How Civilization: Beyond Earth Adds a Story to Your Sci-Fi Society

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Posted on October 21, 2014, Phil Hornshaw How Civilization: Beyond Earth Adds a Story to Your Sci-Fi Society

One of the more interesting and sweeping changes to Civilization: Beyond Earth is in the way it pairs with players to tell stories within the Civilization experience.

Up until now, Civilization games have always been about letting players loose to create their own societies, and with them, their own stories. Though historical Civ games cover human history from the Stone Age to the Space Age, the narratives that develop out of that timeline are created by player choices as they interact with other civilizations around the world. Japan taking over Russia, the United States adopting Hinduism, an economic powerhouse rising out of the Iroquois nation – those are the unique tales that players create through the act of actually playing.

Beyond Earth, on the other hand, is a game that naturally builds out from the end of your typical historical Civ game. It’s about humanity’s first colonizing steps into the universe, and as such, it’s a shift in how storytelling is done within Firaxis’ franchise. Rather than starting at the beginning of humanity, it starts at the beginning of a new chapter in human history, and so it starts out with a bit of story context. There’s a reason players are venturing out from Earth to a new planet, and there’s at least a little bit of fiction behind what that reason is, and who has chosen to respond to it.

Beyond just setting up a reason to be on another planet, however, Beyond Earth integrates a form of storytelling into the game through its new quest system. As players work through the game, that system presents them with little bits of story that drive them through the game. Mechanically, it’s both a way for players to determine how they interact with their new world, and to make binary decisions about how they want to specialize their civ: for example, every time you build a new type of building, you’ll trigger a quest that asks you to choose one type of specialization or another for it.

“We knew making a science fiction game, that there’d be an expectation of some kind of science fiction narrative,” Co-lead Designer Will Miller explained in an interview with GameFront. “We also knew that fans of (Sid Meier’s) Alpha Centauri really responded well to that part of the game. This is something that’s new for us in a Civ game. We’ve had quests before: in Civilization V, they were the city state quests. They were very simple — they didn’t carry a lot of fictional payload. So we knew we wanted that, but at the same time, we also knew that Civ is not a linear narrative. That’s not what the game is about. It’s about letting the player create their own stories, and we never wanted to trample on the ability for players to do that. So we took some influences from RPGs and from games like FTL that have a quest system that kind of is, at the same time, very light-weight, but gives that fictional payload and also kind of creates these stories for the player to set their own on top of.”

“We knew making a science fiction game, that there’d be an expectation of some kind of science fiction narrative.”

There is a finite number of quests in the game, Miller said, and Beyond Earth chooses them in a procedural way as you’re working through the game, depending on where you are and what’s happening in the world around you. Certain things will always trigger quests – like the buildings example – but others will come up on their own as players work through the game, giving them a bit of a narrative thread to follow as they create their own stories. Quests will usually encompass some moral dilemma or other choice, and the effects of those choices are never negative, Miller said.

“We don’t pass judgment on these moral things — it’s always a positive benefit that you get no matter what the choice, they’re just different,” he said. “So you have to make these choices about how you want to specialize your civ. And for players who don’t really care about the story or the fiction or whatever, or are in a multiplayer game, for example, and they don’t have time to read, we give them hints about what they’re going to get if they pick each one. But we do offer that fictional foundation there to give the player an idea of what the world is and where they are.”

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