Every Saturday, Richard Cobbett digs into the story and writing of games - some old, some new...
I never thought I'd miss Sister Miriam, but it only took until my second rival made planetfall in Beyond Earth to start remembering her fondly. If you never played Alpha Centauri... well, firstly, please rectify this situation at once... she's the faction leader everyone loved to hate, without the inherent awkwardness of classic Civilisation jokes about Gandhi getting the Bomb and so on. She heads up the religious faction in the game, the Believers, though that's honestly not why she's hated. It's that she's very strong in the early game, that her faction tends to be aggressive and problematic, that the only reason she'll ever have your back is to stab it, and last but not least, because she has a really punchable face. Her scowl says it all; eyes narrow, contemptuous, looking you in the eye only because she wants you to know the extent of her scorn.
How I wish Beyond Earth had half the personality of that one simple bitmap.
In a way, I feel bad about making the comparison, because Beyond Earth's team has always been clear that they were making Civ In Space rather than Alpha Centauri 2. It was also going to be nigh-impossible to recapture that lightning in a bottle without simply rehashing what came before. As is often the case, a modern game picking up where an older one left off doesn't simply have to compete with the original, but potentially decades of carefully pruned and polished memories. In Alpha Centauri's case for instance, it's easy to forget that the dialogue was largely done in Mad Lib style - endless conversations along the lines of "Greetings from the [WHO HECK US], honored [PERSON], I hope you are [APPROPRIATE THING TO SAY]!" Any memories of real diplomatic cut-and-thrust are entirely invented or very rose-tinted.
But damn, if it didn't do a great job at creating the illusion.
Alpha Centauri is hands down my favourite 4X game of all time, and it's almost entirely down to its characters and story. The idea to split humanity on ideological rather than national boundaries was a great one, but it's what happened next that marks AC's true genius - the human faces put onto them to make them more than simply a philosophy, mixed with a game that made you feel you were seeing the expression of it.
Regardless of the numbers and what specific tactics the AI was using, fighting the Hive felt different to fighting the Gaians; the accumulated weight of the Morganite philosophies and their financial empire making allying with them a very different matter to, say, Chairman Yang, who would turtle up in his bases. It was a personal experience, helped by a thousand tiny little touches like the insults the faction leaders would sling at each other ("Lady Deidre dancing naked through the trees" and so on) that made it feel like they were engaged in the struggle instead of simply controlling their part, and the beautifully written slivers of philosophy that sat effortlessly next to words taken from some of the greatest minds in history.
Beyond Earth, its defenders say, goes to similar lengths. If you look in the Civpedia, you can find reams of background information on the difference between Franco-Iberia and Brazilia, information on the techs and wonders, where CEO Suzanne Fielding went to school, all of that. And that's true, in much the same way that the plans for the bypass due to knock down Arthur Dent's house were technically on display for him to see. The difference is that these never really feel part of the game. Even after several games, I don't feel any innate sense of how the Slavic Federation rolls vs. the Pan-Asian Co-operative or whatever, nor that the developers even care that much beyond what was needed for balancing. By that, I'm not calling laziness, but rather pointing to the fact that the sweep of the game is about everyone losing interest in all that stuff anyway in favour of the Harmony, Purity and Supremacy affinities that they all inevitably end up subscribing to.
A simpler way to put it is that Alpha Centauri has story, Beyond Earth has lore. The two are often confused, but serve very different purposes. Lore is background. Lore is additional information. All too often, lore is an excuse, seen in many a bullshit argument like "But elves are nymphomaniac nudists in the lore!" Story is a core part of the experience, and in Alpha Centauri more than any other 4X game ever made. There's the obvious stuff with the faction leaders and big text infodumps at regular intervals, but there's also a lot of other important stuff going on that's less front-of-house - not least the constant reinforcement of just how awful everything on the planet actually is. What starts as a mission of hope breaks up before it's even really begun, and it's not long after that that you're nerve-stapling citizens and fighting wars where the losing immortal is thrown screaming into a pain booth. Alpha Centauri's Planet is a terrible, terrible place where the best of intentions go to die.
But here's the thing. It's your terrible, terrible place. Chances are that at least initially you'll take a faction that you feel comfortable with, that chimes at least somewhat with your moral compass or beliefs and set out to make Planet a better place (This is admittedly much less the case in the gimmicker add-on Alien Crossfire). By the time you realise just how bad things really are, it's too late. Dipping into the lore, it's even worse than it may seem - at one point Lady Deidre of the Gaians manages to impress another faction by greeting them without her protective mask on, the mindworms cripple their victims with fear and give them one of the most horrible deaths this side of the Sarlaac pit, and the entire plot is rooted in extinction. But all of that is just trimming on a game that sells the effect with just what we see and what's implied.
The core difference between the two games though is that Beyond Earth is a game about humanity settling a new world, while Alpha Centauri was about humans doing so. That's a bigger difference than it might initially seem, though one that shows itself again and again in execution details - in quests that honestly believe that a boost to production is the most important part of your choice, or in your first glimpse of your rival factions coming in the form of stock dialogue that sounds like it was written by a robot. "I'm sorry, but we haven't known one another for long enough for me to feel comfortable doing so. Perhaps we can revisit this subject in the future." Sigh. Boring!
This is all very Civilisation in style, of course. But in Civilisation, you don't go in cold. There are expectations of the characters and nations, fair or otherwise, there's... well... there's history. In Beyond Earth, the artifice is gone. These people are simply statistics with a face, every stone left unturned to make them more. It comes from a design school that has stripped away personality with pretty much every sequel, from the first Civilisation where you got to see your cities and build a throne room, to the current one which is far more concerned with warfare and the numbers of production. Alpha Centauri meanwhile picked up where its creator Brian Reynolds left off with Colonisation, where the King was an active player and your direct relationship with home was a fundamental part of the experience - from initial settlement to finally declaring independence and having to hold the land that you'd taken.
For me though, the wider scope doesn't lead to a more interesting or even more freeform game. Technically, sure, you can argue it does. The Harmony/Supremacy/Purity split is a decent attempt at covering both philosophy and strategic considerations, and for the game, it makes sense. Clarity is important. On a narrative level though, I can never fight the feeling that I'm less forging a path for my society as quietly signing it up to a space-cult. If your vision of the future doesn't conform to one of them, complete with what goes with it, you're left picking on either purely pragmatic reasons, killing the philosophy, or forced into the least personally objectionable. Alpha Centauri meanwhile only provided one real path (multiple victories, yes, but that's not the same thing), but a better illusion. It's like dealing with a magician holding a pack of cards. You're always going to get the Ace of Spades, or close enough. What matters is that you think you chose it.
I'm certainly not saying Beyond Earth is a bad game here, just not what I was hoping for. It's a solid strategy game about conquering a new world. It's just not the story of the next big jump for humanity, not really, and while most of the other bits that people don't like at the moment can be bulked up or patched with expansions it seems unlikely that any money or attention will go on that side of things, or into future revisions of the concept. It's not that only Brian Reynolds could create something like Alpha Centauri, but that he increasingly feels like the only person who's been high up on the Civ chain of command who appreciates what stepping away from the numbers can do - AC being less a designer's new take on Civilisation as a Civilisation designer exploring philosophy through its lens. Next time, it would be good to see the skill and processing that goes into the mechanical side take a few cues from that, and show us just how much more a world can be than the sum of its strategies.