Ready for some SMAC talk
November 12, 2017 2:37 PM   Subscribe

I’ve only ever written fanfic for one thing, and it was SMAC

And it was terrible
posted by adrianhon at 2:52 PM on November 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Darn - suddenly I'm back in the 80s and I thought this was going to be about the Student Memorial Activity Center at my old school. Wonder if they've got the new National Lampoon in yet.
posted by lagomorphius at 2:58 PM on November 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is a game I keep coming back to over the years... it manages to be one of the most atmospheric games I've played, and that's not exactly what strategy games tend to be known for.

Though the factions I do enjoy playing, I tend to play a little bit 'off' from the default interpretation. Morgan industries actually does really well going down the path of a green economy, because their inherent economy bonus means all they need is the wealth value to get the big +1 energy per tile bonus. Meanwhile. their population limit means that growth is less important, so the penalties of a green economy hit them less hard. And then planet bonus can help you in psi combat to cover for the fact that, especially with the wealth value, your conventional army is rather poor.

The other faction I like playing is the Believers, being as peaceful as possible expansionists. If I'm focusing on expansion and building colony pods and formers, I don't have the spare industry to build all the fancy buildings that research gets you anyway, so being behind in research is less of a disadvantage. Their inherent support bonus means that the support penalty from democracy doesn't actually kill my expansion rate, and the efficiency starts being helpful with a spread out empire. And the military bonuses just mean that I can do a lot more with less if and when someone does declare war on me, so I can be more peaceful and not have to have a large standing army - especially if I have a couple of probe teams and the energy to spare to convert a few enemy units.

I'm tempted to dust this off and play it again. Just not with the expansion. It's just... not good.
posted by Zalzidrax at 3:13 PM on November 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Accordingly, most of the content of this blog will consist of me pointing at one of these quotes and gushing about how awesome it is. It’s also worth noting that they got pretty good voice actors to read these quotes. In my opinion, each of the actors nails their character pretty firmly, and their performances do a lot to make these fictional people feel real.

A lesson that Beyond Earth completely failed to learn, and ended up somewhat bland as a result.
posted by Panjandrum at 3:30 PM on November 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

I’ve only ever written fanfic for one thing, and it was SMAC

Same! And it was for the "write a novel" contest before the game launch.

All of the chapter titles were Skinny Puppy songs.

And it was terrible


god's gift maggot mindworm

I know SMAC has come up a bunch of times before but I'm not finding it in the tags.

Thanks for this post. SMAC is a touchstone in my mind; the quotes jump out all the time ("What do I care for your suffering?" "In the borehole pressure mines..." "A ship at sea is its own world..."), but I've never seen anyone really look at the intro video. It really is a solid piece of art.
posted by curious nu at 3:31 PM on November 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh snap I just realized it's a whole blog of SMAC thoughts. I am digging this.
posted by curious nu at 3:32 PM on November 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

SMAC was really one of the best written and acted games that I can think of. The snippets from "For I Have Tasted the Fruit" or "We must Dissent" always manage to sound like they're really from larger works written by the characters.
posted by octothorpe at 3:42 PM on November 12, 2017 [10 favorites]

This is FANTASTIC, and I love that it's an entire blog for SMAC!
posted by subversiveasset at 3:44 PM on November 12, 2017

Mary had a little lamb,
Little lamb, little lamb,
Mary had a little lamb,
Whose fleece was white
as snow.

--Assassin's Redoubt
Final Transmission
posted by snwod at 4:20 PM on November 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

SMAC occupies a cherished place in my soul. Thanks for this. I played SMAC around the same time I first read the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars trilogy and the combo was formative for me in a fundamental way that's difficult to express coherently.
posted by Wretch729 at 4:29 PM on November 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm pretty sure that the designers of SMAC had copies of KSR's trilogy on hand while they were writing it.
posted by octothorpe at 4:52 PM on November 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

The University suffers from extra drones (the game’s term for unhappy or rebellious citizens) on the grounds that the University routinely engages in what is considered unethical experimentation. And this makes total sense. In the real world, one of the major reasons why the social sciences lag behind the physical ones is because of the inability to properly control their experiments. If the faction is being run by physicists who are focused entirely on the acquisition of knowledge, why wouldn’t they start doing Nazi-style experimentation to settle these debates once and for all?

Yes SMAC perpetuates the pernicious lie that somehow unethical experiments (a la the Nazis) are somehow more effective and useful than properly controlled studies. It's a flaw in the game I can overlook given that it wasn't written by medical ethicists, historians, or any one else with in-depth knowledge of those studies, and because the notion of "we could accomplish so much, if only the Normies weren't holding us back!" is such a ubiquitous nerd trope.

But there are so many wrong assumptions added into that paragraph that it's pretty much ruined me reminiscing about SMAC via that blog. For starters:

1. The social sciences do not "lag behind" the physical sciences. What does that even mean? How would you even measure that? This is a nonsense phrase.

2. The Nazis did run a very successful social science experiment without a proper control group: it was called Nazism and it involved turning Germany into a racist totalitarian state.

3. The experiments in the concentration camps, however, were medical experiments (hence the "Doctors' Trials" at Nuremburg). We have perfectly good and non-lethal ways of testing medical therapies these days. It's part of why the physical sciences are so far ahead of the social sciences, obvs.

4. The results of said nazi medical experiments are now widely seen to be garbage, in large part because there's really not much scientific value is seeing what happens when you inject acid into a woman's cervix or try to sew twins together to make them "conjoined." But also because conducting sadistic medical experiments on terrified, starving, and tortured people in concentration camps do not replicate real world scenarios except those created in concentration camps.

5. The issue in social science experimentation is not that it is waiting for some edgelord sociologist to finally break free from the stodgy grasp of the IRB. It's that human life is filled with innumerable variables, and if you control for too many then you're no longer testing something applicable to actual human life.
posted by Panjandrum at 4:55 PM on November 12, 2017 [12 favorites]

It's remarkable how bland and disappointing Civ:BE was when it finally came out. It seemed like such a sure thing. "Remake SMAC with a modern engine". The game designers gave lots of talks and interviews where it was clear they understood what made SMAC so magic. And then result came out and it was.. not bad? Adequate? Better than mediocre, but still lacking the spark.
posted by Nelson at 4:58 PM on November 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

I would love to see a documentary about what influenced Brian Reynolds and the design team on SMAC.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:12 PM on November 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yes SMAC perpetuates the pernicious lie that somehow unethical experiments (a la the Nazis) are somehow more effective and useful than properly controlled studies.

I think the factions' flaws are blind spots more than necessary tradeoffs. I don't think the Believers need to mistreat and dismiss planet to be more holy and devout, or that the Spartans wasting a whole bunch of industrial effort overengineering everything and painting it black and making it look "tactical" makes them better fighters. In the same way I don't think the University should be interpreted as sadistic nazis who "go there" and therefore are better scientists. Rather, like the other factions, they are extremists in their philosophy which leads to harmful blind spots. I always interpreted it that the University views most of their populations not as people but as subjects to be studied, and that inherently dehumanizing attitude makes being anything but one of the brilliant, chosen few in their society really kind of awful and demoralizing.
posted by Zalzidrax at 5:34 PM on November 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

There are a lot of unhappy people in academia, and you don't need to posit human experimentation to imagine how expanding academia to occupy all of society would likewise result in a lot of unhappy people.
posted by Pyry at 5:38 PM on November 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

And then result came out and it was...

Civ 5 with new art and vocabulary.
posted by Phssthpok at 6:24 PM on November 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I would love to see a documentary about what influenced Brian Reynolds and the design team on SMAC.

You could drop the :10bux: and ask him - weirdly, and wonderfully, he's a something awful goon and he's currently LPing Skyrim.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:36 PM on November 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's remarkable how bland and disappointing Civ:BE was when it finally came out.

I think I played it twice and forgot about it until just now.
posted by octothorpe at 7:01 PM on November 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

SMAC in many ways remains my first best truest love.

I've never seen the terrain modification system duplicated effectively, which is weird because it's not that complicated.
posted by PMdixon at 7:12 PM on November 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I love SMAC. It's the apotheosis of the 4x genre, and one of the best computer games of all time. In my opinion it's far and away the best of the Civs, no comparison really. Reynolds also designed Colonization, which suffers from a pre-modern UI but is another very interesting take on the 4x themes.

I would love to see a documentary about what influenced Brian Reynolds and the design team on SMAC.

You can download the SMAC instruction manual somewhere, which includes their SF bibliography (near the end of Appendix 5, which is about the science of SMAC). The Mars Trilogy, the most obvious influence, is on there. Some other modern classics, too, and a couple oldies I still haven't got around to reading.

Actually, one of the early leading indicators I noticed that Beyond Earth was gonna be crap was the way its creators talked about sci-fi influences. For the Beyond Earth designers, SF is like the most famous golden age writers plus the most popular TV and film properties. Peep the interview. By contrast, Reynolds & co. were into the deep shit from the '60s straight through the '90s, and not just the stuff everyone read.

The Game Design Roundtable (previously) did an interview with Brian about SMAC that I remember liking a lot, check it out here.
posted by grobstein at 7:15 PM on November 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

Fact: "Who's your favorite SMAC faction" is a better personality test than Myers-Briggs.
posted by theodolite at 7:47 PM on November 12, 2017 [17 favorites]

Unethical could also just mean resource and labor consuming, out of any proportion to possible benefit. I kind of figured that the University drone penalty was something along the lines of: "Imagine if tenured professors ran literally everything, and you were trapped being a grad student your entire life".

My favorite factions were the Gaia's Stepdaughters and the Human Hive, depending. The Gaians because of the plot thread running through the story where it turns out that the Spartans really had no idea what they were fucking with when they picked a fight with Deidre.

The Hive because its fun to play as the bad guys sometimes. "My gift to industry is the genetically engineered worker, or Genejack. Specially designed for labor, the Genejack's muscles and nerves are ideal for his task, and the cerebral cortex has been atrophied so that he can desire nothing except to perform his duties. Tyranny, you say? How can you tyrannize someone who cannot feel pain?"
posted by Grimgrin at 7:58 PM on November 12, 2017 [11 favorites]

I adore SMAC still. It's been an enormous frustration to me that the Civilization series got blander and blander and more about tactical warfare, because I had always loved the little bits of story and personality, and SMAC took them to absolute genius level. Sometimes I'll break it out and play on easy just so that I can get all the wonders, because their little movies are such a great reward. The Self-Aware Colony... brrr. Even the techs -- so much story evoked with such small quotes. The fate of the Spartans and Sister Miriam. Zahkarov losing control over Lab Three.

And the voice acting was so perfect, and even little details like the images that flashed past in their bios. It's truly a work of art.
posted by tavella at 11:40 PM on November 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

It's remarkable how bland and disappointing Civ:BE was when it finally came out.

The most damning thing about it for me is that I'd completely forgotten its existence until you mentioned it just now. And I bought it.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:37 AM on November 13, 2017

I love SMAC and still play the GOG version regulary, using Yitzi's unofficial patch .

It's remarkable how bland and disappointing Civ:BE was when it finally came out.

The Codex mod for Civ:BE has greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the game.
posted by Pendragon at 2:56 AM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Please don't go.
The drones need you.
They look up to you.

Favorite factions: Gaians, because mindworm scouts and army, and also I was a little bit in love with Deirdre. University, because high tech, super-mobile (and potentially super-evil) military.
posted by Foosnark at 6:01 AM on November 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Nautilus Pirates 4evah, because starting with Doctrine: Mobility is awesome.
posted by BrashTech at 6:27 AM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Filling the seas with domed cities while others are still creeping slowly across the land does have its charms. Plus so so many Unity pods. Gaians are still my favorite, though. Patrolling your frontiers with hideous mega-boils! That regularly convert other boils!
posted by tavella at 7:10 AM on November 13, 2017

People forget that before C:BE, there was another attempt at a SMAC successor, the low budget Pandora: First Contact. (See the factions on the game wiki to realize how much the game carbon-copied the original). Insightful comment I saw criticizing that game as an imitation of SMAC, that reveals what made the latter so great: -
SMAC treats the leaders with a respect I can’t really see in Pandora. SMAC’s Miriam, for all that she’s a terrible regressive person, eventually takes on the role of conscientious objector to the brains-in-jars insanity of the lategame tech tree. Bizarro-Miriam I can only describe as what you’d get if you let r/atheism write Believers, which if nothing else is out-of-place in a game ostensibly about the development of human societies in a new setting. Not that religion has ever been an important lens with which to study such matters or anything.

The difference between Yang and not-Yang is that Yang truly believes to the hilt in all this horrible pseudo-mystical stuff he uses to justify his tyranny, whereas not-Yang is just a hypocritical Kim Jong-Il on a different stage. Morgan is an eloquent advocate for human selfishness and a sort of serial-numbers-removed objectivism. Not-Morgan is written as just another outrageously rich, cynical plutocrat a la Bain Capital 2012 all over again.

Essentially, I have difficulty seeing Pandora’s faction leaders as anything other than cardboard cutouts. SMAC’s original seven resonate with each other because for all the game was set in the SPACE FUTURE, each represented a uniquely 20th century motif. The rise of modern finance and fundamentalist religion, Big Science, the 1960’s counterculture and environmentalist movement, the military-industrial-complex, totalitarianism (twice!), and–of course, the Fukuyama-style triumph of liberal democracies*. SMAC really spoke to something in ourselves, I think.

* Yet another reason not to have ditched Lal! :<
posted by Apocryphon at 7:22 AM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Can we all admire that SMAC had an ability called Nerve Stapling? I still shudder at that name.
posted by Nelson at 8:04 AM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Back in the day, I was having too much fun playing the game to think about how sinister a lot of the technology was. Nerve Stapling was pretty clearly some scary dystopian shit though. I'm thankful this is not an option available to present-day politicians and police.
posted by Foosnark at 8:39 AM on November 13, 2017

Late-game Miriam quotes are definitely part of the subtle genius of SMAC. It would be so, so easy to make her a total nasty fundie cliche, but instead she gets her moment on the stage where she shows that she isn't blindly against technology (she has some of the most poetic approvals of certain midgame techs) and also that she's got some damn fucking good points as things get creepy in AI-land. Going by TV Tropes, a lot of people interpret her final testament quote as indicating suicide, but I read it as her comforting followers as they faced execution. If it was suicide, it feels like it was a Masada scenario -- suicide was better than being turned into brains in a vat or punishment spheres.
posted by tavella at 10:45 AM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Really? I interpreted that in the end she and her faction ended up embracing the Psi Gate after all, and used it to reach a level of technological transcendence that they were theologically okay with.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:34 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Given the quote is titled "Last Testament", I don't think her ending was that happy.
posted by dragoon at 5:37 PM on November 13, 2017

SMAC treats the leaders with a respect I can’t really see in Pandora.[...]

I've never tried Pandora, but one of the things that works great in SMAC is that the leaders are simultaneously richly characterized and open to interpretation. There needs to be freedom to tell your own story in a game like this; the same leader needs to be playable in different ways, making different tech, strategy and social model choices. So the writing needs to be strong -- but not overpowering. It worked!
posted by grobstein at 6:07 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

"What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls the butterfly." - UN Secretary-General Esteban Sorrento-Gillis, The Expanse (orig. Richard Bach)
posted by Apocryphon at 7:19 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

What really intrigued me was the attempt to suss out what "happened," in the canonical game,usually an irrelevant detail for 4X games. It's speculative, but...

First, The Hive is wiped out.
Then, Sparta falls, possibly - no, definately to the Gaians.
Brother Lal and the U.N. become the junior partner to the Gaians.
The Morganites overtake the University in influence,working on economic domination.
The Believers are driven to the fringes,and possibly underground, if not wiped out entirely.
The Planet drives us to our final conclusion...
The Morganites make a bid for economic supremacy. The Gaiains establish a new religion outright,bringing them into conflict with the secular University. The Believers,the last pure humans, die. Planet rises up against the invaders, and has to be confronted - with knowledge. But it is the Gaiains deep connection to Planet that wins out in the transcendence.

As an aside why would God create a universe? Who cares?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:32 PM on November 13, 2017 [10 favorites]

This was a great find.

As many times as I played I have to admit I never realized that Deirdre was the attacker in the Citizen's Defense Force video. Like the author I'd sort of puzzled about it--why the narrative is about defenders being overwhelmed by the one weakness--but never made the same leap they did to put it all together.

Deirdre was waging a war of aggression early.
posted by mark k at 11:00 PM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Imagine if tenured professors ran literally everything, and you were trapped being a grad student your entire life

This is weirdly both a more realistic and more terrifying interpretation of the "lack of ethics" line.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:52 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Zakharov seems to have provided the technological muscle in the end game attempt to accelerate the planetary consciousness, so while he may have been warring with Deirdre in late game, at some point he's brought around to the idea that this is the only route to survival.
posted by tavella at 8:28 AM on November 14, 2017

I'm just remembering how much fun I had doing unit design. No other civ-ish game let you customize units as far as I remember.
posted by octothorpe at 9:07 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Soon after leaving this message, she stepped into a Psi Gate. But this one wasn’t attuned to a particular target destination. So instead of delivering her to a nearby base as would normally be the case, it annihilated her physical form.

This is the second time I've seen a reference to an untuned PSI gate. Are there out of game materials that say this? I agree that the quote, source name, and tech indicate that Miriam and her closest followers died via PSI gate, whether execution or suicide to avoid capture, but it could just have well been one pointed at deep space where they would die quickly. So where does the untuned bit come from?

Actually, thinking about it, I personally still lean towards execution. Mainly because given Miriam's issues with PSI gates and souls, it seems unlikely that she would have a PSI gate handy in her last redoubt. And if we assume Zakharov was the one who took down Miriam, which the Self-Aware Colony seems a pointer to, PSI gate execution strikes me as something that he might find amusing/fitting. Tidy, with the extra bonus of a Believer also believing it was ripping their soul away.
posted by tavella at 10:55 AM on November 14, 2017

Now you've gotten me to download the game from GOG and play again. I hope you're happy with yourselves.
posted by octothorpe at 7:35 PM on November 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

I hope you're happy with yourselves

posted by PMdixon at 2:04 PM on November 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

I hope you're happy with yourselves.

What do I care for your suffering?
posted by curious nu at 5:21 PM on November 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

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