Sid Meier has spoken about how a player’s imagination can generate a better story than any designer can. Judging from the popularity of Civilization and his many other storyless or historical games (Pirates, Colonization, Railroads, Covert Action, etc.) it’s clear he really lives by this belief, as well.
But he’s made at least one game that’s very different: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.
On the face of it, Alpha Centauri – which was released between Civilization 2 and 3 – is basically Civilization on an alien planet. You have the same familiar routines of setting up bases, researching technologies, producing units, and negotiating with other factions; sure, there are some new names (Frictionless Surfaces, Monopole Magnets) but anyone who’d played Civilization before would have no problem learning Alpha Centauri’s quirks.
The story, though – that’s another matter. At the beginning of the game, you learn that the United Nations has sent a colonization ship to Chiron, a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri; when it arrives, an accident severs communication with Earth, the captain is assassinated, and various factions form to take control of the escape pods. Each of the seven factions has a distinct ideology and goal, and they each land on Chiron with single colony pod to restart civilization – but from a much higher tech level.
Arguably, all of this is just the setting for the game, and you could choose to ignore it, in the same way that you could be completely ignorant of world history and still enjoy playing Civilization. However, the personalities of the faction leaders and the way in which they influence the game feels much stronger than in Civilization – for example, not only is Deirdre Skye, the leader of the Gaians, an avowed environmentalist, but she also has access to units that exploit the environment of Chiron – she’s not just a normal Civilization with -2 pollution.
Beyond that, the player has dreams during the game about the alien life on Chiron, their collective intelligence, how they must avoid disaster, etc. etc.; and beyond that, Firaxis released a novel-length series of stories detailing events leading up to the game, along with a trilogy of novels. For a company that relies on players’ imaginations, Firaxis was very keen to show off their own.
I’m glad they did, because Alpha Centauri’s story added a lot to the game and generated vast quantities of fan fiction (including my own horribly derivative space opera, Unavoidable Casualities). The strong personalities and science-fiction setting made it feel like you were embarking on a more exciting and unknown adventure than simply playing through 6000 years of history that’ve already happened, even if you had no idea what any of the technologies actually meant (what does Cyberethics do? Or Photon/Wave Mechanics? Or Matter Compression?).
As a science fiction reader, it was especially pleasing that Brian Reynolds, the lead designer, took inspiration from some real classics of the genre, rather than the typical sub-Star Wars stuff you see today. In the manual, he credits A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear, among others, and while the game doesn’t exactly break new ground in its subject, it mixes hard science concepts with ideas like the technological singularity and politics quite well.
Given the game’s success and the continual clamour of fans for a sequel, one would’ve thought they’d have made ‘Alpha Centauri 2’ in the time they’ve made another three Civilization games. Unfortunately, the rights to the Alpha Centauri belong to Electronic Arts, and Firaxis is now owned by rival publisher Take2, which makes things rather difficult. However, Sid Meier seems optimistic that something could happen, and he remains on good terms with Electronic Arts…