ac7.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom is surprised by the narrative in Firaxis' 1999 PC real-time strategy title Alpha Centauri.]

Some observers have been known to cynically note that real-time strategy and turn-based strategy narratives are lacking -- and have been for a while. Blizzard still drops hours of deadly serious cinematic full of sadly unironic bombast in our laps with every RTS, HoMM only recently started including interesting stories in their games, and Red Alert insists on throwing weird FMV and cheesecake at us with every new release.

But for the most part, a story in a strategy game is something that everyone pretends doesn’t exist. It makes it easier to enjoy the game itself if you ignore these laughable cutscenes and strange frame stories.

That’s the kind of story the Civilization series has always had. You’re leader, of some sort (you have the face of a famous person in Civ IV), but why you’re leading and how you’re leading are fairly unimportant as Civilizations’ “story” is concerned. It’s all about expanding, bettering, and guiding your civilization, trying to build that spaceship so you can blast off to Alpha Centauri.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri is quite different from other strategy games, and from the Civilization series, in story (play-wise, it’s mostly Civilization in space with some adjustments). At the game’s opening, your faction’s colony pod crashes on one of Alpha Centauri’s planets. The original colony ship was split apart by disagreements over how to treat this new home, this untouched (by human hands) planet. The factions are familiar space strategy material: the militaristic faction, the traders, the environmentalists, the masters of tech, and so on.

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Different factions led to slightly different play experiences, but not in a way that’s noticeable at first. As always, the factions have different bonuses to certain units and techs, and it’s easier to start playing in a particular way, to focus on one kind of development, until the mid-game. It’s all classic Civilization: the different technologies and developments include description that are narrated by the different faction leaders, and the “Wonders of the World” structures all come with classic FMV and CG cutscenes.

It’s all pretty standard until the mind worms start showing up. It turns out that this particular planet isn’t as uninhabited as the colonists had assumed. These mind worms roam the planet, growing in strength and attacking colonists. It’s at this point in the game that the first narrative interlude appears. It’s quite surprising actually: thanks either to a hidden trigger, or a certain technology being researched, a page full of text blots out your civilization, a page that takes the horizon of your new home as its background.

In it, you (the leader of whatever faction you’ve chosen) and your assistants begin to plumb the depths of the planet’s connection to the mind worms, and to its new human inhabitants. It’s an interesting story, which catalogs the sacrifices and morally ambiguous decisions “you” make as you lead your faction on to understand the nature of your new home.

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As these quick text cutaways appear (over the course of many hours of play), they make several things clear: this new planet is basically a living thing, something that is growing, year by year, to be more and more sentient. The dangerous red fungus that covers the planet acts as a massive biological net, transferring information and processing stimuli. Soon, the planet consciousness contacts you. Its messages (and the ensuing conversations) become increasingly clear, and increasingly worrying: the planet believes that it must enact some kind of great purge, to rid itself of its human invaders. It sees humans as a dangerous threat to itself and all of the life on the planet.

Eventually, your faction leader will come to an agreement with the planet. Instead of destroying all life (including, to a degree, itself) planetside, the planet will cull only the worst of the bunch, those that don’t understand its importance and greater purpose. This, of course, becomes Alpha Centauri’s most peculiar win scenario. Instead of getting a tech victory, or a military victory, players simply have to research a heightened state of consciousness, become subsumed into the planet consciousness, and they’ll have achieved victory.

It’s a surprisingly interesting and fun way of winning the game, and I’m happy that my first playthrough of Alpha Centauri culminated in such a victory. I’ve tried to go back and play the game again, but my heart is not in it. I think that I played the perfect game of Alpha Centauri, and now that I’ve played out that particular narrative, the game is useless to me.

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I played as the leader of the Sisters of Gaia, the environmentalist-minded, planet-friendly faction. Except that’s not quite correct. I played as the leader of the Sisters of Gaia, the faction that starts with better environmentally friendly play bonuses. I also had (after some time passed) an unstoppable military force, a massive economic sector, and incredible production capacity. But none of those things mean anything to me. They’re how I always play these games: I build up slow in the beginning, I make alliances, and then when I’m ready, I slowly begin to swallow my neighbors whole, backed up by my peerless money and unit producing cities.

It’s nothing new, since Alpha Centauri really is Civilization in space. I still hate the combat (which relies on stacking up a heinous amount of units on one square and steamrolling them over all who oppose you), the factions aren’t that different, and I wish there was a city view.

What Alpha Centauri did have was what I (incorrectly) assumed to be a somewhat specific, tailored story. I thought that because I was researching environmentally friendly, low-impact technologies first, I was tripping the “friendly to the planet” switches within the game. I assumed that had I invest heavily in military, or trade, or some other avenue of advancement, that I’d be seeing different story snippets. I was sadly wrong to assume this. No matter how you play or who you play as, you’ll always see those story sections. Even if you never researched a bit of eco-friendly tech, when that one player starts the race to research higher planet-consciousness, everyone can pile on and give it a shot. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never talked to the planet once. Go for it!

I didn’t know this during my first playthrough, and that made all the difference. I thought that through my actions, I was staying true to my faction’s beliefs (something I really didn’t have to do), and my connection and eventual melding with the planet felt like the kind of thing I wanted to do, for me and my faction.

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I don’t normally care about this kind of light frame story, these little devices that people use to involve themselves in a somewhat player-created narrative. I used it here because there was nothing else. In a game with a story so light, the player has to do the heavy lifting when it comes to motivations, behind-the-scenes developments, and character development. Most games like Alpha Centauri don’t give you any tools to work with, but I think it works incredibly well in Alpha Centauri.

It’s also extremely limited. I wish there were other permutations of this story, stories that followed a military-focused leader who ignored the planet’s warnings and tried to eradicate the intelligent fungal network and mind worms, or a trade empire that tried to coexist with the planet’s consciousness, only to succumb to the mind worms. Really, I wish I could have a bit of a story that felt right for my leader. I’ve tried playing as the leader of the Spartans, and the plot just feels wrong. I don’t care about the planet, unless I can use it to further my territorial grabs and industrial production. A set of frame stories, each accounting for a different path, would feel amazing here. It would personalize, just barely, what is mostly an extremely impersonal game.

Of course, I’m trying to use narrative (in the slimmest of its forms) to patch holes left by gameplay. I wish this kind of minimalist, play-reactive plot was there just so it could distract me from the awful sameness of every playthrough of the game. No matter what strategy I try, every game boils down to the same routines and strategies, It’s impossible to win using genuinely different techniques, technologies, and abilities (as one can in a 4X game like Galactic Civilizations 2).

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I love turn based strategy games. I like it when they have little quirks and stories like this, because it makes me feel like I’m not just plunging hours into a pointless, inevitable simulation. It’s how I convince myself that it’s not a waste of time to play such games, when I could be playing a game with a strong story or strong player on player interaction. It’s something that other genres spend a lot of time slaving away over, this limited, malleable narrative. Alpha Protocol’ spy story has its flaws, but in its smallest, least important moments, it almost nonchalantly convinces you that had you done a good many things differently, you’d be hearing, seeing, and doing different things (not that it succeeds wholly).

That might seem like an unfair comparison, but I’m in the mood to be unfair: my playthrough of Alpha Centauri was fun. It felt good, it made me feel (as so many games don’t make me feel) like I was playing an important role in the progression of how my game was going. And all it took was ten or so boxes of text. What would fifty more be?

[Tom Cross is a managing editor at Rules of the Game, writes for Popmatters, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]