The Great and Powerful

The Great and Powerful
In The Beginning, There Was Populous

Phil Harr | 21 Oct 2008 12:50
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Surprisingly, games that had you fight against evil forces were heavily chastised, while games that let you play god went largely ignored. It's almost a miracle that Molyneux's Dungeon Keeper, with its not-too-subtle tag line "Evil is good" didn't come out sooner. Despite its tongue-in-cheek style, it would have demolished in a sacred heartbeat the local parents' and teachers' perception of strategy games as edutainment. Thankfully by the late '90s my friends and I were playing whatever the hell we wanted, though our interest in god games grew lukewarm.

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I had lost my faith in the genre. I enjoyed Populous, but its descendants had become prodigal. I didn't play the sequels, and later games like Black & White felt like false prophets of a dying god. I left them behind in favor of RPGs and action games, while my friends focused on Blizzard's trinity: StarCraft, Warcraft and Diablo. Even the massively popular The Sims failed to reignite any passion in me to act like a meddling deity. Rather than let theological escapism die, I turned instead to epic tales like Paradise Lost, The Sandman, The Kalevala, American Gods and mythology for entertainment. I wrote fiction to create something. It was like a text-based god game. A blank page for creating a world, populating it and controlling it completely, much like Calvin playing with Tinkertoys. But give any epic time and it comes full circle.

Japan was recently blessed with a DS remake of Populous. I'm inspired, but not ready to preach it from a street-corner soapbox. The graphics have been updated and the interface altered to make use of the touch screen. There's even a hilarious Nintendo level that develops from a village of Game and Watches into a gleaming city of Wiis. But what's really tempting me to convert is the game's multiplayer mode. It has twice the polytheism with four gods, and you can play against three of your mortal friends.

It's been near 20 years and I feel like the truly unique god game opportunities are few and far between. That's why the rebirth of Populous fills me with hope. It's like going back and finding an ancient text and remembering how things once were - and how they should be.

Philip Harr is a writer perpetually stuck in the Midwest with nothing witty to say about it. He enjoys classic games, classic road bicycles, and cooking delicious food.

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