Category Archives: Technology

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.

Technology: Threshold of Transcendence

“And when he has brought forth and reared this perfect virtue, he shall be called the friend of god, and if ever it is given to man to put on immortality, it shall be given to him.”

— Plato, “The Symposium”, Datalinks

Here it is. We have finally reached the end of the technology tree. Centuries have almost assuredly passed since the moment a handful of fragile colony pods came to rest upon the surface of an alien world. Upon researching this technology, their literal and philosophical descendants now stand at the Threshold of Transcendence. The threshold can be passed by constructing the associated Voice of Planet secret project, which starts the countdown to the end of the game.

Transcendence, in SMAC, represents the end of the human era. Whatever comes next will necessarily represent a dramatic shift in what it means to be a person and a society. One that’s so much sharper than anything that’s been envisioned to this point that SMAC no longer attempts to represent it in the game world. Recalling the dramatic impact of many of these prior technologies should help to demonstrate the full weight of that statement.

But what exactly does this technology do? What is it meant to concretely represent, other than telling the player the game is about to end? Answering these questions first requires us to take a look at its prerequisites.

In SMAC, the Threshold of Transcendence requires Temporal Mechanics and the Secrets of Creation to research. We have already seen that Temporal Mechanics implies a complete understanding of psionics. But what may not have been obvious then is that it also implies a complete understanding of society-wide ethics. The Social Engineering and Base Management screens have been constant companions for the player for the duration of the game. And it’s only at Temporal Mechanics that it’s guaranteed to be possible to select every Social Engineering choice and to assign all the most effective forms of specialist.

On the other hand, whatever their contents, the Secrets of Creation are obviously relevant to the final fate of humanity and the universe. It’s also worth pointing out that they require the Unified Field Theory, in turn. This means that this inclusion as a prerequisite implies that the people at the end of time need a theoretically complete picture of fundamental physics in order to move to the next phase in existence.

But it’s just as interesting, in my view, to see what on the tree isn’t actually required to win the game. Temporal Mechanics recursively implies all three ninth-tier technologies and all five eight-tier technologies. But it’s actually the Secrets of Creation that’s required to pick up the final seventh-tier Unified Field Theory.

As an aside, it’s kind of mind-blowing to realize that it’s theoretically possible to master time itself without a truly correct and satisfying fundamental physics. There’s a potential SMAC universe out there in which the people of Chiron just kept muddling through to the top of the tree with increasingly accurate domain-specific theories. All the while, they lacked the single, revolutionary flash of insight that could have came centuries before.

So that leaves seven technologies that are unnecessary for transcendence. They range from Frictionless Surfaces, up through Quantum Power/Quantum Machinery, Singularity Mechanics, and the parallel three-technology chain at the top that starts with Graviton Theory and runs through to Controlled Singularity. The common theme uniting these breakthroughs is that they’re all physical in nature. They’re about particles, not people.

Thus, SMAC posits that transcendence must stem from something more than, or different from, mere scientific empiricism. Reynolds has always seen the fantastic powers and the exciting promise of new technology as tools rather than as ends. In this, Reynolds stands squarely within the tradition of the greatest science fiction.

From the beginning, the resonant themes of the game have been centered about genuinely meaty philosophical questions. How should we live? What is best in life? Which ethical principles are eternally true and which are only contingent upon circumstance? What values are essential to the human experience? And what parts of our lives will we want our far-future descendants to look back on and treasure as central to the legacy we have left them?

Reynolds presents the faction leaders as a detailed existence proof that these questions can be satisfactorily answered in at least seven different ways. The quote that accompanies this technology would lead one to believe that, whichever path one chooses to walk, they each imply an end state in which this perfect virtue is somehow made manifest. Or, in other words, for a faction to find itself at the Threshold of Transcendence means that the people have come to embody a final and complete solution for philosophy itself.

Metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics, and even aesthetics are all solved problems. And not only in a theoretical sense. At this point, the entire society is an instantiation of a completely correct, self-consistent philosophy. But Reynolds has left it for the player to determine whether or not the society his faction has painstakingly built has resulted in a true utopia or the final triumph of evil, invincible for all time.

Technology: Controlled Singularity

“Some would ask, how could a perfect God create a universe filled with so much that is evil. They have missed a greater conundrum: why would a perfect God create a universe at all?”

— Sister Miriam Godwinson, “But for the Grace of God”

Controlled Singularity is the final technology in the chain that began with Graviton Theory. From the name and the prerequisites, it would appear that it uses the techniques represented by Applied Gravitonics to safely manipulate the artificial singularities that can be created using Singularity Mechanics. So now they can be safely used for more purposes than just a potent power source.

For instance, they allow the creation of the twenty-four strength Singularity Laser. This is ultimate unit weapon in SMAC. Units equipped with these weapons and using the earlier Singularity Engines have no problem sweeping aside any lesser-equipped enemy.

This is the reason why this technology is considered a military tech. Which is interesting given that its other benefit is to allow the construction of an economy-focused secret project. The Singularity Inductor counts as a free Quantum Converter at every base. Which is simultaneously very powerful and generally almost completely worthless in a typical game, as it is very unlikely for there to be many turns left for the investment to pay itself back.

So let’s move on to the associated quote. It’s Sister Miriam again. Which is a little surprising given that we know how her story ends. But notice that this one isn’t attributed to “We Must Dissent”. In fact, judging by the quote to the Planetary Transit System, I’d argue that “But for the Grace of God” was likely written at the height of the Believers’ fortunes. At that time, her people had just constructed their first Secret Project. And it was one that seemed to herald an age of prosperity as her people spread out to colonize wide swaths of the new world.

We can conclude, then, that Miriam’s question isn’t coming from a place of existential doubt or despair. She has been grappling with what philosophers have called the problem of evil since the beginning. And instead of making a loud statement in favor of God’s obvious goodness, she turns it around by asking instead why God would choose to create the universe at all.

This is a pretty profound line of argument. Ancient philosophers and wise men have often been drawn to the idea of perfection as that which is complete in and of itself. The image of God as an axiomatically perfect creator naturally raises the question as to why he would ever feel the need to create anything outside of himself. To create is to theoretically attempt to fill or sate a felt need. And a perfect being would logically have no such needs.

There are several natural ways to resolve this dilemma. God could not exist, God could be imperfect, God’s perfection could be best seen as some sort of dynamic state instead of as an instantiation of some Platonic ideal, or that the system defined as God includes the universe itself as a component. And those are just the possibilities that came off the top of my head; there are certainly many others. But Reynolds chooses to leave it unclear in the end as to what Sister Miriam’s answer may have been.

All of this would just be another in the long tradition of rambling that makes up the typical philosophers’ favorite pastime, were it not for the context in which the player encounters this discussion. Popping the stack a meta-level, the player actually knows the concrete answer to both of Sister Miriam’s questions: because he wanted to play a game of SMAC.

Her world exists and is filled with so much imperfection and moral evil because Reynolds and his friends at Firaxis Entertainment set it up that way. For his entertainment. From that perspective, SMAC could be seen literally as a god-game, with the player standing in as a cruel or callous god.

Technology: Temporal Mechanics

“Time travel in the classic sense has no place in rational theory, but temporal distortion does exist on the quantum level, and more importantly it can be controlled.”

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”

Temporal Mechanics is a fourteenth-tier economic technology. It is labeled as such because its only effect is to unlock the last armor technology: the twelve-strength Stasis Generator. The name and the quote would make this out to be the ultimate forcefield. Presumably it stops the incoming attack by literally freezing it in place. This represents a rather different approach compared to the traditional attempts to deflect or absorb the incoming energy. It isn’t too hard to see how it could be even more effective than ablative antimatter plating.

Given this effect, though, it has a rather curious pair of prerequisites. On the one hand, we have Matter Transmission. It’s not all that hard to see the logic here. Faster than light teleportation inherently has implications with regard to causality. In a world where physics allows such an action at such large scales, it would make sense that time itself would prove to be a little more flexible than we might otherwise expect. Playing with the one odd physical behavior thus leads to a breakthrough in a related area.

But the other required technology is Eudaimonia, of all things. It seems rather unlikely on the surface that a novel theory of social organization is required to make an engineering breakthrough like this. But, from the name of the Psi Gates allowed by Matter Transmission, it would seem that psionics are somehow required to achieve the effect. This is why that technology relied on access to the ultimate psychics, represented in SMAC by the Transcendi and unlocked with the Secrets of Alpha Centauri.

So achieving the insights represented by Temporal Mechanics would seem to require something unique to Eudaimonia that is not already implied by the Secrets of Alpha Centauri. Other than unlocking the Eudaimonic society, the Eudaimonia technology itself has a couple of other psi-related effects that lead me to believe that the future society is made possible only by the work of advanced Empaths.

Let’s look back further to see if we can’t find some more clues. Examining their prerequisite chains for their highest common ancestors reveals that they both need Sentient Econometrics and Centauri Psi. So either of these techs or any that they recursively require can’t be the answer. The only other chain that culminates in Eudaimonia that fits the bill is The Will to Power, through Homo Superior and Biomachinery.

To sum up, this means that Temporal Mechanics actually represents the peak of psionic technique and understanding. Only here does the traditional, Planet-focused line of psionic inquiry dovetail back in with the new, human-derived psionics that became possible in the mid-game by engineering better people. And it just turns out that the primary application of this is to bend the previously expected rules of physics by fueling time-stopping forcefields.

I find it fascinating that, even this close to the end, the tech tree still contains within it this kind of implied serendipity in the march of technology. This is one of those patterns that Reynolds was careful to establish in the beginning that continues to pay dividends here at the end. Even if almost none of his players peers closely enough to notice this detail directly, the fact that it’s there to be found at all adds a great deal to the player’s feeling that even the distant SMAC future is still a real place.

Technology: Applied Gravitonics

“What goes up . . . better doggone well stay up!”

— Morgan Gravitonics, Company Slogan

Applied Gravitonics is labeled by the game as a fourteenth-tier exploration technology. The prerequisites claim that it represents the extension of Graviton Theory with the help of Digital Sentiences. But its only immediate application is to allow the creation of units with the twenty-strength Graviton Gun, which is odd. It seems as if this designation and the associated quote were created with the expectation that a mobility power like either the Gravship chassis or the Antigrav Struts would go here.

None of those quibbles change the fact that I still love this quote, though. For one, it’s definitely clever in that way we’ve come to associate with CEO Morgan. But it’s the juxtaposition of the cheesy folksiness and the ultra-futuristic content that does it for me. To the people who are running Morgan Gravitonics, if they’ve done their job right, they really have denied the old truism that “what goes up must come down”.

They’ve gone even further than that by making it the vision statement for their business. The inversion of the player’s expectations in the slogan is now normal for them. The imagined SMAC future becomes about ten times more crazy and wonderful of a place once the player starts adding in what must be routine exercises of antigravity. Do they have floating castles in the sky? Hoverboards that can cruise into the air as easily as they can skim along the ground? Bungee jumping without the need for any ropes? The sky’s the limit at this point.

It’s also worth mentioning that this is the last quote delivered by a Morganite. Its very normality – especially in contrast with Sister Miriam’s most recent quotes – is evidence in favor of the proposition that the CEO’s experiment did not canonically end in fire and tears. Which is kind of weird if you think about the Economic Victory rules. The absence of any sign that Morgan Industries was plundered by a coalition of rival forces can be seen as something akin to the dog that didn’t bark.

Now consider how late on the tree we have to go before encountering Applied Gravitonics. The Morganites must have remained on the cutting-edge in research all the way through the game. This is true even with the University as one of their main rivals. And after they spent many thousands of energy credits on their bid to corner the planetary energy market. The Morganite economy at the end of the canon game could very likely have been amazing.

The other possibility is that CEO Morgan had a strong working relationship with either or both of the University or the Gaians. There’s some pretty good evidence that he was able to maintain trade treaties with all the other powers, so it’s possible that instead of doing all his research himself, he managed to procure many of the needed technologies on the foreign market. If so, and if his rivals did not highly value these late-game technologies in energy terms, then it’s possible he could have been able to skate by with a strong energy focus and some clever dealmaking. In any event, the very fact that Morgan Gravitonics existed in canon is sufficient to safely conclude that the Morganites were a Great Power until the end of the game.

Technology: Matter Transmission

“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.

Technology: Graviton Theory

“This unusual specimen is not so much a classic particle as a connector–a kind of string attaching two particles. As distance increases the connective power becomes attenuated, but if it is cut the power vanishes: forever.”

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”

The final three substantive tiers of the technology tree (the thirteenth through the fifteenth) consist of two narrow chains that do not have any interdependencies between each other. One of these is based off of the insights provided by Graviton Theory and ably explained by Zakharov in the associated quote.

The ability to permanently cut these cords leads directly to the development of the last chassis type: the gravship. Gravships are considered air units, so they have the typical base movement speed of eight, but they have no maximum range. The idea is that their antigravity drive requires very little energy to remain aloft. That’s why they don’t need to return back to base to refuel.

It also makes possible the Antigrav Struts special unit ability. When applied to a ground unit, it increases the unit’s speed by one and enables it to ignore all terrain-based movement penalties. So it’s possible to design super-fast Hovertanks and infantry squads that levitate through the air.

They can also be applied to air units. When that’s done, they add a number of movement points to the unit equal to twice the reactor value. So, for instance, if a Gravship with a Quantum Reactor was sporting Antigrav Struts in addition to the standard antigrav drive, it would get fourteen moves a turn instead of just eight.

Finally, this technology also allows units with drop pods to perform orbital insertions anywhere on Planet’s surface. This is the same bonus as the one that comes from having built the Space Elevator secret project, though obviously it comes much later on the technology tree.

But, as is the common refrain for these late-game technologies, all of these bonuses would naturally be a lot more exciting if they didn’t come at the very end of the game. Even a very slow, epic game will almost assuredly be wrapping up before gravships can make a significant difference in the outcome. That’s probably even true for the canon timeline, in which the University is fielding them against the Gaians in a bid to eradicate what they see as the Mind Worm menace from the face of Chiron.

I think the most interesting thing about this technology is actually the nature of its prerequisites. On the one hand, it relies on the twelfth-tier Quantum Machinery technology that could plausibly end up yielding these nigh-magical antigravity breakthroughs. And on the other, it relies on the much older sixth-tier Mind/Machine Interface, which is there to ensure that the faction actually has the infrastructure necessary to operate an air force.

But the thing I find shocking about this is that it’s actually possible to get as deep into the tree as Quantum Machinery without already needing the MMI technology for something before now. This may not be as surprising to players who, unlike me, commonly played without the standard Blind Research option. But under Blind Research there is almost no chance to beeline so deeply without having researched all the early-game and many of the mid-game technologies. Inspecting the tech tree carefully, Quantum Machinery is at the end of a pretty narrow chain of mid-game technologies that rarely pull in dependencies from the other parts of the tree.

This leads to a couple of factoids worth pondering. For instance, it’s theoretically possible to unlock orbital insertions at Graviton Theory without ever researching a single spaceflight technology. This implies that it’s not possible to launch a Planet Buster or a satellite using antigrav alone. For whatever reason, a drive built along these lines can’t move enough mass high enough or quickly enough to duplicate the effect of a large chemical rocket like the 1960s-era Saturn V.

Or how Graviton Theory represents the highest level of technical sophistication that it is possible for people still recognizable as Homo Sapiens to achieve. The handful of technologies at a higher tier all require Homo Superior, Digital Sentience, or both. But, intriguingly, it would seem that Graviton Theory can be developed by mere cyborgs.