How to Save BE/Why AC works and BE does not
BE could have been wonderful. Sid Meir triumphantly throwing off the shackles of history and returning to space and philosophy. Instead it showed how they learned all the wrong lessons from the success and overall adoration of Alpha Centauri, how they do not understand science fiction, and how much of the greatness of Alpha Centauri came not from Sid Meir but from Brian Reynolds.
In an interview talking about starships Sid Meir said something along the lines of – its science fiction the story doesn’t matter. Like many people I only stopped slamming my head against the wall recently. Even the most tolerant interpretation of this comment is ridiculous. The friendliest interpretation to Sid is that he was trying to say “its science fiction there are no limits to the story you can write”. This conflates science fiction and fantasy. Even the softest science fiction (see star wars) tries to have some logical scientific explanation for its oddities. Yes, writing science fiction is freeing because you can ask “what if” but the best science fiction stories are defined by the limitations they impose on themselves.
The other interpretation “its science fiction the story doesn’t matter just write anything” (which given BE and starships I think may be what he believes) is so ridiculous that it doesn’t even need rebutting.
I have 313 hours in BE – and I cannot name any of the BE leaders and none of them are distinct characters. AC is completely different.
Let’s look at two of the AC factions as examples. Miriam is a complete stereotypical religious fundamentalist. She has all and the only answers and everyone else needs to serve her. That bible thumping grandpa you likely have if you live in the US – turn him up to 11. Instantly interesting and instantly memorable. Especially when BE was published as the US was arguably in the thrall of the Christian Right at the time. Still leaves empty spaces for the player to fill (does she really believe what she spouts or is she just using it for power, what level of Christian charity does she practice) but you have tools to work with.
Similarly Morgan is an extreme American Libertarian Capitalist. Instantly you have a character sketch but details are left for you to fill in. Does he believe in giving to charity on a personal just not governmental level, or is he the worst kind of Gilded Age Robber Baron who would buy the children of poor people as sex slaves? You could find both and every version in between in the stories written on the internet using AC games or characters. I have yet to see a good BE story.
All of the above focuses on story and character, but this is because to me this is where BE fails to capture the spirit of AC the most. It is also what made AC such a revelation and still the best Civ version. A strategy game with RPG level story and characters that actually promoted thought. But BE could also learn from AC’s mechanics. The best part of BE’s gameplay mechanics though, started with story.
As in all Civilization games, government is a major issue. You can be communist, democratic, capitalist, or green. Harkening back to Civ 2 (and somewhat like civ VI) though, rather than just consisting of various bonuses each form comes with its own negatives. Want to be green? Sure the planet will like you more and aliens will attack less, but your growth and industry will be limited. Oh wait you are playing as Morgan – will then you can’t choose green.
Think about that – the faction you choose limits the gameplay choices you can make in game. Playing Didere , who can never be capitalist, vs playing Morgan is almost like playing a completely different game. In the same token, playing Miriam who for the first 100 turns or so generates no science (that’s right zero science) vs. playing Zarakov whose almost entire mission is to amass science is like playing two different games.
Choosing one affinity in BE vs another not only changes nothing narratively it also changes nothing mechanically. They tried with the various bonuses each faction gets but it just didn’t work. Even on the highest difficulty as a harmony player, not only did I not have to make fungus near where I want to invade and then invade with my fungus loving troops it wasn’t really possible to do so. The techs that gave the ability to use satellites gave no affinity or at least not harmony affinity. As well, especially on the higher levels, pursuing techs that do not give affinity is a way to die since ALL of your unit advances are tied to affinity. The wonderful tech web quickly becomes linear again as most paths quickly become nonviable.
Let’s talk more about the affinities. Really, they each only feel like coats of paint. My leader avatar changing as my affinity increases sounded cool but it wasn’t taken nearly far enough. If I go technocracy I am supposedly becoming a computer but never does my leader avatar become really more computer like – just a human in a yellow robe. As I move up, I should be replacing my limbs with computer parts and eventually become a cyborg and then completely bodiless. Represent me as ones and zeros or the 2001 obelisk. I should certainly no longer be human. The same is true for harmony. I should gradually become more alien eventually becoming a bug with a human face and then a full on alien bug. Think the human sandworm in the later Dune novels. ONLY the purity affinity should have stayed recognizably human.
The affinities also should have had drawbacks as well as bonuses. ESPECIALLY when the hybrid affinities become mixed in. Some hybrid affinities make sense. Purity technocracy can be interpreted as incorporating computer parts into human bodies. But even here you go too far down technocracy purity no longer works. Human bodies are limiting, true freedom is in being pure conscious ghost in the shell code. This is how a high technocracy society would function. To continue using the hybrid units your affinities would need somewhat to stay in balance. Get two out of balance and your society is making the choice not to use the other affinities.
The last thing I will discuss is the lack of wonder movies. One of the best story hooks in AC was the quotes for the technologies, given they either came from philosophy greats of humanities’ past or faction leaders. Each quote from a faction leader fitting with the faction leader’s basic character and using that faction leaders voice actor. Even better than this though were the wonder movies. Each movie told a tiny story that fit not only with the faction leader but also helped flesh out the world. Watch the self aware colony video or the mind twister video and tell me these don’t add immeasurably to the sense of the games world.
If I wanted a completely abstracted mathematical strategy game I would play chess, go, or Sudoku. What firaxis increasingly seems to think of as window dressing is really an important part of the game experience.
Lal, Yang, Miriam, Morgan, Santiago, Zakharov, Dierdre; the core faction leaders in Alpha Centauri and names I can rattle off with very little prompting even though it has been years since I have played the game. If you have every played Alpha Centauri, or even heard of it, you can probably do the same and ,more importantly, have some idea of who each of these people are.