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Aliens suck, or Why I don’t dig sci-fi strategy

September 20th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Uncategorized

My game shelf is bulging with strategy and war games. Well over a third of my collection is strategy of one form or another, from tactical combat games like X-Com to RTS staples like Age of Empires to half forgotten titles like Joan of Arc: Siege and Sword. And of these, very few are science fiction. I only have one of the Master of Orions. I never got around to Galactic Civilization in any of its forms. I have Starships Unlimited and the X-Com games, but not Space Empires – any of them. And as I cruise Ebay trying to fill out my game collections, my eyes are usually drawn to Harpoon II or Centurion.

I like science fiction in general. I used to read a lot of it. I’ve certainly read and watched more sci-fi than I have fantasy. No cable TV means that I’m the only nerd on the planet who hasn’t gotten wrapped up in the new Battlestar Galactica. I’d probably watch it, too. Much of my grad school weekend schedule revolved around Babylon 5 or the final seasons of ST: TNG. But, for all the sci-fi I used to consume, I find it (and much fantasy literature for that matter) less surprising and exciting than the history that I read and write.

As a strategy game setting, conquering planets was never as thrilling as mining them in Starfleet. Designing and building starships wasn’t as much fun as flying them in Tie Fighter or Wing Commander. Even the technically best of the Sid Meier 4x games, Alpha Centauri, was not played as heavily as either Civ II or Colonization – the latter a much inferior game in many important ways. But at least SMAC used human factions with human motivations; the expansion introduced aliens so I didn’t even bother with it. I even prefer medieval fantasy strategy games like Kohan or Warlords to any Starcraft or Total Annihilation.

This explains the bias on this blog towards historical strategy games instead of science fiction ones. But where does this bias come from? I think that my heavy youthful diet of sci-fi may be part of the problem. Most science fiction novels or programs revolve around personalities instead of powers. For all the talk of the Federation in Star Trek or the Minbari in B5, both series were primarily about individuals shaping the world around them. History books and programs, on the other hand, more often emphasize the larger forces that push people in one direction or another. History is often the story of the rise and fall of empires; sci-fi is often the story of the rise and fall of an individual.

But this is only a tiny part of the picture. More of it is that I have trouble visualizing my aliens and alien equipment as mine. I can’t identify with Space Cargo Trader V as well as I can with the archers I’ve just sent over that hill. I find it easier to take on the role of a high elf general with mostly historic troops than I do the Klackons, or whatever made up name Alien Race Sigma is given. A common complaint about the great Alpha Centauri is that the technology names never made much sense. I know what a “wheel” is. “Matter editation” just looks like a misspelling.

So, I’m in no hurry to play Admiral of Starfleet when there are more human problems to deal with. Catching a Venusian Flu doesn’t have the pull of the Plague – a real life catastrophe that I can comprehend on an historic level and as a likely game mechanic. An army of Cossacks slaughtering my peasants grabs me in a way that a zerg rush never will. The most beautiful Protoss ending ever conceived pales before the time that an American sub got in the middle of my Soviet fleet in Harpoon and sunk eight ships before I knew what was happening.

Does this obvious bias make it hard for me to play, or review, sci-fi strategy? It does mean that I have a cleaner palate. But it also means that I can’t appreciate how one sci-fi game is derived from another. I can give a learned discourse on the portrayal of the French in historical strategy games, but I doubt I can compare the Sim-UNs in MOO or GalCiv and sound like I know what the hell I’m talking about. Strategy games are strategy games, in many ways, so it wouldn’t take me long to get up to speed. But I’m man enough to admit my weaknesses and preferences.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Darius Kazemi

    I have to agree 100% on the SMAC expansion pack. The introduction of alien races left me completely cold. I’m of the camp that believes alien races ruin any piece of science fiction–“humans are trouble enough,” as they say.

    (Great blog, by the way. Just discovered it this morning.)

  • Krupo

    Re: the ‘not being involved in futuristic tech trees’ and related issues: I didn’t have that problem with SMAC although I know there were others who felt the way you did. :)

    It’d be interesting to see if I logged more hours of Civ 2 or SMAC, but they were both up there – and SMAC had much more longevity for me, in the end, thanks to the introduction of PBEM gaming, which led to some epic games.

    I don’t know how many people played 7-player SMAC games to conclusion, but I did, and it was fun! :)

    (Of course, the 3-person alliance at the end helped speed things along to a proper conclusion!)

  • J

    Wow, you’re pretty retarded.

    You claim to have read and watched a lot of sci-fi in your youth, yet you can’t guess at what “Matter Editation” might mean?

  • Troy

    Does Asimov use the word editation? Was it anywhere in Aliens? I think that my failure to automatically discern what the word meant when I first played SMAC hardly makes me retarded.

    Especially since it isn’t even a “real word”.

  • Changing Tastes?

    […] written before about how science fiction strategy games leave me a little cold. Give me muskets. Give me swords. Give me tanks. Laser cannons and alien pod troopers do nothing […]

  • Vladimir

    To J. Wow, expecting to look smart by calling someone retarded. I assure you, the effect is quite the opposite.

    The author does not indicate his lack understanding of the term, he just states his first impression. Myself, I have to agree with him, existing technologies do make more sense than imaginery ones… who would have guessed?

    And yes, aliens suck, or at least the majority of the races in Gal Civs, that was one of the reasons I stopped playing the game. They are not believable, that’s all.