Why I Love Alpha Centauri   Leave a comment

“Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden. He drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

The Conclave Bible 

I’ve always enjoyed the video game as a medium for ending the tedium of modern life. There is a lot of crap out there, but every once in awhile you find a game that rises above the level of petty entertainment and becomes a work of art in its own right. 

Alpha Centauri is one example of this. The premise is straight-forward enough; in 2060, mankind launches a ship (U.N.S. Unity) to Alpha Centauri with the hopes of finding a habitable planet for colonization. The Earth the Unity leaves behind is an icy world of dwindling resources — the colonists of the Unity leave behind a planet on the edge of all-out nuclear war. The colonists are put into stasis to awaken when the Unity arrives in Alpha Centauri.

Forty years into the trip, the Unity fusion core malfunctions, causing a premature awakening of the crew to fix the problem. The problem gets solved, but someone takes advantage of the situation to assassinate the Unity’s captain. The ensuing chaos of the situation allows seven people to claim leadership of the people aboard the Unity:

CEO Nwabudike Morgan, an ardent industrialist, believes that mankind’s destiny lies in the pursuit of wealth and unfettered capitalism. 

Colonel Corazon Santiago believes that the only real power is the power that grows out of the barrel of a gun. 

Lady Diedre Skye is the Unity’s chief biologist, and she believes that the native ecology of humanity’s new home must be preserved and protected.

Academician Prokhor Zakharov believes that the true expression of the human condition lies in working to understand how the universe and its components work. 

Sister Miriam Godwinson believes that humanity must conduct itself as true children of God.

Chairman Shenji-Yang believes that the common man cannot be trusted with conducting his own affairs and must be tightly controlled. 

Commissioner Pravin Lal strives to uphold the original mission of the Unity — to secure human rights and prevent the continued disintegration of the last vestige of the human race.

The crew of the Unity invariably casts its lot with whoever among these leaders they happen to agree with. These leaders in turn attempt the monumental task of establishing a human presence on a hostile alien world.

“Our first challenge is to create an entire economic infrastructure, from top to bottom, out of whole cloth. No gradual evolution from previous economic systems is possible, because there IS no previous economic system. Each interdependent piece must be materialized simultaneously and in perfect working order; otherwise the system will crash out before it ever gets off the ground.

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
“The Centauri Monopoly” 

Most of the story of Alpha Centauri is told through quotes. Whenever a building is built, a technological breakthrough occurs, or a Secret Project completed (the equivalent of a Wonder for the Civ players out there), there is a small quote or other expression. Taken as a whole, these quotes trace the framework of the game. Over the course of the game, you start to get a feel for the strengths and deficiencies of each faction (and each faction has VERY different styles of play). 

Your faction begins its existence on Planet (as this new world comes to be known) with a simple city. In the style of most triple-X games (eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate), you have to grow your empire, fend off its enemies, and work on developing the territory you occupy. 

On that last point, humanity catches a break on Planet:

“Planet’s atmosphere, though a gasping death to humans and most animals, is paradise for Earth plants. The high nitrate content of the soil and the rich yellow sunlight bring an abundant harvest wherever adjustments can be made for the unusual soil conditions.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“A Comparative Biology of Planet” 

Sadly, though Planet is a paradise for Earth plants, it is a finite resource. As such, humans will inevitably clash over it and other pointless bullshit.

“Man has killed man from the beginning of time, and each new frontier has brought new ways and new places to die. Why should the future be different?”

Col. Corazon Santiago
“Planet: A Survivalist’s Guide” 

The game is set up such that certain factions are destined to be enemies. Most factions have a significant other whose ideological concerns are contrary to the core of their own. Diedre and Morgan can’t both pursue their goals for planet without violating the sanctity of what the other believes to be the “right” path. For example, it is very hard to find a middle ground between these statements:

“Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.”

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
“The Ethics of Greed” 

“I shall not confront Planet as an enemy, but shall accept its mysteries as gifts to be cherished. Nor shall I crudely seek to peel the layers away like the skin from an onion. Instead I shall gather them together as the tree gathers the breeze. The wind shall blow and I shall bend. The sky shall open and I shall drink my fill.”

Gaian Acolyte’s Prayer 

So, as Santiago pragmatically puts it, “why should the future be different?” Well, Planet has one ace up its sleeve. 

“The Mind Worms are the natural defenses of the living Planet–the white blood cells, if you will. In a world in which unassimilated thought represents danger, the Mind Worm seeks out concentrations of sentient mental energy and destroys them, ruthlessly and efficiently.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“Mind Worm, Mind Worm” 

So herein is the genius of the game. The human factions each behave like nation-states, pursuing their own agendas, waging wars, and pursuing their own diplomatic initiatives, but all of them share an enemy in the form of Planet’s native life, which can easily over-run entire cities if you aren’t careful. 

However, early research into Planet’s ecology reveals something:

“Observe the Razorbeak as it tends so carefully to the fungal blooms; just the right bit from the yellow, then a swatch from the pink. Follow the Glow Mites as they gather and organize the fallen spores. What higher order guides their work? Mark my words: someone or something is managing the ecology of this planet.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Planet Dreams” 

Meanwhile, you’re still playing this game. And you notice your head starts churning around all these ideas which are subtly working their way into your subconscious. Whether it is the stark pragmatism of Yang, the smug confidence of Morgan, or the contemplative tone of Lal, as you play the game you truly get a feel for what these people are all about.

“The righteous need not cower before the drumbeat of human progress. Though the song of yesterday fades into the challenge of tomorrow, God still watches and judges us. Evil lurks in the datalinks as it lurked in the streets of yesteryear. But it was never the streets that were evil.”

Sister Miriam Godwinson
“The Blessed Struggle” 

“Man’s unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“For I Have Tasted The Fruit” 

“Human behavior is economic behavior. The particulars may vary, but competition for limited resources remains a constant. Need as well as greed have followed us to the stars, and the rewards of wealth still await those wise enough to recognize this deep thrumming of our common pulse.”

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
“The Centauri Monopoly” 

“In the great commons at Gaia’s Landing we have a tall and particularly beautiful stand of white pine, planted at the time of the first colonies. It represents our promise to the people, and to Planet itself, never to repeat the tragedy of Earth.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Planet Dreams” 

“As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth’s final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“U.N. Declaration of Rights” 

“Learn to overcome the crass demands of flesh and bone, for they warp the matrix through which we perceive the world. Extend your awareness outward, beyond the self of body, to embrace the self of group and the self of humanity. The goals of the group and the greater race are transcendent, and to embrace them is to achieve enlightenment.”

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Essays on Mind and Matter” 

“Superior training and superior weaponry have, when taken together, a geometric effect on overall military strength. Well-trained, well-equipped troops can stand up to many more times their lesser brethren than linear arithmetic would seem to indicate.”

Spartan Battle Manual 

As the game continues to develop, the mysteries of Planet start to reveal themselves. 

“I believe Planet will talk to us if we are willing to listen. These fungal stalks behave as multistate relays: taken together, the neural net connectivity must be staggering. Can a planet be said to have achieved sentience?”

Lady Deirdre Skye
Arguments in Council 

“The fungus has been Planet’s dominant lifeform since about the time of the Lower Paleozoic on Earth. But when, once every hundred million years or so, the neural net at last achieves the critical mass necessary to become sentient, the final metamorphosis kills off most of the other life on the planet. It is possible that we humans can help to break this tragic cycle.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Planet Dreams” 

So humanity is left fighting itself and the random attacks of Planet’s native life on this hostile alien world. Somehow, over the decades since Planetfall, some factions have been able to carve a civilization out of the wilderness and establish themselves on Planet. But there’s a twist here:

“The prevalence of anoxic environments rich in organic material, combined with the presence of nitrated compounds has led to an astonishing variety of underground organisms which live in the absence of oxygen and “breathe” nitrate. Likewise, the scarcity of carbon in the environment has forced plants to economize on its use. Thus, all our efforts to return carbon to the biosphere will encourage the native life to proliferate.” 

Lady Deirdre Skye
“The Early Years” 

It becomes something of a cosmic joke — the more entrenched humans become on Planet, the more likely Planet’s native life can suddenly overwhelm the colonists and exterminate them. Eventually, the concept of a plan for dealing with Planet’s native life presents itself. 

“Imagine the entire contents of the planetary datalinks, the sum total of human knowledge, blasted into the Planetmind’s fragile neural network with the full power of every reactor on the planet. Thousands of years of civilization compressed into a single searing burst of revelation. That is our last-ditch attempt to win humanity a reprieve from extinction at the hands of an awakening alien god.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“Planet Speaks” 

Once the Planetmind is “enlightened” to the realization that humans are a sentient species and not an explicitly evil threat to Planet, Planet reigns in its mindworm armies and holds off on exterminating humanity. During this interim, the human factions realize that they have an opportunity to imprint their own ideals into the Planetmind, and essentially merge themselves into Planet itself. 

“No longer mere earthbeings and planetbeings are we, but bright children of the stars! And together we shall dance in and out of ten billion years, celebrating the gift of consciousness until the stars themselves grow cold and weary, and our thoughts turn again to the beginning.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Conversations with Planet” 

On a personal level, I can say that there have been few games which have influenced my overall thinking as much as this one. There is a lot of *deep* material concealed in the game, from the societal impacts of government policy to the more philosophical concerns of the new technological developments. 

For example:

“My gift to industry is the genetically engineered worker, or Genejack. Specially designed for labor, the Genejack’s muscles and nerves are ideal for his task, and the cerebral cortex has been atrophied so that he can desire nothing except to perform his duties. Tyranny, you say? How can you tyrannize someone who cannot feel pain?”

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Essays on Mind and Matter” 

How do you argue against this? Sure, there are all kind of moral objections to completely tailoring a person’s genes to suit your desires, but on the same token, if the person involved doesn’t give a shit, who are we to say otherwise?

“In the years since our arrival, we have foolishly disrupted so many of Planet’s ecosystems that entire species may vanish without our ever having understood, or even known them. We must halt this plunder, and halt it immediately, for our own survival as a species depends on our ability to strike a balance on this world.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“Mind Worm, Mind Worm” 

This goes doubly for us, being we don’t even have the ability to travel between the stars like they could. We fuck up this planet, and we sign our own death warrants. 

“We have reached an informational threshold which can only be crossed by harnessing the speed of light directly. The quickest computations require the fastest possible particles moving along the shortest paths. Since the capability now exists to take our information directly from photons traveling molecular distances, the final act of the information revolution will soon be upon us.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“For I Have Tasted The Fruit” 

To me, this is just a very prescient quote. Assuming we last long enough to figure out the important questions between here and there, it seems to me that there would have to come a time at which that barrier HAS to be crossed, allowing the synapses of the human race to “fire” at the fastest speed possible.

So there you have it, my explanation for why I love Alpha Centauri, told through the voices of the game whenever possible. A game which gives you control of a unique faction with real obstacles to overcome. An interesting setting where the stakes are high — fail at your task, and your civilization and the very ideology you expound are wiped from the human experience. A game which broadens the mind and helps explore gray areas of human existence.

If that ain’t art, what is?

Here are some quotes for the road:

“If our society seems more nihilistic than that of previous eras, perhaps this is simply a sign of our maturity as a sentient species. As our collective consciousness expands beyond a crucial point, we are at last ready to accept life’s fundamental truth: that life’s only purpose is life itself.

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Looking God in the Eye” 

“We are all aware that the senses can be deceived, the eyes fooled. But how can we be sure our senses are not being deceived at any particular time, or even all the time? Might I just be a brain in a tank somewhere, tricked all my life into believing in the events of this world by some insane computer? And does my life gain or lose meaning based on my reaction to such solipsism?”

Project PYRRHO, Specimen 46, Vat 7
Activity Recorded M.Y. 2302.22467

“There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn nonetheless for the latter.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“Address to the Faculty” 

“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” 

“Why do you insist that the human genetic code is “sacred” or “taboo”? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter -we- are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself.”

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Looking God in the Eye” 

“I hold a scrap of paper in the darkness and light it. I watch it burn bright and curl, disappearing into nothingness, and the heat burns my fingers. Where has it gone? What has it become? I cannot shake the feeling that I have witnessed a form of transcendence.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“The Convergence”


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