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Alpha Centauri Audio+Video Album - a li'l 25th anniversary tribute

ZombiVoziKombi

Chieftain
Joined
Oct 24, 2001
Messages
60
Hello all. Here's a project I probably shouldn't be pursuing, since I've got much better stuff to do, oh well. Recently I came across a YouTube vid that concatenated all SMAC + SMAC-X videos and voiceovers (well, not exactly all, it turns out!), and I thought, this is great, but it (a) looks ugly and (b) it's in a totally random order. The game itself does wonders in weaving a history of its world out of project videos and voice quotes that introduce new facilities and tech advances. It'd be interesting to deliver them a way that's faithful to the look and feel of the game, and tries to put across some of the stories told and implied.

So I started thinking about how this could be done, and here's an attempt. It compiles materials strictly from the game - I'm only supplying how they're ordered and presented, very few judgment calls other than that. It's fan curatorship, if you wish, rather than fan fic (nothing wrong with fan fic, of course). I'm doing 15 parts: one with intros and generic vids, one for every human faction in SMAC and SMAC-X, one for the aliens, one for Planet.

The videos are out here, as of February 9 2024, the 25th anniversary of the US game release.

I'm embedding the Gaians below as it's the first one I produced in full, and probably succeeds the best at telling a story. I'm open to and very thankful for comments and suggestions.


(More sincerely, this is a product of me being more than a little OC, learning graphics and video editing, and avoiding serious work. The bulk of it was done before I realized the 25th anniversary was around the corner.)
 
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I figure I'll be using this thread to blog through my production notes video by video. I hope there are people out there who relate to this kind of an engagement with the game - if so, keep reading!

What's the Idea?

To the extent SMAC tells a story, it serves up a nonlinear narrative from many points of view. The multi-POV story most of us are (too) familiar with is A Song of Ice & Fire by GRR Martin, adapted for TV as Game of Thrones. ASOIAF is of course massive and largely linear. A nonlinear multi-POV novel I can think of off the bat is the Dictionary of the Khazars by Serbian author Milorad Pavić, which I read way back when (in English, although BCMS is my mother tongue - go figure, that's the edition I came across). The Pavić novel is formatted as a dictionary, and you can read it in any order. While crucial bits are left unrevealed - this is kind of the point - the novel weaves a mesh of many pieces that fall together into place remarkably well. Unlike a novel, of course, SMAC doesn't aim at telling a story that congeals into anything solid. On the contrary, it's loose by design. It aims to provide background and lore for the game, building the world to the point the player feels at home in it, while leaving enough unstated so that the info conveyed can fit a fair share of the infinitely possible playthroughs.

There's more to it, however. Since the premise of the game is a confrontation of alternative ideologies, what its narrative offers is an exploration of human potential from the perspective of many different value systems, while giving the player a (gamified) say in the matter. This is one reason why the game has aged remarkably well, and why playing it can be positively therapeutic. As the following review points out, at the time SMAC came out, the future it portrayed seemed distant and dystopian. Now it looks like we're in it. In fact, in a way the game is wildly optimistic, as it assumes that humanity will get its act together enough at least to send a colony ship to the nearest star. I somehow don't think that's in the cards.


So yes - we, globally, are in quite deep trouble right now, and we can use some practice thinking through alternative directions in which we could steer the world. What I'm trying to do, then - in addition to nerding out scouring the game directory for all the media, and having fun compiling them - is to tease out and arrange the different ideas various characters in the game (re)present. Let's extract all the [your fave or most hated SMAC character here] quotes, put them in one place, try to impose some kind of an order on them, and see what it inspires in us. The result, if successful, should be useful to the fans inclined toward, let's say, acting in the mess our world is right now in a well-thought-out manner.

And while I get that this is not everyone's thing, there are some of us whose it is. In the last month-plus since I've been compulsively revisiting the game, I've found an entire blog devoted to a philosophical analysis of it, and several pretty clever video essays about it. Here's one I found quite informative (and the only one I watched in entirety).


Of course, you may just want to zone out to game content regardless of all the philosophy. I do too. And so, this li'l project is very much for us as well.

In the next post I'll follow with the general creative guidelines I've landed on.

Thank you if you're reading this and find it interesting. Please drop a line or three if you feel so moved, and enjoy!
 
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Excellent idea and a great video collage! Keep up the good work
Thank you so much for the encouragement! I'll keep going. Editing University right now.

Захаров [= Zakharov] motivational quote of the day:
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So, the video production has gotten ahead of the write up, which is all good. Right now
  • The Gaians, Hive, and Planet videos are pretty polished, finished or nearly so.
  • For the rest of the factions I mostly just need to finish the ambient track.
  • Video #1, with game intros and generic loss videos, is in as decent a shape as I expect it'll be. It was in many ways the most challenging to make, simply because there's nothing much special about putting these clips in one place so it's hard to not just have it come out contrived or bland.
EDIT: I erased the draft videos, but here's a screenshot from the finished version.

Track listing.png
 
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Ok, all videos are basically done, totaling about 1h 45 min, all here. I'll wait before I make them public to allow for minor tweaks and any new ideas that pop up, and complete some of the writeup I planned to do.

If anyone checks them out, please let me know your thoughts. I hope people enjoy watching them as much as I did putting them together.

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Ok, I will string the vids to come out on this channel starting December 15, ending on the 25th anniversary of the release of SMAC in US on February 9, 2024. Here's a trailer:


Didn't originally plan this, but in retrospect, this is perfect.
 
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Here's the third & last trailer, SMAC-X themed. I took some liberties to conceal the fact that not all faction leaders voice secret project videos.

 
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The Times They Are a-Changing

Ok, so. All this project is, as MysticWind noted - huge thanks, by the way, for the modest but crucial encouragement - is a collage, not much more than creative rearrangement. What more is there to say, then? Well, I'm among the peeps who rarely miss a chance to overthink, whether or not it's really needed - and I do have grounds to suspect that I'm in good company here, that these games tend to attract people with similar impediments, uhm I mean talents. So I'll just share some of the overthinking that went into this li'l endeavor, and hope people out there find it interesting.

I first got SMAC right when it came out, but even so, I truly hadn't played it all that much. I was into Civ2 then and played it way too much for mine or anyone else's good. As a consequence - and I know I'm not the only one - my view of Alpha Centauri was biased too much by the game it builds on. Yes, I liked it immensely - embraced the multi-dimensional civics which I had often wished for in Civ2, and loved the SF atmosphere, the writing, and the flavor that came with the factional ideologies & their specialties. At the same time, however, the basic mechanics of the game are so similar to Civ2 that I just expected to keep rehearsing the same old routine bag of tricks and win. These got me quite far, yes, but when they inevitably failed I was just frustrated, not patient or motivated to come up with new solutions and play styles. Heaven forbid.

Moreover - from my present POV, more problematically - I only ever wanted to play as factions I could imagine myself adhering to politically. That meant Gaians, Peacekeepers, maybe University, and that's where the list ends.
Deirdre Skye, portrait
Pravin Lal, portrait
Prokhor Zakharov, portrait
Of these I could probably only ever get away with the Zak look. Now definitely better than in '99.

My interest, then, petered out after what must have been a couple dozen runs. I didn't get the expansion when it came out and returned to the game only rarely. Picked up the Planetary Pack many years later from the bargain bin - CDs only, no big boxes in retail by then - but mostly for sentimental reasons. Gave it a spin a few times, worked out how to play it under wine on GNU/Linux, but I don't think I completed a single run. The CDs gathered dust.

Now, for reasons I won't go into and that are not entirely healthy, once or twice a year I return to video games & get lost in them for a few weeks. This fall I was in the mood for Civ-like games. Played several rounds of Civ2 & Civ4 but lost steam. My Civ2 runs are by now almost entirely routine, and Civ4 - which, FWIW, is the installment I like the best of the lot, and played the most after Civ2, but am far from mastering at nearly the same level and not even sure if it's possible - it provided a challenge alright, but soon also started feeling repetitive.

So I loaded up Alpha Centauri again - a fresh copy from GOG, who knows where those CDs are now - and it was a different story. I won't pretend it was some kind of a revelation, but it truly was refreshing. Similar enough to Civ2 that I'm fully at home with the mechanics, but novel enough that I must try something new. Found some strategy guides (shoutout Vel, no surprise there) which I only skimmed since I like to come up with (or, rediscover) ideas on my own, but saw enough to start brainstorming new tactics. On top of that, as hinted in the earlier post, the SF setting and the ideological diversity lent the game a new relevance for the present day - and also to my present self.
Sheng-ji Yang, portrait
Miriam Godwinson, portrait
Aki Zeta-5, portrait
Cha Dawn, portrait
Lular H'minee, portrait
“I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those who cross over.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Back in '99 I was a software grunt - politically aware and dabbling in social studies, sure - but I saw the game as first and foremost a puzzle to solve. I thought the ideological framing a nice touch for the story it told, but treated the factions' perks & nerfs as an imposition to overcome rather than an asset to leverage. Today, with years of activism under my belt and working as a social science prof, leveraging the differences is like all I want to do. In fact, I decided to play every faction, in order, taking on additional in-character restrictions to force myself to play creatively instead of rehashing tried-and-true Civ2 tricks. How that's going - tremendously frustrating in the best sense of the word (that is, edifying), done with Morgan, Spartans are next. I'll probably write more in another thread. (An aside, I never was and still am not entirely comfortable with the faction-like "national characters" in Civ3 and later - but that's a tangent, which, while useful, I won't now pursue.)

And the storytelling in the game - well, I always loved it for the characters and the atmosphere it conjured - but this time around, I started treating it as more than colorful background. That's where I'll leave it for now, as this post is already quite long and it's late where I am.

TBC
 
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Ok, it's happening. Here's the schedule of what's coming out when. (I don't think any of this is serious enough talk of "releases" :cool:) The intro vids and the original factions are lined up weekly starting Friday, the Crossfire factions then follow daily for a week, ending with Planet on February 9.


This li'l vid was a good spot to use the amazing droning of fx/alien bgrnd6.wav, and overlay it with the Gaians' ambient and fx/wind e4.wav to produce a nice cacophony. It's also a good place for the planetfall animations. I considered incorporating them in the video with the intros, and they actually work quite well, but that video doesn't need to be any more crowded. More on Friday when it comes out.

Now, check out the colors of the bioscan lines descending down the body silhouettes. The animations in the game are in red, yellow, and (light) blue, but other colors can be produced using filters in the video editor.

Gaian green bioscan.gif
"I want my bioscan to be green!" – Lady Deirdre Skye, "Arguments in Council", non-canonical edition

Approximating the green, blue, and white of the first three SMAC factions took a lot of tweaking. There's no way to get them by additive compositing of the originals, so I needed to shift the hue (at least), but the silhouette needs to stay the same ... all with the feature-rich but awkward shotcut filter settings, and little prior experience. Anyway, learned a lot. Other factions were easier, and for some (aliens) I didn't bother trying too hard. Properly nerding out, though, would entail figuring out the filter settings to reproduce the in-game colors nearly perfectly. Doable, but just fiddling around yielded pretty satisfying results.

Overall, this one was pretty hastily put together so I may remake it, just to be obsessive about every detail. Like, the "swoosh" in those landing animations really should move in stereo from left to right, right? (EDIT: here's the update.)
 
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Aaaand ... here's the first video of the Alpha Centauri Album, 1 : Openings.


The vid puts together the opening cinematics, the "track listing" for the album (the list of all videos with durations), and various unvoiced clips and animations. It's a kind of a miscellaneous bag, and I did what I could to make it interesting to watch.
 
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Now up, 2 : Gaia's Stepdaughters, the first faction video.


All the other vids will basically follow this same pattern, with minor departures. Of them, this one I think has the best balance of videos and voiceovers, and if you squint hard enough you may even discern the flow of a story. I'll write more properly when I catch a moment, which I now don't really have.
 
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Tempted to embrace the cringe? You could do worse than start with 3 : Human Hive.


When I laid out the look of the still screens, I worked with The Hive, mainly because the emblem, a simple circle, was the easiest to extract from game graphics. I stared at the face of my homie Sheng-ji longer than I care to share - tho certainly less than it took to figure out how to succeed as him on Thinker level.
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Next in line, 4 : University of Planet.


University is a longer video, and - along with the Gaians - another well-paced one between the vids and the audio clips, even though in this case I can't even pretend there's a coherent story behind it. Zak sure has a lot to say and some of it even makes sense. But not all :nope:
 
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This week's chapter, 5 : Morgan Industries.


Morganites are special. Their installment is the longest of the lot, and not because of cinematics. Nwabudike is a close second to Zak in how many quotes he voices, and at par in his propensity to just ramble on. Together with the blurbs by Morgan's proxies and employees, the faction commands more voice clips than any other - but with comparatively few secret project movies. This makes for long stretches of audio and for somewhat haphazard ordering. It's all fine for a fan, of course, but if you're expecting moving images and tight flow, it can be a slog.

If you complain too much, though, there's a job opening for you at Morgan Mines - a non-automated nano-shovel operator in a borehole pressure mine at the Mohorovičić discontinuity, 100km beneath Planet surface, where crust gives way to mantle.
 
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Noone expects the 6 : Spartan Federation!


Spartans are special, too, for the opposite reason than the Morganites. They have more than their fair share of cinematics, more than any other faction, even after one got ... appropriated by the Pirates. Add Santiago's penchant for pithy statements, her deadpan giddiness when the topic is killing, and the implication that, militarily, the Spartans get their trigger happy behind handed to them - and the result could be the funnest one of the bunch.
 
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Rejoice, for 7 : The Lord's Believers are here, bearing good news!


The shortest of the original faction vids. Clear messaging, excellent cinematics, a cool ambient track, and the religious fanatic aspect... is equal parts mortifying and hilarious. Repent, ye sinners, and tremble before the coming of the Lord!
 
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Aaand, 8 : Peacekeeping Forces kick off the final stretch.


Lal has just one cinematic to his name, tho possibly the strongest in the game, and without a doubt the most relevant to real-life politics both in 1999 and today. His homilies are at times so earnest as to be trite, but he's got a big heart and interesting things to say. The result is a meditative clip - similar to Yang in that respect, tho more audio-heavy, and of course with an entirely opposite view of humanity.
 
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The original factions' vids needed to be shaped into something coherent from an often too abundant assortment of clips. Alien Crossfire presents the opposite challenge - there are only a few new audio clips for each faction, and two, Consciousness and Pirates, have no cinematics at all. To compensate for this, the vids are fleshed out with unused (and stolen) movies from the original game, and with philosophical and literary quotes. The result is, I think, quite successful.

Voilà, 9 : The Cybernetic Consciousness. Resistance is futile.


The Consciousness stands out with Aki Zeta-5's cleverly written quotes and excellent voice acting, IMV the best in the expansion. The pronoun play in Progenitor Psych is decades ahead of its time - tho I'm sure, in Aki's view, it's us who are eons behind. Kant and Plato agree.

(Ok, if I don't write this down right now the world will end. If Kant and Plato had a child, their name would be Contemplato. Sorry. :mischief:)
 
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