What’s wrong with Alpha Centauri?
I have spent probably an estimated ten thousand collective hours eating bread, but the hours I have spent on Alpha Centauri can be counted on the fingers of a one-handed man: two hours. That’s it, for a lifetime. I played it for two hours, and then stopped.
Why do some games grow old, while others never age?
There are always new games, of course. They whip past us, like clouds on their way to oblivion. I understand gaming the way a newborn would encounter the Godfather trilogy: a series of blurred colors, loud sounds, people noises, and rabid corners of amen-sayers.
Twelve billion gaming titles are released per month. They whoosh past my eyeholes at tremendous, impolite speed. It is like going to a junior high pep rally in a foreign country: whose side am I on, and why? I am left in a state of perpetual confusion unknown to me since my days of pub crawling and their sequel, pain mornings. Uncontrollable words spill from my mouth as I bellow and rave “Why?” and “What is this?” The so-called peace officers have told me I am objectionable to the law and more specifically to public order, and so I am forced to stop my self-education and beat a hasty retreat to my own private safe space, playing old games.
I’d heard of the game Alpha Centauri for some time now. It escaped my notice, much as social justice seems to have dodged the notice of the American government for many years. I am not a gamer, but I have an abiding, undying love for one game series particularly: the Civilization line of strategy titles. Ironic, that a gaming experience named for high society should lead so many players to the exact opposite: sitting isolated in basements across the world, never using the restroom, eyes unblinking, brains so sleep-starved coherent memories were unable to form. I speak from personal experience here. So it was inevitable I would eventually play Alpha Centauri. Sid Meier, the founder of Civilization, made the game with Brian Reynolds. TVTropes explains what followed:
According to the Wikipedia entry about the game, even though development was rather hindered by Reynolds and Meier’s departure from Microprose to found Firaxis, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri was awarded by the US edition of PC Gamer a score of 98% (the first and one of only three games to have ever done so), and was also granted a long list of Game of the Year prizes. A trilogy of novels based on the game was even written! Admittedly, this doesn’t sound too impressive by modern standards, but in 1998 it was basically unheard of. … Alpha Centauri features incredibly complex and profound gameplay, with a myriad of options and variables that can leave an unskilled player dazed with too much information, although a Civilization player can pick up the game and get started right away.
Centauri was Civilization but better. Edgier. Woker. Different factions! Different personalities! Different planet! There are several ways to win a Civilization game: conquest is the most common. But the most applauded, and certainly patrician-est ending to Civilization was the Science Victory. The Science Victory happens when the player launches a rocket ship and beats the other players to colonization of Alpha Centauri. Then the game ends. You receive word you’ve reached Alpha Centauri, and then you win. Centauri was the necessary and inevitable sequel to that last act of scientific magnitude. The series welds together actual faction differences (there’s a militaristic faction, a hippie faction, a plutocrat faction, and if you read the gaming section of Paste you may already know all of this) with hard science, sound futurology, interesting alien-world concepts, and my God it was everything anyone ever needed in a game.
It was a legendary game, made by epic-tier creators. And I couldn’t play it. The graphics were too primitive, and for whatever reason, the interface was aggravating. I didn’t want to learn the business of drawing green lines to make my sprites move. I exited the game. And then I wondered about why I’d done what I’d done.
Before you respond with “there are patches and fan-made variants which upgrade the graphics,” I know, I know. I’m also aware of the spiritual success to Alpha Centauri, the game Civilization: Beyond Earth. No surprises here.
What interests me about my Centauri experience is this: there is a sliding scale which dictates when and how an entertainment becomes “unplayable.” When it is no longer worth your time.
As anyone who dabbles in classic console games can tell you, there is no hard and fast rule. Why are some games playable for years, even with crude graphics, whereas others can be barely considered? In other words, why is Castlevania eternally playable, and Centauri not? This is a question which bedevils all long-lasting media experiences. Gone with the Wind is forever more watchable than Teen Witch, which is in color and came out during the ‘80s. It’s easy to point out that Wind is superior in many ways. But Centauri is not a bad game at all—according to all reports, it’s a fantastic game, just a dated one. By any technical reckoning, Wind is inferior to Teen Witch: Teen Witch’s sound is better, the music is clearer, the colors sharper, the fashion closer to our own.
Returning to games: I can play SNES-emulated titles whose interaction systems are cruder, rougher than the relatively recent interactive system in Centauri. Why am I down with SNES boxes and menus, and find Centauri a drag?
I suggest it has something to do with the nature of investment. My brother, a football fan, is fond of saying that cheering for sports teams comes from the phenomenon of emotional wagering: you put your feelings into a team, a collection of players. To use the hoariest cliché of sports and Disney team movies, the more you put in the more you get out. Your heart breaks when the team loses and you taste the rainbow when your guys or gals win.
But before you can become involved, you have to willingly be hooked. And here we come to the most mysterious part of emotional buy-in: how exactly do we choose to invest our emotions in entertainments?
When I play a venerable NES title, I approach it as I do a looming mountain speckled with skulls: I know it is a man-killing monster, that it is, verily, Nintendo difficult, and I must be prepared. I also respect the NES title: I know what it is, and how acclaimed it is, and what it means. I treat NES titles like I treat any piece of writing published before 1900: if it still matters to this many people so long after it came out, there must be something to it.
The old games have no stab at relevance. All of the cleverness stamped into them is ten or twenty years out of date. Ms. Pac-Man can gain no advantage from being hip or new; if she is relevant, it is because her excellence has stood the test of time, beyond smoky bars and quarters and nostalgia. Ms. Pac-Man remains, despite plain graphics and straight-forward action, because she is a nearly perfect image of what gaming can be, how simple rules and sounds arranged in careful order can bring clear happiness to ordinary players. Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac Man, Tetris and the Mario series last for the same reason chess lasts. In their surface crudeness, they have an eternal present which never fades. Super Mario Bros. 3 will always be a new game to me; newer than its sequels. Much as the internet is forever experiencing the Eternal September of 1993 (when America Online let its users freely access the Net), Mario is in the Forever February of 1990. This is not vulgar nostalgia, but basic fact: some artifacts are not dated, and some are. The ones that remain encourage emotional investment long after their novelty has worn off.
I do not emotionally invest in Alpha Centauri, and probably would not, even if I had played the game in the old days and loved it. Barring a tight emotional history with a game, Alpha Centauri is a game experience unlike Ms. Pac-Man. It has nothing to do with age, or iconic status. When I come to Alpha Centauri, I come without any investment. I’m not willing to make the jump it would take to play Alpha Centauri; the payout isn’t as great, even if the game is beautiful in so many ways. The peak of Alpha Centauri is lower than the peak of Tetris; the climb is easier, but seems less enjoyable.
The graphics are trying to be cutting-edge, and perhaps that’s the best moral. Cutting the edge is not a sin, but it harms the style of play. I cannot enter into this game for the same reason I find the fresh tech in Star Wars prequels to be more antiquated than the tech in the Original Trilogy: there is an uncanny valley between reliable analog and truly inspired futurism. Some movies and TV shows make this jump. Although Star Trek: The Next Generation seems very ‘90s, its future tech has never staled for me; nor has the technology in Minority Report, nor has the original Blade Runner. Alpha Centauri never made this jump, and it shows, forever stuck in the awkward adolescence of a game which belongs neither to the iconic past or the future present. The game can keep the stars; there is wall-meat in the splendid castle of Dracula drawn in eight whole bits, and I aim to seek it once more.