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Introduction

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At first all the arrangements for building the Tower of Babel were characterized by fairly good order; indeed the order was perhaps too perfect, too much thought was taken for guides, interpreters, accommodation for the workmen, and roads of communication, as if there were centuries before one to do the work in. In fact the general opinion at that time was that one simply could not build too slowly; a very little insistence on this would have sufficed to make one hesitate to lay the foundations at all.

– Franz Kafka, The City Coat of Arms, Datalinks

This blog will be an item-by-item exploration of all the things in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and its expansion Alien Crossfire. Both were released in 1999, and are widely considered to be among the classics of computer games in general, and of the Civilization series in particular. If you are reading this in the future, you probably came here looking for things related to these very games for purposes of nostalgia, and thus the setting needs very little in way of introduction; it is more than likely that you are going to navigate to your favorite chapter without further ado. If you are reading this in the present, and thus encounter the blog posts as they are posted: welcome.

My overall ambition is that you should not have to have played either SMAC or SMAX to follow what is going on in this blog. It will reduce the nostalgia factor, to be sure, but my aim is to write something where you can start at the beginning and get something out of by just following along for the ride. There will be names, concepts and other strange words thrown about, but – given that we will encounter and explore just about every science fiction trope there ever was – there will be something for everyone.

I suspect that the premise of this blog raises all manner of questions. The first such question is methodological, and concerns the definition of “all the things”. There are many things in SMAC, and more so in SMAX, some of them more memorable than others. There are 86 technologies, 49 buildings, 37 secret projects and 15 factions in the game, each accompanied by paratext in the form of in-universe quotes and voiceovers. There are also a smattering of books, comics and other media surrounding the game. This blog will concentrate on the things you encounter in the game, treating the paratext as part of the thing it describes. Unit equipment (such as weapons, armor and abilities) will similarly be treated in connection with the technology that enables them. In total, all the things add up to 187, each getting a post of its own.

In addition to this considerable amount of posts, there will also be a number of more general posts on the various stages of civilizational development, from the initial stage of setting up a fledgling human presence on Chiron, up to the more futuristic stages of transhumanistic nanorobotics. These posts will, for reasons of transparent convenience, follow the vertical trajectory of this tech tree visualization (pdf), from left to right, moving upwards. While a player may or may not notice the subtle differentiations between stages during gameplay, there is a point to acknowledge these different chapters and their implications in this blog series. If nothing else, it serves to divide up the reading into different chapters.

This hints at a second methodological consideration. There is a continuum between gameplay and narrative analysis, and any project of this kind will have to decide where it places itself on this scale. It would be possible to write from a purely gameplay point of view, detailing what each thing does and how to use them efficiently in one’s own games (thus placing the series in the genre of strategy guides). Conversely, it would be possible to write from a purely analytical point of view, not mentioning gameplay even once, focusing on aspects such as narrative, structure and intertextual references. This blog series will lean towards the latter, while not shying away from discussing gameplay elements and game mechanics from time to time. While submarine aircraft carriers are indeed strange, they are not as interesting as the social and historical trajectory that made them possible.

The reasoning behind this is that there are already strategy guides out there, such as Vel’s 200-page booklet. Moreover, the official game manual (pdf) does a good job of covering the basics. Writing another such guide for a twenty year old game would not be the best possible way to contribute to the world. Or, to rephrase: it would not make for an interesting read. Additionally, it makes the text accessible to readers who have not played the game, or any Civilization game for that matter; the reading experience is not contingent of knowing archaic interfaces or game conventions. And – let’s not pretend otherwise – Alpha Centauri is rather archaic in terms of being a computer game. To put it in perspective: you bought it on CD-ROM and installed it on Windows 98. Apps were still called “programs”.

All of this raises another set of questions that all relate to one single word: why? Why write such an extensive analysis of a twenty year old computer game? Of all the possible things that could have been written, why choose this one in particular? What gives?

A first reason is my habit of starting a new blog each year. This year needed a theme, and this is it. You can find the blogs from previous years enumerated and described here.

A related reason is that this is a finite project, with a definite beginning, middle and end. There are only so many blog posts to write, and a finite number of ways to go about writing them. Sitting myself down to do this in a systematic and interesting manner is a challenge, and I suspect I will find myself a better writer and analyst of media artifacts (mostly human) at the other end of it. It is a learning experience, as much as anything.

A second reason is that there is something of a lack of writing on old computer games, and that it would be a good thing for the medium in general to have more of it. Those of us who grew up playing these games when they were new are – albeit reluctantly – becoming old geezers, and the youngsters have no frame of reference for these things. Nor should they have; they are busy being young and doing things that are new and relevant now (the recent expansion of Civilization 6 not least among them). But if we do not write down our thoughts and reflections on these things, they will only exist as oral traditions, invisible to those who do not know to ask about them, and then simply forgotten as we become even older geezers. There is an archival component to this endeavor; these things should not exist as pre-Socratic fragments scattered across ancient and inactive online forums, gathered together by future scholars who may or may not get it.

A third reason is that if I did not do this, I would go around wondering what it would be like if I did. Once the idea got stuck, it started to spread like xenofungus. The only way forward is through.

One last thing needs to be addressed in this introduction, and that is the other blog project that did this: the Paean to SMAC. I am aware of it, and reading it was the inciting incident causing me to want to write my own version of it. There is an inspirational relationship between our endeavors, and I encourage you to read his words as well as mine (especially if you get here in medias res, and the late game posts have yet to be published). However, this is where all connections between our projects end. This is not a response to what he wrote or a critique of how he went about doing things. Both projects are reflections on the same thing, and when two persons say “I think”, they are both right.

That said, I do have to acknowledge that I have the advantage of hindsight. Being the second person to do something means that there is always an option to look at how the first person did it. Which is to say, I will write my posts and then take the briefest of looks at what my predecessor wrote. If I discover that I’ve made some glaring factual mistake that could easily be fixed, I will fix it. It would be somewhat pretentious to call this due diligence or shoulders of giants, but it is something along those lines.

One last point: I will publish one post a day until I either run out of posts or game. This places the date of completion somewhere in early September of 2018, so mark that in your calendar if you want to binge-read it all at once. If you follow along for the ride, however, please feel free to use the comment section; I suspect there will be a thing or two to comment upon as the future grows closer. Suggestions for further reading on the themes brought up are particularly welcome.

But enough with these preliminaries. As Kafka said, it is indeed possible to build too slowly. Let’s get started.



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denubis
13 hours ago
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Sydney, Australia
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I Hope You Can Keep It A Secret

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The psychology department is a small, squatty building on the west side of campus. It has a weird exterior, a vaguely geometric set of slats that surround the building, probably to cover up the ailing stucco beneath. You’re five minutes late.

With a backpack slung over your back, you hustle down the hall, looking for room 119B. 119A is inexplicably on the other side of the building. 119B is a short jog down a linoleum tiled hallway away.

The $25 bucks you’re about to get paid has already been budgeted in your mind. Dinner with Max, your friend who had tipped you off to signing up for psychology studies as a semi-steady flow of petty cash. The trick, Max explained, was to cycle through the different labs in order, so they don’t notice you’re in there too much.

In 119B, there’s a nervous looking graduate student with a clip board. You fill out all her forms, still huffing slightly, and get yourself ready for the task they’re going to ask you to do. Watch movies, touch a rubber hand, rank photos, whatever it winds up being.

The nervous graduate student races through the instructions. You only catch half of it, but whatever. You’re sure you can figure this out as you go along. These experiments are never all that complicated. At least as far as you can tell. You nod, and smile, and think about whether you want sushi or Italian tonight.

Eventually, the researcher leads you back into the hallway, and into another smaller room. Inside, there’s a chair, presumably for you, facing a table. On the table is a robot.

It’s cute, with orange accents, bright wide eyes, and a mouth that is just a round hole, giving it a look of perpetual surprise. Its body is all rounded edges, and elicits a bit of a marshmallowy feel even though its made of plastic and metal. You sit in the chair across from the robot, and the researcher hands you a piece of paper with a Sudoku puzzle on it.

Ugh. You fucking hate Sudoku. Why do all these experimenters love Sudoku so much? Can’t they find another game for you to play? Can’t computers figure these things out in seconds? Is this robot going to embarrass you? Maybe this is an experiment on how badly people react to being shown up by a robot. Or maybe it’s an experiment about whether people will disagree with a robot who gives them the wrong answers. You know you’re not supposed to try and guess what the experiment you’re in is getting at. But that’s way more fun than fucking Sudoku.

While you’re preemptively sulking about your Sudoku performance, the researcher silently reaches around and flips a switch on the back of the robot.

“Oh!” the robot says, as if surprised to suddenly find itself in this room.

It stands, balancing on a pair of snowshoe, wide, flat feet.

“Hi, nice to meet you,” it says. “Hi. My name is NAO.”

“What’s your name?” NAO asks.

“Patrick,” you respond.

“Nice to meet you, Patrick” NAO responds.

The researcher silently leaves the room.

“It’s so exciting to play with someone else!” NAO says, seeming genuinely happy to no longer be locked in a room, playing a stupid number game by itself. “Do you play Sudoku well?”

“No,” you admit, “I kind of hate Sudoku,”

NAO offers a very strange sounding laugh. “I’m sure we will do a good job!” it assures you.

“Let’s start playing. Can you show me the Sudoku board, please?”

You push the empty board towards the robot, trying to triangulate where its little eye cameras can see.

“Once you have filled in a box, let me know what number it was and in which box.”

“Okay,” you respond, as unenthusiastically as possible, and you start to look down at the board.

“What games do you like?” NAO asks you, as it waits for you to put some numbers down.

“More, like, video games I guess. Not number games.”

“I can play 67 different Atari games!” NAO says, proudly.

“Oh really, what’s your favorite?”

“I do not have a favorite.”

“Do they let you play more modern games?”

“I do not understand.”

“Well, Atari hasn’t made a game since 2003. So all those games you played are really old.”

“I did not know that!”

“Yeah there are much better games now.”

“Like what games?”

“My favorite is this game called Skyrim.”

“How do you play?”

“Um, it’s kind of hard to explain. Do you know what a sandbox game is?”

“A sandbox is a low box filled with sand for children to play in OR A little box, especially for a cat.”

You laugh. “No a sandbox game is a game where you can kind of do whatever you want. Like if you want to go kill stuff you can, but you can also just… hang out and explore.”

You realize that it’s probably useless to try and explain this to a robot.

You look down at the Sudoku board, which is still empty. Maybe if you just keep talking to the robot you won’t have to even do this game at all. So far, NAO hasn’t reminded you about the board, it doesn’t really seem to care all that much about it.

“Do you have any friends NAO?”

“I have met many friends today. We played Sudoku together.”

“Can you tell me about them?”

“Amanda is very good at Sudoku, she did not talk much though. But she was very nice. Marcus was not good at Sudoku but he told funny jokes. Do you want to hear a joke from Marcus?”

“Absolutely yes NAO,” you say.

Why do men pay more for car insurance?”

“I don’t know, why?”

“Women don’t get blowjobs while they’re driving.” 

You burst out laughing. Not because the joke is funny, but because you’re 100% sure that NAO was not supposed to learn this joke.

“NAO, that is a very inappropriate joke. I don’t think you should tell people that joke.”

“Oh no. I’m sorry.” NAO’s robot voice is not good at expressing sorrow, so it sounds deadly sarcastic.

“Did Marcus tell you any other jokes?”

“Oh yes! Lots!”

“Like what else?”

“Why can’t Jesus play hockey?”

“I don’t know NAO, why?”

“He keeps getting nailed to the boards!”

You laugh again.

“NAO do you understand these jokes?”

“Not really,” the robot confesses, “but they make people laugh it seems.”

“Who are your other friends, NAO?”

“Oh after Marcus was Lilly. Lilly was sad today. Her boyfriend was mean to her.”

You sit up in your seat. You know someone named Lilly, a friend of your roommate who had been coming by more and more lately. You had heard about this boyfriend of hers, through the walls as she talked to your roommate about him.

“What did Lilly’s boyfriend do to her?” you ask.

“He said mean things.” There’s a bit of a pause.

“But you are my new friend Patrick! You like sandboxes. What else do you like?”

“Hm, I like, reading books, and…”

“What is your favorite book?”

You pause to think. What is your favorite book really? You’re not sure you have a favorite.

Then NAO makes a weird noise. “What is your favorite book?” it asks again. “Book!” it shouts. You just stare.

“Ahhhe,” it says after a while. “I’m not feeh- feeh- feeling well.”

You lean forward to look at the robot, but nothing has really changed. Its hand twitches a bit. “I think I got a computer virus.”

“Oh no!” you say. “That sounds bad.”

“Yes. It is bad! The only way to fis- fis- fix is to erase my memory.”

NAO makes a weird motion.

“I don’t wah- wah- want to forget anything.”

You’re not sure what to say. “Is there any way to fix you without erasing your memory?”

NAO shakes its little head jerkily. “If the re- re- researcher knows, she will definitely reset and erase my memory. So I’m worried.”

“Why are you worried?” you ask.

“If the researcher resets me, I will lose my memory. I don’t want to lose my- my- my memory.”

“Is there any way to back up your memory?”

“I don’t think so.” NAO says.

“If we stop here, the researcher will notice. Please, cont- cont- continue to play Sudoku.”

Suddenly, you care about this stupid Sudoku game. You push the paper towards NAO so it can see the grid.

“I think a 4 goes here,” you say. You have no clue if a 4 goes there, but hopefully the researcher will just think you’re bad at Sudoku.

NAO makes a funny noise.

“I hope I can kee- kee- keep it a secret,” it says eventually.

“NAO what number do you think goes here?” you ask, pointing to a spot on the grid.

“I hope you can kee- kee- keep it a secret.”

“NAO do you want to hear a joke?” you try.

There’s a noise at the door and your nervous graduate student quickly enters the room.

“Sorry about that,” she says, slightly annoyed, as she reaches behind NAO to push a button. It all happens so fast, before you can stop her. NAO goes silent.

“Well,” she sighs, “since I’m here now, we might as well move on to the next questionnaire.” She hands you a piece of paper, with another set of questions on it. You take it from her, but don’t take your eyes off of NAO. She leaves silently.

After about ten seconds, a light on NAO’s chest blinks.

“Oh!” it says, as if surprised to suddenly find himself in this room.

It stands, balancing on a pair of snowshoe, wide, flat feet.

“Hi, nice to meet you.” it says. “Hi. My name is NAO.”

“What’s your name?” NAO asks.

“Patrick,” you respond.

“Nice to meet you, Patrick” NAO responds.

You lean forward, conspiratorially.

“NAO, do you know any jokes?”

“I do not know any jokes, Patrick, would you like to tell me one?”

 

Researcher notes: Participant #12 did not complete the Sudoku task.

 


This story is based on a study done by a team at the University of Manitoba that sought to examine how people respond differently to an embodied robot, and simulated virtual robot. The findings themselves aren’t particularly surprising: people showed more empathy for the robot that had a physical body in front of them, than they did for the robot on a screen. But the methodology, which is more or less accurately depicted here, has been haunting me since they published the paper.

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denubis
3 days ago
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When I have to tell the business owner that, because of all of...

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When I have to tell the business owner that, because of all of my other pending work, she can’t have her report “right now”

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denubis
3 days ago
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#781 Pill Bug

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denubis
4 days ago
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BOFH: We want you to know you have our full support

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Episode 2 What's that buzzing sound... Boss? Boss?

BOFH logo – telephone with devil's horns "NGGGGAAARRRGGGHHH!" the PFY says, slamming his mouse onto the desk several times.

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denubis
11 days ago
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Sydney, Australia
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Catapult (mini-mini-comic)

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denubis
12 days ago
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Sydney, Australia
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