Deep back in the mists of time (or “1999”, as it is sometimes referred to), I got into the PC game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. This was my main introduction to games along the lines of Civilization, and in some respects it still stands above other games in the franchise. (I have yet to try Civ V and Beyond Earth.) I’ve also spent time playing the SMAC mod for Civ IV, Planetfall.
I think the main reason for this is that the world and the characters got fleshed out rather a lot more than in other games in the franchise (or even the genre, to be honest). Civ rather relies on your knowledge of the leaders that you play as (Queen Elizabeth I, Bismarck, Genghis Khan and so on), and of various Wonders (You built the Pyramids!). In SMAC, you have to learn the personalities of the leaders, and what each technology, facility, and Secret Project means to the world.
The world was fleshed out further in a series of stories written by Michael Ely, who worked on the game, casting the faction leaders and directing the Secret Project movies (one of which is above).
The first story was released in episodic form on the official website, in the build-up to the release of the game (behind the times, I finished reading it last week). Interestingly, one of the major characters had a different name through most of the story, before it was corrected towards the end. Journey To Centauri (and the free buildup-to-the expansion story Centauri: Arrival) can be found at alphacentauri2.info.
The novels themselves can be tricky to track down: I got lucky and found the first two books second-hand for less than $5 each.
The third book is much harder to track down, when it’s on Thriftbooks it tends to be over $50 (for a paperback?), and even second-hand on Amazon, sometimes it’s over $50, most of the time it’s over $30. I picked it up when it was $13.62 (plus the shipping), which comparatively is a bargain, but I must confess I’m not fond of paying that much for a new book, so I have a slight twitch about that.
So as a kind of celebration of starting reading Book 3, I thought I’d post my thoughts about Book 1 (which may end up being shorter than all the buildup to it).
Centauri Dawn, by Michael Ely
Overall, I enjoyed the story. It was nice having the world fleshed out somewhat – in the game, we do hear from characters other than the faction leaders, but in the book we meet quite a few other inhabitants of the human settlements (mainly Peacekeeper and Spartan, as the book focuses on those two – the other factions come in later books).
There was also satisfaction in recognising nods to research discoveries, base facilities and so on from the game. It was interesting that though the Spartans are a focus of the book, and the game makes a passing reference to an early attack on the Spartans by mindworms, that that event also gets only a passing reference in hindsight in the book.
Also a source of interest is significant things that weren’t in the game. Alpha Centauri was before the Civ games (that I know of, at least) where each nation gets unique buildings and units, and so AC doesn’t have that kind of differentiation, either. It does in other ways, but not that way. So Santiago’s elite soldiers, the Myrmidons, are quite significant in the book, but not in the game. Were the game that little bit more recent, one suspects that would be different.
My favourite insider reference is towards the end of the book, and it’s good enough that I don’t want to spoil you of anything, where a certain thing happens, and I got “I recognise that setting!” Not a technology, unit type, base enhancement, secret project or anything like that, just one of the setup options from when you set up the game. And it gives extra flexibility for the other novels in the series.
I had fun. Thumbs up on this one. I thought it was a good story in its own right, you don’t have to have played the game to follow it. Though as a fan of the game, if you like playing computer games, I think it’s one worth checking out.