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.

Secret Project: The Bulk Matter Transmitter

“And what of the immortal soul in such transactions? Can this machine transmit and reattach it as well? Or is it lost forever, leaving a soulless body to wander the world in despair?”

— Sister Miriam Godwinson, “We Must Dissent”

Judging from the video, The Bulk Matter Transmitter is a much more impressive facility than its gameplay effects would imply. It just grants two free minerals to each base in SMAC. This is essentially equivalent to two extra Nessus Mining Stations, but without any of the limitations of the satellite economy.

This isn’t really a very good deal. When you consider that it is one of the very last secret projects, based on the thirteenth-tier Matter Transmission technology, the deal gets worse. It’s both very expensive and has very little time to pay back its cost. So only a massive endgame empire will find this to have a positive return on investment.

This is fine, though, since at this point the game is no longer competitive. A player who’s still enjoying the builder game this late is almost assuredly more interested in making cool stuff than he is in scraping out every possible advantage from micromanaging his faction. And this secret project definitely delivers on that.

There does not appear to be much of a limit on the scale to the matter transmission technology. So it turns out that the Bulk Matter Transmitter is the most boring name imaginable for a real, live stargate. Through which people are flying actual starships.

Since all the action takes place on and around Planet, it’s easy for the player to forget the level of sophistication that SMAC assumes for space travel technology. Until he’s forcibly reminded by seeing a massive spaceship flung instantly across the stars. This is the kind of feat that typically only shows up in sci-fi stories about ancient, galactic-scale space empires. So it serves as an excellent benchmark for the sheer scope of imagination Reynolds has exercised in SMAC.

And, of course, it would not be SMAC without some philosophy to go with the technological wonder. Here, we are treated to Sister Miriam taking the contrary position to CEO Morgan’s pronouncement on the discovery of Matter Editation. Recall that it was Morgan’s firm belief that the value of anything cannot escape its smallest parts. Therefore, a reassembled person on the other side of the stargate must have the same moral value as the original.

But Miriam seems to believe that continuity of a person’s path in space-time is key to anything we’d rightly consider identity. Which, if she’s right, would leave the resulting teleported person bereft of his link to his past. If not abandoned by God all together.

It’s certain that whichever faction actually built this project in canon took Morgan’s side of the argument. But knowing what we know now about Miriam’s eventual fate, it’s especially poignant to see her express doubts over the fate of the soul during teleportation. She’s not really sure what going through the portal actually means. This makes her choice of death a profound final statement of her faith in the face of deep empirical uncertainty.

I cannot help but gush again over how wonderful I find it that Reynolds was willing to play fair here. He didn’t have to give Sister Miriam anything resembling this tragic depth. His players would have been more than satisfied if he had just made her an angry, monochromatic antagonist in a black hat. That’s all most of them saw anyway, judging by many of the comments I’ve seen from SMAC players since the game came out.

But this is another instance of the true genius of SMAC. Reynolds has crafted a game that rewards the player in proportion to the effort he brings to it. If the player wants a fun war game, the game can provide that in spades. If he wants a futuristic SimCity experience, he can spend all his time carefully building up his bases just so. If he wants the joy of crushing his philosophical foes into the dirt until they grovel before him, SMAC delivers.

And if he’s willing to drill down deep into the lore, as I have here, he’ll find that the whole edifice stands up to scrutiny. Reynolds has built a futuristic world that actually works. It’s simultaneously epic in scope, self-consistent, fair-minded, fascinating to contemplate, expressed powerfully to the player, and laden with distinctive flavor. Any one of these would have made the game worthwhile. Crafting a game that manages them all at once makes this a masterwork.

Base Facility: Psi Gate

“Go through, my children! The time of miracles is upon us. Let us cast off sin and walk together to the Garden of the Lord. With God’s mercy we shall meet again on the other side.”

— Sister Miriam Godwinson, “Last Testament”

To properly understand this quote, it is necessary to begin with the context. Psi Gates can be constructed in bases after researching the thirteenth-tier Matter Transmission technology. They allow units to instantly teleport between any pair of bases that both have gates without regard to the intervening distance or terrain.

Canonically, it is clear by now that the Believers have been almost completely marginalized. She has been unstinting in her long dissent from the course events have taken. But her and her remaining loyal followers have proven completely unable to stop the march of history.

The technology just before this one enabled Clinical Immortality. In that video, what could have easily been portrayed as a miraculous accomplishment was instead ominously framed as defiance of God’s plan. Even though Miriam didn’t put voice to it, Reynolds’s editorial choices were certainly sympathetic to her viewpoint.

By now, as shown in the video for the Self-Aware Colony, the Believers’ willingness to die for their beliefs isn’t even enough to keep their message emblazoned in spray paint on the walls. The God of the Israelites is dead. If not in the literal sense, then certainly in a social one.

Given Miriam’s close identification with religion and her rival Zakharov’s prominence in the end game quotes, one might expect that Reynolds to conclude the canon with a futuristic secularism. This idea that humanity will naturally evolve away from religious belief has been a common theme in science-fiction for generations. And Reynolds could even be said to have foreshadowed this eventuality. Recall Yang’s early statement that increasing philosophical nihilism was simply the sign of humanity’s increasing sophistication as a sentient species.

But again Reynolds refuses to take the easy, clichéd route. The Temples of Planet prove that the Gaians are as traditionally religious as the Believers ever were. They have a claim to be more traditional, actually, given that their religion hearkens back to an even older-school paganism. And we know that the canonical Gaians are doing quite well.

So there’s quite a bit of pathos in Miriam’s failure. Remember, it was not inevitable. She took her best shot. But in the end, her proud, ancient philosophical tradition will have no sway over the future of mankind. And if the player can figure this out by now, we know for sure that Miriam is perceptive enough to see the writing on the wall.

And so we turn to the quote. This is the conclusion of Sister Miriam’s last testament; these are her last words. Soon after leaving this message, she stepped into a Psi Gate. But this one wasn’t attuned to a particular target destination. So instead of delivering her to a nearby base as would normally be the case, it annihilated her physical form.

This is suicide. A futuristic form of suicide that has a gnostic sort of purity, perhaps, but suicide nonetheless. Judging by her exhortation to her followers, she intends this to be a mass suicide. Historically, such an event tends to take place after the leaders lose hope that they can accomplish their worldly goals. And, given that it usually accompanies a catastrophic or apocalyptic defeat, it’s understandable that it’s also commonly accompanied by a strong belief that the end times are approaching.

But the fascinating thing about this is that Miriam is totally and completely right. The player knows that the game is about to end, which will quite literally end her fictional world. But, even purely in-universe, the end of the tech tree heralds the end of anything the player is likely to be able to concretely identify with.

Sister Miriam was the last pure canonical human. At the end we can see that she was presented with a profound choice. She could have chosen to eat from the tree of life and, thus, join the others in true immortality. But it would not have been on her terms. In her eyes, it would have cost Miriam her very soul. So she opted instead for the final death, trusting in the promise of Heaven to the very last.

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.

Secret Project: The Telepathic Matrix

“From the delicate strands,
between minds we weave our mesh:
a blanket to warm the soul.”

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “The Collected Poems”

The Telepathic Matrix secret project is much more important to the SMAC narrative than it might appear from the video alone. The gameplay context is critical for understanding what’s going on here and why it’s critical to Reynolds’s vision of SMAC’s far future. So let’s start with the brute facts.

The Telepathic Matrix is an application of the twelfth-tier Eudaimonia technology. It has two gameplay effects for the faction that possesses it: it improves Probe Team morale significantly; and it prevents drone riots in all of the faction’s bases.

It’s hard to overstate the effect that this blanket prevention of drone riots has on the player’s experience of the game. Up until now, the player has been forced to check each one of his bases every turn in order to ensure that they have not become unhappy, lest he is punished with a drone riot that costs him an entire base-turn’s worth of production.

There are many important mechanics in SMAC that are enforced largely in the background so as to keep the game running smoothly. The ecodamage rules are a good example of this pattern. But the drone riot rule isn’t one of them. Nullifying the drone riot mechanic after the game has painstakingly taught the player to follow it has a dramatically liberating effect on the way the game feels.

But it’s worth noting that this doesn’t pacify drones directly. If it did that, it would turn drones into content workers like police units or Recreation Commons do. Instead, it just overrides the rule that causes drone riots if the number of drones exceeds the number of talents in any given base. This distinction is made relevant through the interaction with the Golden Age mechanic. Even though drone riots are now impossible with the Telepathic Matrix, a base can’t go into a Golden Age as long as it has any. This means that happiness management and Psych energy spending aren’t rendered entirely pointless.

This has obvious implications for the player’s subsequent Social Engineering choices. Recall that the earlier Cloning Vats made Growth-focused choices inherently less attractive by enabling the maximum possible growth rate at every base. In much the same way, the Telepathic Matrix makes authoritarian, Police-focused social models less useful by providing the main social control benefit for free.

Given all of that, it is quite suggestive that Reynolds chose to make the other advantage of building the Telepathic Matrix a faction-wide spying bonus. Now there’s also less need for Probe bonuses. The net effect is that Thought Control, which provides large Police, Probe, and Morale bonuses, is a significantly less attractive social model than it would otherwise be.

This makes the peaceful tone of the video worth some contemplation. It certainly serves as a sharp contrast to the earlier Self-Aware Colony, which provided a similar police benefit in a much more disquieting, dystopian fashion. The Telepathic Matrix doesn’t appear to operate by forcing compliance out of the drones. Instead, the poem and the visuals lead the player to conclude that it operates by enabling powerful empaths to psychically comfort the poor and disaffected drones.

Stepping back a moment, we can see that ever since the mid-game got going in earnest, Reynolds has seemingly gone out of his way to refute or twist the classic images of ethical progress in SMAC. The future has grown increasingly inhuman. And it’s done so in ways that are intended to unsettle or disconcert the player. Consider that both of the future society choices that have been made available until now – Cybernetic and Thought Control – are much more likely to parse as different flavors of dystopia rather than as an ideal state of being to the typical player.

Only now, with the discovery of Eudaimonia and the Telepathic Matrix, do we see a significant reversal of that trend. The overall effect of this video is to grant some measure of hope for the future. At the very least, it finally seems like a place in which the typical player might actually want to live.

One of the common tropes in older futurism is the notion, a la Roddenberry or Carl Sagan, that futuristic people would necessarily have to be what we’d see as more morally evolved in addition to merely having cooler toys. Part of the point of SMAC is that this is certainly not true in the naïve sense.

And yet, we see here that the structure of the technology tree sets up something resembling teleology. The utopian Eudaimonia – with the radical freedom enabled by the Telepathic Matrix – is set up as the last word in the inherent philosophical back-and-forth that takes place over the course of the game. This is not dispositive, of course. Reynolds has been scrupulously careful to be fair. And just as in any fair debate, the side that gets the last word is not assured to be the winner on that account alone.

Secret Project: Clinical Immortality

“And the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man is become as
one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth
his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and
live forever, we must send him forth.’ Therefore the
Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till
the ground from whence he was taken.”

— The Conclave Bible, Datalinks

The fifth-tier Longevity Vaccine would deliver what most people would think of as clinical immortality. It greatly retards the aging process. And, by doing so, it allows people to functionally enjoy eternal youth while having no expectation of death by what would traditionally be considered natural causes.

The Clinical Immortality secret project, based on Matter Editation and demonstrated in this video, means something rather different. It is now possible to be literally, physically immortal. With this technology and enough energy at one’s disposal, a person’s pattern can always be perfectly regenerated. That holds even if the atoms that currently make up a person are completely obliterated in an antimatter reaction or tossed into a black hole. As long as CEO Morgan is right about nothing being able to transcend its smallest elements, then as long as society continues to exist, this project really does represent the final conquest of death.

In that light, it’s worth considering the fact that the video isn’t edited so as to treat this as a purely positive advance. It would have been easy to have this video show a person die and then be miraculously reassembled and arise from a pod. Then everyone celebrates and it would be obviously a wonderful thing.

Instead, we get a Bible quote whose most straightforward reading is that God, for whatever reason, explicitly did not want humanity to eat from the tree of life. All the while, the visuals are of a futuristic facility that looks something like a temple or refuge. At the very least, the hallways have no obvious purpose. But then, in the inner sanctum, we do not see anything we’d recognize as a person. Instead, we see a brain, a pair of eyes, and a spinal column sitting largely inert in a jar, complete with ominous red lights and a disconcerting sound effect.

According to the comments on the linked YouTube video, it is clear that many people are misreading this video. In the full context of SMAC, the attentive player will know by know that having brains in jars and feeding them arbitrary sensory experience has been possible since the fourth-tier Bioenhancement Center. And uploading minds to computers has been possible at least since the invention of Digital Sentience on the tenth tier of the technology tree.

I believe the best interpretation of this video is that this facility has just begun the process of regenerating a person. The best evidence in favor of this theory comes from the screen readouts in the background. One of these appears to show a rough image of a person’s upper body in an X-Ray style. And when the red light comes on, almost all of the background details are obscured save for this image on the lower left, which proves that it was important.

Presumably the change to the red light indicates that the active copy of the person in question has just been terminated and a replacement is required. For speed and convenience, base copies of the brain, eyes, and spine are built early and kept in a suspended state. Now the process is about to begin, in which a brand-new body will be assembled around the cached components along the lines of the nearby readout. Once it’s done, it will be sent back out into the world from this individual’s personal temple, retracing the camera’s path down the hallway.

The primary gameplay effects of this advance are to double the faction’s votes in U.N. Council elections and grants two free talents to every base. It’s interesting to note that this is reminiscent of the Peacekeepers’ factional bonuses. Thematically, this echoes nicely when we recall that Lal was the Chief Medical Officer aboard the Unity. Medical advances have consistently been tied fairly tightly to the well-being of the populace. And this effect stretches to the very end of the profession of medicine, itself.

The mechanical effect of all these bonus talents is quite substantial. With few exceptions, the only previous source of talents had been Psych spending. But now, in the late-game, it’s possible to get a bunch of talents for free. When that’s coupled with the better value on specialists that produce Psych (compared to the early-game Doctors), this makes Golden Ages much more common at the end of the game. Which, among other things, lightens the tone of the late game. From the player’s perspective, if the population of all of his bases are wildly happy, things can’t be going too badly.