Why Not Games




The Recreation Commons of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

When I recommend Alpha Centauri to people, and I've recommended Alpha Centauri to many people, what I like to say is that there are only four things where I've really felt like there's a world behind what I can see; Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Dune and Alpha Centauri and the Recreation Commons is a surprisingly large part of that. It's a base facility that costs 4 rows and reduces the number of drones (unhappy citizens) in the city by two. In itself, that's functional, if uninteresting, but the quote attached to it is key to making the whole game work; "The entire character of a base and its inhabitants can be absorbed in a quick trip to the Rec Commons. The sweaty arenas of Fort Legion, the glittering gambling halls of Morgan Bank, the sunny lovers' trysts in Gaia's High Garden, or the somber reading rooms of U.N. Headquarters. Even the feeding bay at the Hive gives stark insight into the sleeping demons of Yang's communal utopia. - A Social History of Planet - Commissioner Pravin Lal".

The realities of development pervade every video game ever made and one of the biggest results is in fungibility. Any Rec Commons can be interchanged with any other Rec Commons. It's interesting to imagine a 4X where buildings differ according to the history of a people, but in SMAC, the game postulates a universal truth - a Recreation Commons costs 4 bars and removes 2 drones.

This should conflict with arguably the greatest strength of SMAC, the strong personalities of the various factions. Sister Miriam is not just an aggressive orange player who happens to be right next to you. She's the Leader Of The Lord's Believers and she will tell you so herself. It should be strange then that people as different as The University of Planet and The Spartan Federation can both build the same base facility. This flavor text neatly handles this dissonance by positioning the Rec Commons as an archetype, rather than a concrete building. That is to say that it makes the Rec Commons into a common label for a group of buildings that all perform the same task, So, in the world of Alpha Centauri, one city might build a fighting arena and another a gambling hall or a reading room, but these buildings all serve the same purpose of relaxation and so can be abstracted into the same base facility. The idea is no longer that very different people use the same thing in the same way, it is now that different people find different ways to achieve the same end.

What makes this especially exciting though is that once the player has bought the idea of each building as an abstraction rather than a literal building, they are now able to do the same for other buildings as well. When they place a Children's Creche, it's no longer a featureless, grey building in the imagination, but instead something shaped to the culture that made it. Worldbuilding happens more in the mind of the player than the text of the game and this one fragment provides the framework for the player to build a much richer world.

- @murthynikhil

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Written for Why Not Games.