Characters Done Right (Retro Edition): Alpha Centauri

One of my favourite games of all time is Alpha Centauri, by Firaxis. To a large extent, it exists only because of legal wranglings over who held the rights to produce more Civilization games. With the rights uncertain, Sid Meier (who is still with Firaxis) and Brian Reynolds (who has most recently been the lead designer for Frontierville) decided to make a new 4X game, starting where Civilization finished, with humanity colonising Alpha Centauri.

For me, though, it surpassed all the games of the Civilization series, both before and since. Over a decade after its release, I still go back and play it from time to time. There’s a lot that I love about it. Many of its gameplay elements were new and innovative at the time. It had a wonderful storyline and an intriguing setting. It had different factions which played markedly differently from each other, increasing replayability. And then, it had characters.

There were seven different factions who landed on Planet, as their new home was called, each holding a different ideology and each led by a different leader.

A fairly young white woman with medium-length wavy dark brown hair

Deirdre Skye: A fairly young white woman with medium-length wavy dark brown hair

Deirdre Skye led the Gaia’s Stepdaughters faction of environmentalists, and hailed from Scotland.

A middle aged white woman with short red hair.

Miriam Godwinson: A middle aged white woman with short red hair.

Miriam Godwinson, an American woman, was the leader of the religious fundamentalist faction, the Lord’s Believers.

A black man with white hair.

Nwabudike Morgan: A black man with white hair.

The game’s economic faction, Morgan Industries, were named for their CEO, Nwabudike Morgan from Namibia.

A bearded South Asian man wearing some sort of head-covering.

Pravin Lal: A bearded South Asian man wearing some sort of head-covering (possibly a surgical cap, though it's hard to tell).

The Peacekeepers, devoted to peace and the rule of law, were led by India’s Pravin Lal.

A Hispanic woman with her long hair worn in a braid.

Corazon Santiago: A Hispanic woman with her long hair worn in a braid.

Puerto Rico’s Corazon Santiago led the militant survivalis faction known as the Spartan Federation.

A white man with unkempt grey hair, wearing what seems to be a headset and a pair of 3D glasses.

Prokhor Zakharov: A white man with unkempt grey hair wearing a headset and pair of 3D glasses.

The University of Planet, dedicated to scientific discovery, was led by Prokhor Zakharov from Russia.

An elderly East Asian man. He is balding, but does have some white hair remaining.

Sheng-Ji Yang: An elderly East Asian man. He is balding, but does have some white hair remaining.

Finally, there is Sheng-Ji Yang of China, who led the communist Human Hive.

Overall, that’s 3 women and 4 men with ages ranging from (at a guess) at least 30 to 70, and includes representatives from multiple different races and ethnicities. Of the 7 faction leaders, there’s only one white man, which I think is pretty impressive. It isn’t perfect, but I think that pointing out the ways in which it could be more inclusive would be a little churlish. This is an excellent show of diversity, as far as I’m concerned.

One thing that always strikes me in cases like this is how diversity, when done well, does not appear forced. When you don’t treat a character as “the black man” or “the woman” but as a character in their own right, they are every bit as interesting and as natural as any other character.

About rho

Scientist, woman, lesbian, transsexual, gamer, geek, feminist, liberal, rationalist, and various other labels. Gamer since the days of the ZX81. Feminist since the time I realised that the label was not synonymous with transphobe. I keep a sporadically-updated personal blog about whatever's on my mind at the time.
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19 Responses to Characters Done Right (Retro Edition): Alpha Centauri

  1. Denis Farr says:

    I spent so many hours in this game, though when I was much younger, and not yet fully aware of my own privileges. This game does exactly as you say, in that I was impressed with the characters, and therefore, their ethnicity, sex, and age merely added to that, so I never thought it odd that they would be in the game (and it’s not odd, but given diversity in games…).

    Gah, I might break out my CD of this again.

  2. Lake Desire says:

    Was this game hard to find? I remember my boyfriend in 2000 was obsessed with this game but we could never find a copy.

    • rho says:

      I’ve no clue, I’m afraid. My memory of a decade ago is patchy at best.

    • muttonchoppe says:

      Yeah, actually finding this game nowadays without downloading it is a right proper pain in the butt. Amazon and eBay sometimes have options, but they are also sometimes VERY expensive options.

  3. 8mph Ansible says:

    Oh the many hours spent with that game. I miss that copy.

    I do think it may have been a hard find back in the day. I often saw less than four copies of it on the shelf. Not sure it due to popularity or lack of promotion.

    -Ansi8

  4. Ohma says:

    Interesting thing (IIRC) about Miriam and Santiago is that they are both people shaped by the same culture (The Christian States of America in fact according to Miriam’s bio in the game), but in opposite ways. Miriam was always part of the privileged majority and Santiago (after eventually traveling to Los Angeles) had to fight for everything she got in life. Reading the prologue novella radically changed my opinions on a lot of the faction leaders I originally thought were pretty one dimensional (well, save Morgan, you’d think a guy whose corporation funded the whole project could get himself an actual cryo pod with extra crap without needing to hotwire one in which used the power meant for neighboring pods for itself >:[ )

    seiously though, like, yang totally believes his own rhetoric, it’s just that his rhetoric also reinforces a cult of personality around him (well, and it’s also the bad kind of transhumanism), miriam is actually trying to reconcile her religious beliefs with the realities of life on planet/her own conscience, and santiago and the spartans are genuinely paranoid that the other factions want to take over

    • rho says:

      I never read any of the novels. Wanted to, but was never able to get hold of them.

      • Ohma says:

        I’ve only ever read the novellas that were written while SMAC and SMAX were in development that were basically the prologues to both games. I’m pretty sure you can still download both for free off of the official AC site and actually I would reccomend the first one (‘The Arrival’…I think) if you’ve got a few hours free (it’s only like 20-60 pages i don’t know for sure though ’cause it has been a while since I read it) since it’s actually a pretty neat short story in its own right and (like many good old game manuals) elaborates on several things you only get hints about in the game.

        Though here’s a question for people: Does anyone else find the factions in Alien Crossfire not nearly as compelling?

        I mean yeah woo pirates and aliens and stuff but…i dunno i’ve just always had a lot more trouble getting into any of the expansion factions and i think it’s partly because aside from the free drones and the aliens (who are actually pretty neat but still hard to get into due to not being terribly different from each other beyond their space opera disagreement) the crossfire factions don’t feel as much like they’re based around an actual ideology or their leaders just don’t get any development (i think that the new techs in AX resulted in like, each of the new factions getting one or two quotes, three if they were lucky which is unfortunate since the mains each got like what? twenty or more?)

        • muttonchoppe says:

          Well, I think the extra factions are more fun used piecemeal, rather than all at once. I do like the Free Drones, but it feels weird to have them in a game without the Hive, since they escaped from and oppose it. The Cybernetic Consciousness was an offshoot of the University, and The Cult of Planet is the more radical version of the Children of Gaia. Playing without the “parent” factions loses a lot, to me.

          • Ohma says:

            I feel the same way, I just wish I could play the game with all the factions (just with the expansion ones limited in some way since they really do feel more like they’re minor factions who aren’t trying to win quite the same game as the others).

            i mean it would be a *little* awkward for the aliens but they are supposed to be descended from the crews of two ships which weren’t made out to be terribly huge or anything, and to top it off their main shared victory condition isn’t eradicating everyone else on planet but calling up reinforcements to do that for them, and like seriously, why would the data angels care about most of the pre-existing victory conditions, like, maybe the HAR HAR I HAVE EVERY MONEY victory but not most of the rest, conversely, every faction in the main game totally had at least one victory condition that unquestionably fit

            maddening

        • rho says:

          I agree entirely that the Alien Crossfire factions and leaders weren’t nearly as well done. That’s why I didn’t bother including them in the post! :D

          They all felt as if they could have been interesting if only they’d been developed further, but as it was they were just too flat. As far as the humans go, Rose and the Data Angels were probably the best of the bunch, with Svensgard and the Pirates being the worst.

          It’s somewhat understandable, given that what was added in the expansion pack was much smaller in scope than what was in the original game, so they didn’t really have room to flesh the new factions out so much. It probably would have been better if they’d only added one or two new human factions, though, and done them in more detail. I’m not sure whether that would have been commercially viable or not, though.

  5. Mantheos says:

    I LOVE this game. I agree 100% with you all about the characters being both rich and diverse. It’s funny because the starship they come over in is called “Unity.” The Unity is destroyed in the chaos following the original mission leader’s assassination. Symbolic, eh? Each of these factions represents some aspect of the human race (and people as well) but it’s so subtle that I didn’t pick up on it (at least when I was playing the game as an early teenager).

  6. koipond says:

    What I also loved was how deeply entrenched all those characters were in the game. All the voice work was done by those characters and the flavour was done in their own words, so when you accomplished a new technology or a wonder you could hear and read what they said about it.

    I would sit there and read the extra text for hours. I still can’t do that with any other ‘civ’ like game.

  7. Ohma says:

    oh also I just noticed that Santiago’s description got transposed into the caption for the picture of Zakharov, and also also also also (need to work on lexicon) i think Lal is intended to be wearing a surgical cap (as he was the Unity’s chief surgeon)

  8. EmilyEmilyEmily says:

    I’ve played this game some; and yeah, the diversity here is quite well done.

    I’m curious if anyone has played/has a copy of the expansion and has any comments on the diversity of the factions and characters there?

    • muttonchoppe says:

      Well, there are are two aliens (who aren’t just humans with funny foreheads) and five humans:

      Captain Ulrik Svensgaard of The Nautilus Pirates: white guy leading the PIRATES! Not much there, except that they’ve got a sort of isolationist thing mixed in.

      Foreman Domai of The Free Drones: white guy leading the underclass that broke free from Yang’s Human Hive.

      Datajack Sinder Roze of The Data Angels: young black woman leading the hackers of the “information wants to be free” variety.

      Prophet Cha Dawn of The Cult of Planet: mysterious boy leading the radical Children of Gaia in actual Planet-worship and eco-terrorism. He’s ambiguous; maybe he’s got some East Asian heritage, but his backstory is being found in the wilderness, so we don’t know.

      Aki Luttinen/Aki Zeta-5 of the Cybernetic Consciousness: young white woman with cybernetics (supposedly merged with some sort of AI) leading other cyborgs.

      So that makes two white men, one white woman, one black woman, and a possibly Asian boy.

  9. Jayle Enn says:

    I still have a copy of the Planetary Pack around here somewhere, but I haven’t touched it in years either. I do remember that the Alien Crossfire factions were really disappointing– the two alien forces had their stories kind of strewn about in there, but factions like the Drones or the Data Angels were one-dimensional at best, drawing exclusively from one aspect of the original game or the other.

    Of the representative graphics (I can’t remember if the offshoot factions had proper leaders, even), the Pirates were Caucasian and male, the Drones the same, and the Cyborgs were represented by a Caucasian woman. The Gaian offshoot makes me want to say Asiatic, but there were indications that the sect was trading genes between humans, terran plants and Planet-life, and I think that one was intended to evoke that rather than a specific Earthly ethnicity.

  10. Laurentius says:

    Alpha Centauri was great game. I especially loved that every faction goals and leader personality was adding tension to game mechanics, making diplomacy really interesting. Maybe it was only an illusion but definitely illusion well crafted.

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