“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.