It’s not often that my day job as a geneticist overlaps with my love for video games, but that’s exactly what’s happening in the new Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. In early interviews about this sci-fi edition of the Civ series, it seemed like genetic engineering would play a large part in shaping your space colony’s future. As a genetics grad student and a Civ superfan (I’m not sure if I should feel guilty or proud when Steam tells me the number of hours I’ve played), I was itching for more information. I was lucky enough to interview Co-Lead Designers Will Miller and David McDonough about what role genetics will be playing in Beyond Earth.
Q: Civilization: Beyond Earth has been called the “spiritual successor” to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. In Alpha Centauri, one of the first techs you can research is Biogenetics, which enables you to make the Human Genome Project. Co-lead designer David McDonough mentioned, “When you start the game, you’re not really that far from where we are today.” What real life biological research inspired some of the genetic techs we will see early in the game?
A: There’s more than one piece of biological research that’s been an inspiration to us, going all the way back to the cloning of Dolly the sheep. But growing human organs in pigs and other transgenetic medicine and biocompatibility developments have been particularly interesting to us. The recent developments in custom-designed viruses as weapons for medical sciences – is incredibly fascinating to us. For example, the genetically engineered measles that selectively kill cancer cells as is the idea of taking something that is bad for us and turning it into something that has a positive result. Selectively infecting mosquitos with a disease that prevents them from developing the saliva necessary to transmit dengue fever is another example of research we find fascinating. We think the most interesting research has been channeling forces that are at best neutral (and mostly harmful) and turning them into things that are helpful to us.
Q: Alpha Centauri was released in 1999, and the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. While still incredibly useful to scientists, we consider the HGP old news. Are there any technologies in Beyond Earth that are currently science fiction, but you believe may become reality in the next decade?
A: The tech that we most hope gets adopted in the next decade is the thorium reactor, which is a building that you unlock through the Engineering technology. Dave McDonough in particular will talk your ear off about its many upsides and how it has potential to revolutionize our power. So please don’t ask him about thorium reactors in the next decade or we won’t have time to finish this interview.
Q: Were there any particular books, movies, or TV shows that shaped how you treat genetics in the game?
A: Slant by Greg Bear is a great source, taking the theme of genetic manipulation as form of fashion, and science as a plaything as our vanity. Older and darker but also important is the graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, which has some absolutely fascinating ideas in it, not only about biology but about the future more generally.
Q: One of the most memorable characters from Alpha Centauri is the leader of University of Planet. Can we expect to see another scientist leading a Faction in Beyond Earth?
A: Yes! Daoming Sochua is the leader of the Pan-Asian Cooperative. She’s a certifiable genius with a quad Ph.D. in nanoelectronics, nuclear physics, bubble physics, and electrical engineering. That last degree was a lagniappe from working on the other three. In addition to her formidable research skills, she’s also a talented administrator. While defending her theses, her committee became acutely aware of their impending obsolescence.
Concept art for Daoming Sochua Source: GameCrate
Q: Could you tell me more about the new “Gene Vault” wonder? Are there other genetics-themed buildings or wonders available to players?
A: There are quite a few Wonders based around genetics, and Gene Vault is the earliest of these, as well as the Stonehenge of the new planets. The Gene Vault is a Svalbard for the new world – a massive, secure repository of the genetic library the settlers bring with them to their new planet. Think about how incredibly important this library would be for space colonists! The Gene Vault is also important because it represents a strong link back to the aspirations and hopes of Old Earth.
Q: One major feature of Beyond Earth is the three affinities: Harmony, Purity, and Supremacy. Harmony specializes in embracing the alien planet, and will “allow the planet to change them right down to their very own DNA.” Will other affinities utilize genetic manipulation, or will this be specific to Harmony?
A: All three affinities would have their own take on genetic manipulation. A Purity civ, for example, would probably find genetic manipulation perfect for eliminating genetic disorders like Huntington’s or other disorders with a strong hereditable component. A Supremacy civ would see it as another tool in the proverbial toolbox of adaptive technologies, although they’d be more likely to point out that it’s a lot easier to update firmware than nucleotides. But in the end they see everything as code that can be reprogrammed.
Q: Harmony also allows you to get “alien creatures on your team and breed new units based on their genes.” Can you tell me more about how this breeding system will work?
A: Right now these are units that are unlocked by researching Harmony-affiliated techs. The notion of breeding is reflected in the fact that these units are not identical to those you find wandering out in the world.
Q: What is Harmony’s relationship with the alien life like? Is it a mindless swarm doing the bidding of their leaders like the Zerg, a symbiotic beneficial relationship like Avatar, or something completely different?
A: Harmony can have any relationship towards the planet’s native life, and in fact, part of the Harmony approach usually means clearing out nearby alien nests as part of your own city development. Preserving humanity is usually an overriding priority over preserving the planet! A Harmony civ will be trying to change humanity to be a better biological match to the world, but that doesn’t mean rejecting technology or ignoring existential threats – the world will certainly need to be changed a bit to accommodate the Harmony civ. They’re just less interested in radically changing the world than Purity, or rejecting the environment entirely like Supremacy.
It’s also not true that a Harmony civ is inherently more peaceful than any other civ. An aggressive Harmony civ is a tidal wave of mandibles and chitin directed consciously at its enemies.
Q: In Firaxis’s other incredibly popular game X-COM: Enemy Within, you have the ability to give your soldiers various abilities through genetic engineering. Will this be an option in Beyond Earth’s new Unit Upgrade system?
A: Yes! In fact, certain upgrades are tied specifically to your Affinity, and require a certain devotion to your affinity in order to unlock. This helps differentiate the Affinities and their approach to combat.
Q: McDonough has mentioned that most of the game’s technology will be realistic/plausible, but by the end you’ll see “pretty fun wild crazy things, very fictitious stuff.” Can you hint at any crazy genetic technologies you may unlock? Should I be looking forward to an “X-Gene” that enables my soldiers to shoot laser beams from their eyes or read minds?
A: Artificial Evolution is probably the most out-there genetics tech, and it’s got some impressive leaf techs underneath it (aggressive Harmony players, this is one tech to aim for). It won’t do anything for your soldiers per se, but keep in mind that your soldiers are only one part of your arsenal.
Q: Genetics is already a divisive topic in our world, with many differing opinions on the ethics of GMOs, personalized genomics and medicine, and “designer babies.” Will this division play out in Beyond Earth? For example, am I going to get a diplomatic penalty with Purity aligned Factions if I decide to make an army of mutant super soldiers?
A: Yes, but it will be predominately because you as a Harmony civ (which I’m assuming here) will have a wildly different vision for the planet than the Purity civ. You will want people to live more comfortably on the planet by changing people, and the other civ will feel the planet needs to be turned into a new Earth. However, you can still go heavily into genetic techs and focus on Purity as your affinity, and so you may have more in common with that other Purity civ than you might expect.
Q: Religion in Alpha Centauri was limited to a few Factions. But in Beyond Earth it seems that everyone will have access to religion, suggesting it will be more customizable like in Civ 5. Will we have the ability to make a religion centered around genetic engineering or opposed to it?
A: We’re not looking at implementing specific religious themes or proscriptions. Certainly you can think of the Affinities as being sort of larger meta-philosophies in terms of how they perceive the best path for humanity going forward, and as you increase in your devotion to an Affinity you’re making a conscious rejection of the other two. Whether or not that rises to the level of “thou shalt not” for your people is up to the player.
Q: In Alpha Centauri, the player was able to engage in genetic warfare that would reduce the population of a city by half and greatly damage military units in the city. Will genetics or biological warfare play a role in combat or as part of the new espionage system?
A: Biological warfare is something that’s hard to feel good about, as a player. We were trying for a more optimistic tone with Beyond Earth, and not browbeat players for the choices they make in the course of the game. Designer plagues don’t really fit the tone we’re trying to achieve.
Q: Sci-fi books and video games frequently have a dystopian view of genetics that can disappoint researchers who see a lot of good coming out of their field. What sort of philosophy did you take when addressing the role of genetics in Beyond Earth? Are you going to leave the morality up to the player? For example, will a Harmony aligned Faction be able to make choices that allow them to play as a utopian society that’s free of disease, a dystopian society with genetic classes like Gattaca, or some ethical gray area in between?
A: The approach to the technologies in the game was driven by a larger approach we take in design which is: players should feel like the decisions they’ve made were positive ones. We don’t want players to make a choice and then immediately regret it because of something the game says. Now, consequences as a result of those decisions – that’s perfectly appropriate! So to that end, we’ll let players decide what the moral valence of their choices should be.
Q: How do you think your job as game developers affects public perception of science? For example, Carl Sagan’s Contact greatly inspired me to fall in love with science and become a scientist, and clearly had an impact on Beyond Earth since it is effectively one of the victory conditions. Do you see Beyond Earth as playing a similar role in inspiring others to appreciate science?
A: We’re not setting out to give a science lesson in Beyond Earth, although we do like to think we’ve paid attention to actual science and our speculative courses are at least plausible. If someone experiences something in the game and then says: “Gee, I wish I knew more about these ‘thorium reactors,’” and they go out and educate themselves, then we’re incredibly happy and proud. Sid always says that people like to learn, and there are plenty of opportunities to dig into the science behind the game here. We also do a lot of research after the game gets made, so we’ll keep reading up on science long after the game ships.