In most genres of gaming players can get their kicks from tormenting the poor virtual creatures weaker than them. Known as “videogame cruelty potential,” this popular activity is a source of hours of cathartic release for many gamers. But one genre in particular excels at promoting user-driven comedy: god games. They give players the chance to be inventive while dishing out the pain on a broader scale and in greater detail than most other genres.
Bullfrog Productions’ Theme Hospital was a god game designed to get these kinds of laughs. In Theme Hospital, ailing patients could only be treated by rooms of specialized equipment that would cure them through routines of cartoon violence. For example, a patient with a bloated head needed to go to the room where doctors would deflate him with a needle and then re-inflate him like a balloon. Ridiculous diseases and silly treatments set the tone of the game.
However, there was another kind of humor the game offered: Players could build bizarre mazes into their hospital and trap patients to see if they would suffer and die before they could find the room with the cure they needed. As in Theme Park and other Bullfrog titles, you could control your employees directly but the patrons made their own decisions. How long this torment would last was out of your hands – you could only set the stage.
Such play could remain amusing as long as the player got creative with bad hospital design. It was also funny in spite of the game itself; doing this was opposed to the goal of curing patients and running the hospital well, and would eventually cause you to lose. What made it fun anyway? Unlike the weird diseases and treatments that composed most of the gameplay, this was a joke that the player told themselves.
The Sims provides excellent examples of god game aggression. Some players are satisfied with simply dressing their Sims in silly outfits. But nearly every gamer knows how to starve Sims to death by trapping them in doorless rooms. Another well-known prank is to drown them in pools by luring them in during a party, then removing all the ladders so they cannot climb out. Removing all bathrooms from their house will show you how a Sim can writhe in pain before they soil the floor. The Sims not only makes the suffering of virtual beings seem just real enough to satisfy our primitive impulses, but also gives the players the chance to be creative in their sadism.
As in Theme Hospital, such a vicious take towards the mortals in your care conflicts with the stated goals of the game. Likewise, a popular activity in Spore is to create creatures with silly appearances to post on the Sporepedia. But many of these gag creatures (most of them sexual in nature) come out of the Creature Creator poorly equipped to compete in the game itself; they’re meant to be funny rather than optimal. In the later stages of Spore, you can find more direct humor simply by blowing other species’ planets into space dust, though at an expensive cost and not much reward. Players often have to step off the normal path of the game in the pursuit of laughter.
Some games actively encourage mischief. In Lionhead Studios’ Black & White, players can use the Hand of God to fling hapless mortals miles into the air and hear them scream in terror until they hit the ground. If that requires more time and attention than you’re willing to spend, you can simply call upon your divine powers and burn their villages to the ground. To progress in Black & White, you must convince the mortals of your power by performing miracles of greater and greater scale, and these miracles need not be benevolent. Becoming a Good God requires that you care for the little beings; if you want to become an Evil God, however, then terrorizing your worshippers is not just permissible but will actually advance you through the game.
Not all god games can become a platform for game humor, however. Introversion Software’s Darwinia is a simple but sophisticated shareware game with a lot of depth. Like in Theme Hospital and other titles, Darwinia tasks you with protecting and guiding a number of little independent charges whom you cannot control directly. It’s a fun and addicting game, but it never fulfills the psychological need met by keeping a Sim from going to the bathroom. What Darwinia lacks is not good gameplay, but detail.
Evoking real schadenfreude from virtual victims requires that players be able to see the suffering they cause. The objects of your violent intent in Darwinia are limited to the Virus creatures and the Darwinians you’re meant to protect. You can kill the Darwinians in your trust, but the game’s simple retro-feel graphics reduces this to you making little green icons disappear with a funny sound. Moreover, Darwinia provides no middle ground between live Darwinians and dead ones. By contrast, a properly neglected Sim will cry, soil the floor, hold their stomach, and search the house for fridges and toilets. It is that variety and detail that make the player think he’s messing with an actual being rather than just a computer. Call it the Turing Torture Test.
There is no one element or panacea that guarantees that a god game will be funny. It requires a combination of player freedom, game scale, AI responsiveness and the tone set by the designers. Even so, many excellent god games give the player all of those elements and fail at making players laugh – it is a delicate balance. For example, designers have to watch where a player may become bored. While it is too much to expect any game to engage a player forever, idle boredom with options is what will lead a player to start tormenting their civilians for laughs, where disengaged boredom is what will lead them to restart and throw in a different disc. Ultimately, like the outcomes of many god games themselves, there is no perfect certainty.
“To be a god, at least to be a creative one, one must relinquish control and embrace uncertainty,” writes author Kevin Kelly in the book Out of Control. “Absolute control is absolutely boring. To birth the new, the unexpected, the truly novel – that is, to be genuinely surprised – one must surrender the seat of power to the mob below.” That is good advice for developers on how god games should play, and what endows them with humor. When players have the leeway to torture, customize and goof off, comedic situations are inevitable. And if the virtual people below respond in entertaining ways of their own volition, all the better.
Michel Fiallo-Perez is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.