ALPHA CENTAURI and Minimalist Storytelling

Civilization is the one gaming franchise that’s stayed with me my whole life, and I’ve been playing Sid Meier’s nationalist world-domination simulator since literally before I could talk. The sight of Civ 1 on my Dad’s Amiga is one of my earliest memories, I learned a substantial amount of English from Civ II and then one day at the school boot fair I stumbled across a game with Sid’s name on it promising adventure and conquest beyond the stars. Alpha Centauri turned out to be the best game I’d ever played at that point, over the next few years devouring huge amounts of my copious spare time. It also scared the shit out of me, because Alpha Centauri isn’t just a great grand strategy game, but also a masterpiece of minimalist horror.


The face of terror in 1999

The traditional ending to Civilization involves the victorious player launching a colony ship to Alpha Centauri, and after founding Firaxis but before re-acquiring the rights to the series Brian Reynolds and Sid Meier decided it would be the perfect basis for their next game. The set-up is that after the colony ship’s captain is mysteriously murdered the colonists split into seven factions and set off for the new world separately. These factions are: Morgan Industries, run by the CEO who financed the ship, the hippy faction Gaia’s Stepdaughters, the Human Hive, who are essentially cyberpunk Maoist China, the University of Planet, which is what you’d get if Philip Zimbardo took up politics, the Spartan Federation, who are exactly what they sound like, the Lord’s Believers, a spin-off of the Republican Party, and the Peacekeepers, who are boring.

Picking a faction, the player then tries to wrest control of the future of mankind (Earth collapsed not long after launch) from the other factions as they build a new civilisation, but find themselves having to deal with a new threat from the seemingly living planet itself. The game’s vision of the future is one of its greatest assets. Despite almost never leaving the 4X1 genre’s eye in the sky viewpoint, Alpha Centauri conjures a huge, deep and terrifying vision of the future in which humanity is under constant siege from armies of psychic, brain-devouring worms that burrow through your eyes, and where the power-hungry leaders of the world will exploit every amazing technological advance to further horrifically subjugate their citizens and mould them to their will.

The game has several main methods for constructing this world. The most effective is through the player’s technological advances, which are displayed to the player like this:


This window tells you everything you need to know immediately. The tech’s name is perfectly self-explanatory, and together with the simple diagram below tells you exactly what it means conceptually. The (well voice acted) quote at the bottom then places it within the context of the world, here implying the terrifying invasion of unwilling people’s minds that will be built upon later by subsequent technologies. The game’s clarity, which is the crux of all minimalism, is its main strength. It implies everything it needs to in the fewest possible words and leaves no room for misinterpretation.

The same applies to secret projects, which are special buildings that can be constructed only once by one player. For each you get an impressionistic video, most of which are cut together from the experimental documentary Baraka, that explains what you’ve built while one of the faction leaders monologues over it.

The faction leader quotes in both of these are where most of the character development takes place. The direct interactions the player has with them are fairly limited and tend to paint them as one dimensional (Morgan likes money, Yang is Space Mao, Miriam2 thumps her Bible), but it’s here where we really get to know them by their perspectives on the world and its technology. Yang’s unbelievably creepy cultish brainwashing of his subjects, Zakharov’s wild disregard for scientific ethics and Miriam’s rampant hypocrisy come through in full force, and the future feels like more and more of a moral void as the game continues.

Periodically the game also presents text interludes triggered by certain technologies or the player’s interactions with the mind worms native to the planet. These take the form of short story segments about the player (as their faction’s leader) either interacting with their underlings or having psychic conversations with the planet’s fungal hive mind, as they slowly discover its existence and try to find ways to communicate and co-operate with it. This makes up the game’s overarching story leading to the technological victory condition, in which the player and planet psychically merge into a singular entity. Within the Civilization series this is unique, as the other games already exist within historical context, but as Alpha Centauri has to create its own it works well for making the world feel like its own entity that exists outside the player’s control.

These are the only times the player is given a different POV from their usual one, describing the world in specific detail, but both their scarcity and the sparseness of the prose prevents them from conflicting with the mental image the player has already built up of the world. They do have a tendency to trigger out of order however, leaving the player meeting planet’s hive mind for the first time despite already having chatted with it.

The idea of an open, shifting world often seems antithetical to a structured narrative in gaming (games like Skyrim keep the world static regardless of what happens plot-wise), but the secret is to tell it more through implication than explicit text. This lets the player view their experience through the lens of what plot they are shown rather than having that plot dictate the world. Dwarf Fortress takes this even further, having the barest minimum of plot existing on the margins looking more than flavour text than story, but it equally serves to frame the player’s experience.

The secret of video game worldbuilding is to make the player feel like the world exists outside of them, instead of it only being there for their interactions. Alpha Centauri does a great job of making the player feel they are caught up in a story greater than them, so they feel they have to follow it and are still part of it regardless of how they act. Nothing they do ever feels antithetical to the story, whether they try to make good with the planet, melt the polar ice caps and flood the world or single-mindedly destroy all their neighbours. It’s one of the most effective ways to make your game stay with people, as presenting them with a lively world and a story they act out will stay with them forever. I’ve been playing Alpha Centauri for fifteen years now, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.



1eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate

2Fuck you, Miriam!