Beyond Earth, Science and Civilization

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Sometimes different people get the same idea at roughly the same time. Culture can align in a way that makes common inspiration feel like a blatant knockoff. One year we get multiple blockbusters about giant asteroids; the next year it’s volcano central at the multiplex. DC and Marvel famously launched their shambling bog beasts Man-Thing and Swamp Thing within a few weeks of each other in 1971. The movie Interstellar is out today, exploring a future where man has to abandon earth after the cataclysm of the McConaissance. It comes two weeks after Civilization: Beyond Earth, a game about humanity skipping earth after an unexplained “Great Mistake” threatened our survival. It’s not hard to imagine yourself as Jessica Chastain and Matthew McConaughey when you play Beyond Earth, and to wonder how these two similar concepts came out so closely to each other.

You might think it’s a coincidence, and you’d be exactly right. That’s all it is. But it’s not a coincidence that Beyond Earth would mine some of the same sci-fi territory as Christopher Nolan’s film. Firaxis’ latest strategy game is deeply indebted to science fiction, much like the traditional Civilization owes its existence to history, philosophy and anthropology. Interstellar wears its love for Solaris and 2001 on the sleeve of its space suit, and Beyond Earth gives a big, ecstatic thumbs up to the sci-fi library, pulling inspiration from both the classic and the contemporary.

“We wanted a good basis for the sci-fi canon,” says Will Miller, one of Beyond Earth’s co-lead designers. “We tried to get a good cross-section of contemporary and not-so-contemporary stuff. A lot of Robert A. Heinlein and Ursula K. Le Guin and Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov, and more contemporary stuff like John Scalzi.”

When Miller and his co-lead designer David McDonough didn’t have their faces buried in a book, they were looking to film and history for the proper context. “We really like cool science fiction films a lot,” Miller says, “like Alien and Prometheus and stuff like that. And David and I are both big fans of the space race, the history of human space flight. One of my favorite books ever is The Right Stuff, and the movie is also awesome.

“We tried to build some of our enthusiasm for these things into the game. It’s pretty broad.”

They weren’t necessarily looking for narrative guidance. The trick was to turn these inspirations into aspects of a computer game, and not just any game but a spinoff of one of the most beloved and obsessed over games ever made. “There are a lot of ideas we got from reading these books and watching these movies that we tried to remake as mechanics in the game,” Miller explains. “The biggest result is probably the affinity system. We were really taken with these ideas of post- and transhumanism, like what we will become a thousand years from now, if we live on a new world. Like how much would we change in terms of our society or our physiology even, and how much would we change the world we live on? The idea that all change is very accelerated, that with technology speeding up our evolution as a species will probably speed up as well, particularly when faced with the problem of adapting to an alien planet.

“We’ve formalized that idea mechanically into the game as the affinity system,” Miller continues. That affinity system features three paths, all defined by how your group of humans interacts with the new alien world you’re settling. You can try to coexist with this extraterrestrial ecology, try to destroy it, or try to subjugate it to your own benefit.

Miller adds that “the wide open nature of humanity’s future is mechanically expressed through the open nature of the tech web, how adaptable and non-linear that is.” The tech web is how you acquire new knowledge and production abilities in Beyond Earth. It’s an interconnected latticework of science and innovation, less straight-forward than the tech tree familiar from the core Civilization games. It’s how you grow from a humble interplanetary envoy to a bustling, future-busting, extraterrestrial empire.

Games are a visual medium, of course, and it takes more than just ideas to fully create an illusion of future living. The visual inspiration for Beyond Earth is as varied as the narrative inspiration, and calls upon some of the same works.

The game’s visual aesthetic “is a good example of where our enthusiasm for film, television and comics, and those sources of sci-fi and futurism, were a big deal,” David McDonough explains. “A lot of ideas [for the affinity system] had similarities to some classic sci-fi, like Avatar, Alien and Predator, and you could see these are strong visual languages that describe a world where an idea is at work. You can root the idea in there, these motifs that the culture of our society already recognizes. You can pull on those threads and start to compose a new identity for the game and see it in pretty much every part of the game.

“From when you first land on the planet the city buildings that you have look like NASA space station parts,” McDonough continues. “They’re very moon base-y, and they get replaced with the more affinity flavored ones as you go along. Like with the town improvements—we don’t have barbed wire, we have laser fences, little nods to this context.

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“The strongest example is the planet itself. The terrain art went through a lot of development to find the sweet spot where it’s readable and makes sense for gameplay, where you can look at the terrain and understand what advantages or challenges it provides, but it also doesn’t just look like earth. So there aren’t like space cows and blue grass everywhere. It actually looks like a cohesive ecosystem but one that is patently not terran, one that has a unique idea behind it.”

“We’re always looking for things built into our culture that we can leverage in our storytelling. Myths, if you will,” Miller adds. “If we do that, we don’t have to explain ourselves. We don’t have to add as much exposition.

“A good example of this is XCOM. XCOM has round UFOs and little green men. That’s this cultural myth that we can leverage to tell that story. We don’t have to go in and explain what an alien looks like because we understand that already. We’re always trying to find those places to take advantage of people’s built-in ideas of what they expect but also challenge them a little bit too. We don’t want to make it so vanilla that it’s not interesting. Particularly in the beginning of the gam—we want players to feel comfortable, to have agency and know what’s going on, so we try to find ways to shortcut with things they understand.”

In some ways Beyond Earth hews closely to the Civilization template. Its pedigree is unmistakable, and it’ll feel especially familiar if you played 2011’s Civilization V. This isn’t a sequel, though, and McDonough emphasizes the differences between this and other official Civilization entries, both creatively and commercially.

“The amount of creative risk bundled into this game is greater,” McDonough says, “like the addition of the quest system, and the aliens, who are very volatile. A lot of the asymmetry that we try to build into the game is a big creative difference and difference in perspective from classic Civ. Classic Civ is a very symmetrical game, like a multiplayer boardgame kind of thing. We wanted Beyond Earth to have an element of PvE [player vs. environment] in it, particularly the beginning, that persists through the entire experience and that makes the game more asymmetrical. These philosophical stances that we took—adaptability, no golden or critical path, no build orders—we wanted to make every decision count, and change the flavor of the game.

“At the same time it’s important to us that Civ V players could roll up and know where the buttons are,” he continues. “The way you interact with the game is very similar. We’ve made some refinements in that area but a lot of the systems will seem familiar at the outset. Take the virtue system, for example. Virtues will look a lot like social policies from Civ V, but if you play through the virtue system you’ll find it’s much more flexible because there are synergy bonuses for horizontal and vertical movement through the different buffs. And there’s the way that it interacts with the other systems, particularly the affinity system. Finding that balance, what can we do to make this comfortable for our core audience, while also radically changing what happens when you interact with this system, was an interesting and fun part of this process.”

Beyond Earth always comes back to science fiction. The greatest lesson Miller and McDonough learned was to make sure the science felt plausible, even as it grows and spirals well past anything we’re capable of today. The trick was to turn to that old foundation of the Civilization concept: history. Only this time it’s the history you create as you play through Beyond Earth.

“It gets into high sci-fi territory at the end, but if you’re at the end of the tech web and you look totally unrecognizable as a civilization, you can still retrace your steps back through the tech progression to the beginning where things are plausible,” Miller explains. “Maintaining that suspension of disbelief, that plausibility, was important. We want the future represented in Beyond Earth to be really radical and cool by the end of the game, but also feel like a future that maybe we could actually get to. It’s obviously a work of fiction, but the best speculative science fiction has a sense of plausibility to it.”

“One of our biggest takeaways [from science fiction] was that the most fun science fiction is stuff that isn’t really that fictitious,” McDonough adds. “It’s just close enough to reality that it hits a nerve and you can appreciate why the things that are extraordinary are extraordinary. If we went way into the future absent any explanation it effectively becomes fantasy at that point.”

Despite the game’s deep well of sci-fi influence, the possibilities it presents and its differences from the Civilization V model, the heart of Beyond Earth remains the same as any Civ game. It’s about writing your own history, from the dawn of a new society to its inevitable death or transcendence. Like Interstellar, it broadcasts mankind’s hopes and frailties across the solar system, proving that looking forward can reveal as much about ourselves as looking to the past.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald. He’s never been to outer space.

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