you drunk your fill?”

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Conversations with Planet”, Epilogue

It is a tradition in “4X” games to have a node at the very end of technology tree called some variant of “Future Technology”. In the Civilization games that SMAC was based off of, this represents any future scientific discoveries that are out of scope from the perspective of the history-based tree. Usually they provide few or no benefits save for bragging rights, which in Civilization are made tangible through the otherwise meaningless in-game score mechanic.

It’s worth noting that, uniquely, the Future Tech can be researched multiple times. This allows it to serve as a perfect end-game sink for research points. Perhaps the best way to think of it, mechanically, is that it enables the player to turn any excess research points that he generated during the course of the game into score.

For players that are interested in maxing out this number, they’ll generally find themselves ending up “milking” the game. This means that they progress to the end of the game and then set about churning out as many copies of Future Tech as they can manage, only stopping when the penalty for taking an extra turn to win the game is greater than the number of Future Tech instances they can generate in that turn.

SMAC is no exception to this trend. Though we can see that Reynolds was presented with a small problem here by the very concept of his game. SMAC is essentially supposed to answer the question of what comes next after a game of Civilization winds to an end. This means essentially every tech on the SMAC tree is a “Future Tech”. So what comes after the future?

Since we’ve seen how the game ends, now, it should be little surprise that Reynolds would label the last technology Transcendent Thought. It has no concrete benefits. This is fitting given that the precise state of the player’s empire will naturally be entirely meaningless post-Transcendence. To the degree that this technology represents anything concrete at all, it can only be interpreted as the result of the people on Planet accepting Planet’s invitation in the final video to join it in celebrating the gift of consciousness.

It’s critical to note that Reynolds has shown us no hint of jadedness at the end. Unlike the archetypal dissolute aristocrat, the people of the player’s faction have genuinely accomplished something of real and lasting value with their great power. They haven’t just leveled the mountains and plumbed the secrets of creation. They have also finally discovered and lived the truly virtuous life that was always implied by their beliefs. Theirs is the satisfaction of the race well run.

Thus, the full scope of Reynolds’s genius stands revealed. He has arranged events so that the player’s own feelings at the end can be reminiscent of those felt by the nigh-unimaginably powerful people at the end of history when they look around their world. Just like the player, they’ve seen everything there is to see; they’ve done all there is to do. So even though the player cannot possibly have the context to fully imagine virtually any detail about the content of their fictional future lives, the final emotional note he strikes still rings true.

Even here at the very end, SMAC does not rush the player along. The actual outcome of the game is long-since decided, of course. But he is invited to stay and continue to engage with the game as long as he’s having fun. That’s the whole point of the endeavor.

Hence the sheer perfection of this final quote. It’s a little microcosm of the game itself, actually, in that it speaks powerfully to both the character and the player himself. On one level, Planet is inviting Lady Deirdre to join it in Transcendence, offering her an eternity of experience whenever she’s willing to leave her old life behind and transition to a new state of being.

But on another, Reynolds is speaking to the player himself. In the context of the game, an eternity of potential lies ahead, when his people transcend, and behind, when the player ends this game and starts another. A universe of new, exciting possibilities await as soon as he’s done milking this one for score.

On the final level, though, this message is best read as the moral of the game. SMAC, itself, is at its heart a joyous exploration in the way that only the best science fiction can be. The content of the game has been alternately light and dark, hopeful and despairing, but it’s always been approached from an unfailingly earnest, enthusiastic place.

In retrospect, one doesn’t have look very hard to notice that. Reynolds so obviously loves this game. The love radiates from every nook and cranny of it. He loves the big ideas and the childish insults. He loves building up a beautiful sandbox and then knocking it all over with nuclear weapons. He loves all the cool futuristic weapons and the spaceships and the crazy fungus worms. He loves it so much that he even has a place in his heart for all seven of his mutually-contradictory faction leaders.

Reynolds wants the player to go off and live his life with the same joy he has tried to bring to SMAC. After all, infinite possibilities surround all of us. When one comes to an end, simply head off and enjoy another.

With this, I believe we have now completely answered the question with which I began this blog over a year ago. How is it that Reynolds was able to build a satisfying story into a sci-fi strategy game, of all things? And why did that story resonate so strongly with many who played it that people are still talking about it a generation later?

It wouldn’t be right, after having spent so long as SMAC’s unofficial chronicler, to conclude this blog in any way other than adding my voice to Reynolds’s. I suspect I’ll find myself returning to SMAC and analyzing different aspects of the game just as I might milk a playthrough of SMAC for a higher score. But it won’t change the fact that this represents the true and proper end for our journey.

To anyone out there who finds that any measure of joy in walking this path with me: thank you for your time. It has been both an honor and a privilege to share with you the unique experience represented by SMAC. Hopefully you get just a little more out of it the next time you fire up the game.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to credit Brian Reynolds and the whole team at Firaxis Entertainment for creating a true work of art. It’s certain that your work has brought me countless hours of enjoyment. But I’d go even farther and say that to the degree that I can be said to have earned any spark of enlightenment, a good chunk of the credit should go to the time I spent with SMAC.

Thanks, guys. For everything.


25 thoughts on “Technology: Transcendent Thought

  1. northstar1989Blake

    A really good read! I know you’re not nearly as fond of it, but I hope you’ll go back and analyze the Alien Crossfire expansion at some point. It’s a chronically-underrated expansion in my opinion- and I think people’s dislike of it is driven more by some of the much less thought-out factions added (particularly the Data Angels- a faction built on inaccurate stereotypes of hackers at the time that have long since become dated) than by anything else. A few of the techs and Secret Projects are interesting, and Foreman Domai is a reasonably-interesting character in his own right (done by a good voice-actor) who if I’m not mistaken actually makes a covert appearance somewhere in the original game as a layman individual of little importance… (although obviously his role is much greater in the expansion)


  2. Jack

    Congratulations mate. Thanks for taking us all on the ride, I enjoyed every word.
    I think that the original game is much better than the expansion for a lot of reasons, but there is probably just enough in the best parts of SMAX to make it worth diving back into, if you find yourself drawn back in. I’d certainly read it.


  3. Anonymous

    Good read. I didn’t agree with all of it, but to your credit I never felt bored. Unlike some of the other commenters, I don’t find myself nearly as enthusiastic about SMAX or its lore, but I’d be remiss not to read your next interesting analysis. See you around, hopefully.


  4. AJ

    I found this blog by accident, while trying to understand the mechanics of SMAC, having picked it up from Your analysis and discussion have really drawn me to the game, and where before I thought it was a Civ2 reskin, and never got far into it, I’m now really keen to finish my own playthrough. Thank you. This was a great ride.


    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      That’s awesome! I was expecting most of the people who read this to be familiar with the game from back when it came out. I’m so glad to hear that this blog encouraged you to give the game another shot.


  5. alvaro808

    Have to agree with all the above. Mahalo Nui Loa for your eloquent and passionate reflections on Alpha Centauri. The original SMAC is still (in my opinion) a masterpiece when it comes to storytelling in a science fiction game. And I enjoyed reading your commentaries because they expressed a deep and sincere Aloha for this game and for what Ryan Reynolds was trying to accomplish.


  6. Not Zakharov in Disguise

    Wow… Just wow… Even though I knew you went through all the techs when I started reading the blog, I am still impressed on how deeply you looked into the technologies. Great work!
    And I do apologize for my rather lengthy critiques I made while reading this. It’s just the philosophy in this game is so… deep. XD


  7. StClair

    Wound up here as the result of a google search for one of the project video quotes. Proceeded to devour at least half the entries on the site (I may return for the rest, but right now I need to sleep). Fascinating analysis of an old favorite.


  8. Anh Nguyen

    Thank you. It’s been a pleasure following your steps, it amazed me, never seen a game with this much sophistication like before, and a player with matching sophistication to bring it’s value into light.


  9. Stevw

    What a ride! Took me days of reading this between bouts of work and on coffee breaks, but what a series.

    Really renewed by appreciation for a genre defining classic and put into words a lot of things iv never been able to express regarding my love for this game.

    Stellar job, if you’ll excuse the pun.
    Stellar job.


  10. Error

    I discovered this site a couple of days ago and just finished reading it. Wow, that was a trip. I’ve never been able to get SMAC to run on my current machine, even with GOG’s updates, but I should try again.

    Too much to hope there could ever be a print version of this?


  11. Michael

    Apologies for all the messages you got from me the past few days. Just found this blog and found myself thinking about things I’d never been able to discuss with other people before, about a game I haven’t been able to play since my laptop died a while back. Cheers!


  12. Joe K

    Like the game that inspired it, this blog is a “just one more turn” experience. I’ve been playing SMAC for 20 years but never managed to piece together many of the elements you document so thoughtfully here. Thank you for sharing your insights and reflections.


  13. No Way

    Man – I am really wanting 2 things – to resurrect online play and get some SMAC championship tourneys going!
    that – and this needs to be a Film. no doubt.



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