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053 - Alpha Centauri

Best Games - Alpha Centauri

I used to keep my copy of Alpha Centauri stowed safely in the bottom drawer of an end table, deep in the back, nestled under old papers and envelopes. This was for my own protection. Now it sits in the bottom of a box, stored under the stairs in the basement. This is also for my protection. Alpha Centauri is almost guaranteed to make me sick.

Civilization was a loose computer adaptation of the board game of the same name. I love, and have loved, the Civilization series on the PC. It is a solid strategic empire building game, a micro-detailed version of Risk. You have to be simultaneously aware of the global military mechanics, and, municipal level, social and economic dealings. You can, in equal parts, out fight, out negotiate, out research, or out spend the rest of the world. All these machiavellian interactions are set against a scrambled world history that borders on satire. Gandhi is often played as a loose cannon with his finger squarely on the nuclear button.

Alpha Centauri picks up where Civilization ends. Humanity has left the cradle of earth to seek a new home, the extra-solar planet Chiron. Nations lose all meaning and the small population of immigrants become divided by extremist ideology. Most of the gameplay and mechanics that make Civ a great game are still in Alpha Centauri, and some, like the custom unit creator are vastly deepend. Exploration, city management, combat and negotiation with other factions are handled similarly to previous Civ games.

What makes Alpha Centauri a step above the rest of the Civ series is the setting and the tone. Where Civ picks and chooses events from across human history, the story in Alpha Centauri is linear and evenly metered out. Where Civ will play events for satire, Alpha Centauri tends toward the deadly serious. Quotes and writing from history dot the Civ series, but most of the writing in Alpha Centauri is wholly original, and, more often than not, disquieting and poetic.

The Civ series alway boasted exploration and discovery, at least in the early stages of each playthrough. With the exception of a few barbarian tribes early on there is very little danger in exploring or expanding your territory. Chiron, simply referred to as Planet, is the harshest of frontiers. The crust of fungus that covers planet will push against your territories with increasing ferocity as you expand outward. Unthinkable terrors known as mindworms act as Planets native defence, overcoming your explorers with psychically projected nightmares before burrowing through their flesh and bone. Planet does not want you. It is made very clear that you are the alien.

As the game progresses, and the story unfolds, you discover that you are not playing a game of simple mechanics and management. Alpha Centauri is a playable novel with a rich narrative, and a lot to say about the awful nature of colonialism, extremism, and the human drive to dominate. It also has a lot to say about human endurance, adaptability, acceptance of being of the land and not it’s master.

That story is what keeps me playing until the wee hours. It’s that story that I can’t put down. That is why I keep it safely tucked in a box in the basement. If I started playing it I know I would have to see it through. I know I’ll play it again, some day. Or three consecutive days. It will probably make me sick. That’s why Alpha Centauri is easily one of the best games ever made.

This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by the author.
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