Old gods will stir and be appeased. They awake and shake off dust of ages, ready to tear the earth asunder and inspire their faithful. Leveling the land to ease the rise of civilization, calling down fire from the heavens or using other miracles to spur forward Progress, their will be done.
It was the year of our lord 1993 when I first bore witness to Peter Molyneux’s firstborn god game, Populous. I was only 10 years old when I ascended the stairs to the upstairs den of my friend Jon’s house. There was the common altar you’d find at all my friends’ houses: a Super Nintendo and a television. The lights were off and Jon had muted the game music in favor of the Smashing Pumpkins. He was furiously working to manage the tiny figures walking about and occasionally warring against each other. I asked what they were accomplishing, and he explained he was trying to increase the population of his faithful.
As I looked on, the truth sank in. He was playing god. A rather malevolent one, too, considering he was supposed to be a “good” deity destroying the other, “evil” god’s followers. I shouldn’t have been surprised. He was competitive, a fantastic chess player (I only beat him once), obsessed with politics, and loved strategy games. He was the perfect candidate for virtual omnipotence. I tried my hand at godhood and was swiftly annihilated, but the seed had been sown.
Long before that afternoon, I remember reading a Sunday Calvin and Hobbes comic that opens with Calvin imagining himself a god. He wills the fabric of existence into shape. He forges a universe from nothing and creates life from the void. He calls himself one of the “old gods” and demands ritual sacrifices while hurling fire and brimstone. This Miltonic scene shifts to his parents encouraged by him playing with Tinkertoys. His father says, “He’s creating whole worlds over there!” The message is clear: With the right tools, we can all play god. A good god game should inspire in us the desire to shape worlds – and to break them. Populous was a fine start. You used your powers as a supreme being to level the land for your followers, boosting their faith in you as you went. You guided and shaped their world while interfering or inspiring with various miracles. Simultaneously the other god was doing the same (and faster). While expanding your people’s hold on the world you attempted to gain ground against the other god and incite a digital crusade.
In those days though, Jon and I attended a Christian school that took a hands-off approach to games and other media. School officials left it up to the parents to decide what was appropriate for their kids. Being younger, I had missed out on most of the birth pangs of the god game genre with Utopia, though by junior high school my friends and I were familiar with the SimCity series and console games like ActRaiser. My parents allowed me to play most simulation games under the auspices of them being educational; they even righteously applauded these time sinks. Populous was OK to play because it was considered to have the religious content of an average game of checkers. Somehow the tiny stable of god games had mercifully slipped below the radar of videogame controversy.
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.
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.