There are those games that ruin your life, but you love them for doing it.
It was a beautiful September. I was awarded a writing residency in Montauk, NY for the entire month. There were no work obligations, no complaining wife. There were no distractions, nothing to disturb me from writing my masterpiece, a post-apocalyptic play set in NYC. I was grateful for the opportunity, but also nervous that given all that freedom, I wouldn't write a goddamned thing.
Enter Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (SMAC), the nerdy cousin of the Civilization (Civ) family of titles. It was the only game I let myself take with me to Montauk, ostensibly because its science fiction setting could be lumped in with watching Mad Max films as "research." In truth, I couldn't imagine living a month without games, but I should have brought Pong. Alpha Centauri was just too good of a game.
One of the victory conditions in every Civilization title is to send a colonizing space expedition to our closest star system, Alpha Centauri. I always wanted to know what happened when they got there, and apparently Brian Reynolds did, too. He took the lead design job on Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. Reynolds's name is under Meier's on the splash screen but, hey, Sid is a legend. Alpha Centauri is built on the principles of Civilization, but elements are slightly tweaked or have different names. The player still founds cities, but they are now called bases. City improvements are facilities; Great Wonders are Secret Projects. You still want to discover as much territory as you can, research technology and conquer your neighbors.
But this is not Civilization. In territory normally relegated to RPGs, Alpha Centauri tells the player a story as compelling as any sci-fi movie. The spaceship - ironically called the Unity - carrying the expedition is damaged and its captain is murdered by an unknown assailant. The crew, instead of uniting, splits into seven factions and they each make their way to the planet's surface in seven remaining escape pods.
The player assumes the role of one of these factions on the new planet (imaginatively called Planet), each led by an intriguing character. Playing as a faction means more than having your units be different colors. Each faction gives the player certain bonuses and penalties, such as Commissioner Pravin Lal's inefficient bureaucracy and Sister Miriam Godwinson's +25% bonus to attack due to the strength of her followers' convictions.
On day three of my residency, I fired up the game to allegedly help me overcome a bit of writer's block. I chose to play as the Nautilus Pirates (one of the expansion factions), set the difficulty to Talent, and watched the opening movie clip. The next time I looked up, the sun had risen and 14 hours of my life were gone. Alcoholics have it easy; this game is downright poison.