Alpha Centauri feels like a future that's always been lying in wait. It takes a familiar setting and genre, and then it unfolds like a horror movie, with the slow-dawning realization that the world you inhabit is not what you thought. You've brought all humanity's demons to a new planet, and let them walk free.
There are a lot of sci-fi strategy games out there. It's a genre that's always about the fantasy of exploration, colonization, and conquest, a vision of the future forever mired in the age of European exploration up to the World Wars.
On its surface, Alpha Centauri isn't that different. In fact, it's explicitly built on the foundation of Civilization II, which helped establish the conventions of its genre. Civ II tells a version of human history that culminates in a triumphant arrival at on the shores of the future. In fact, the science victory even has you sending Earth's first colonists to, you guessed it, Alpha Centauri.
Alpha Centauri looks like it's doing the same thing: telling the future history of Earth's first colonists. But then, subtly at first, it subverts the entire project.
You start to realize that your colonists basically left Earth to its death amidst various ecological, social, and political catastrophes. The factions in Alpha Centauri have starkly different values and visions for the future: Morgan Industries sees a new planet to strip-mine and convert into wealth. The University thinks that it presents a chance to finally cast-off human superstition and morality in favor of pure, unrestrained discovery.
The world of Alpha Centauri is revealed piecemeal, in evocative snippets of flavor text around new technologies, buildings, and wonders. The vast majority of this text was written by game designer Brian Reynolds himself, and he succeeded in channeling Frank Herbert's Dune, constructing the idea of an entire universe with a few choice epigrams juxtaposed against the main action of the story. And the world that's revealed… isn't a good one.
I mean, you're still doing all the classic grand-strategy stuff: building new weapons, constructing massive new industries, and taming the natural world. But then you develop a technology like Neural Grafting, and you hear one of the characters saying this:
"I think, and my thoughts cross the barrier into the synapses of the machine, just as the good doctor intended. But what I cannot shake, and what hints at things to come, is that thoughts cross back. In my dreams, the sensibility of the machine invades the periphery of my consciousness: dark, rigid, cold, alien. Evolution is at work here, but just what is evolving remains to be seen."
You can build a wonder that quashes unrest in your cities, but the video shows a bunch of dissidents being murdered without trial by automated defenses. You can keep pushing back the planet's aggressive plant life, but the harder you push, the more the more your cities are besieged by massive armies of psychic mind-worms. As history rolls onwards, the planet may even start trying to talk to you.
Alpha Centauri seemed like dystopian, paranoid science fiction in the 1990s. Playing it today, against a backdrop of looming ecological disaster and political disintegration, it reads like a prophecy.