Populous to The Sims: a history of playing god

We humans are a pretty horrible species really, when you start thinking about it.

It doesn't seem to matter how much a game tells us that we're meant to be bringing peace to a fragmented land or helping a small tribe of settlers achieve their destiny as masters of the universe, when it comes to god games, it's all about the size and destructive power of the lightning bolts.

No, that's a little unfair. The fireballs are quite good fun to play with too. And then there are the volcanos, of course. Oh, and the odd flood, only we don't forget to deal with the fish, like a certain deity we could name.

It doesn't matter what the game is, and don't pretend you've never done it. Everyone who's played The Sims has, at one time or another, locked a whole family in a room with no toilet, or stolen the ladder from their swimming pool, or stripped someone naked at a dinner party just to watch the reaction.

It's human nature, not necessarily to be complete bastards, but to poke and prod at the rules of a universe for no greater purpose than to see what happens when we do. The bastard bit simply adds a bit of spice. Or a lot of spice, if the game you're playing is doing its job properly.

Playing god gives us all the power in the world, and done properly, the game it comes wrapped in is simply a nice bonus. The strange thing is that as much fun as the genre should be to play, only a handful have ever truly made it work…

Book of genesis

As a genre, 'god games' (or 'god sims' if you prefer) is a tricky one. It's more a statement of intent than an actual genre, with the games that qualify all typically offering a completely different spin on what it means to be a god.

In some cases, most famously Bullfrog's classic game Populous, it's literal. You're a god, with control over the land, your people, and their destiny. You perform miracles to help them rise to power, and crush the tribes who stand against you.

In other games, such as The Sims, it's a more general thing. You're the puppetmaster of the simulation, typically with objectives that provide a framework, but the real entertainment coming from your own experimentation and the stories you create for yourself within the sim. Your people may have individual names, wants and faces or be summed up as something more general, like a planet with a population of 7,043,035 that exists only to be part of some later calculation.

God games share much of their DNA with more traditional strategy games. Resource management comes into play for both building a civilisation and restricting the amount of zap-happy fun you can do, and, of course, the more basic problem that unlike God's skillset, you don't have omnipotence, omnicognisance, and all the other omnis- on your side. Instead, you're powerful enough to play with the rules, but not necessarily high enough above them to flaunt them entirely.

That's hardly a surprise when the rules are laid down by the nature of the game you're playing, and the fact that game AI still struggles with even basic emergence – the creation of complex results from simple interactions. It's one thing to have an AI capable of finding food when hungry, it's quite another to teach it to play a mean game of chess.

Book of chronicles

The earliest god sims kept things very simple. Arguably the first ever was the Game of Life in 1970, albeit as a mathematical curiosity rather than a game. The idea is simple – you get a grid of cells, on which you put a pattern. A black dot means life, a white one is empty.

Run the program, and four simple rules determining underpopulation and overpopulation determine how the pattern grows and mutates. There's no chaotic element to it at all – put in the same pattern twice and you'll get the same result – but the results can be surprisingly interesting. With the right patterns, you see a machine at work – such as gliders propelling themselves across the screen, or sequences dubbed 'Methuselahs' for how long they keep growing and mutating.

It wasn't until 1989 that two different games laid the tracks for the two basic types of god games on the market. These can be loosely summed up as construction vs destruction, but a better split is whether the action focuses on defeating an external force, or triumphing over the challenges of the simulation itself. Bullfrog brought us the first, courtesy of Populous' warring gods. Maxis planted its flag firmly in the second camp with the original SimCity. Both were licenses to print money.

Bullfrog's take on the genre was easily the most exciting. You were your own god, and not the kind that answers prayers and makes guest appearances on pieces of toast. No, you were a wrathful god, with direct power, followers, and flashy powers – especially when Populous 2 came out, with its Greek theme, and phenomenal twenty-nine different spells at your disposal. Lightning! Swamps! Plagues! Volcanoes! More Lightning! Armageddon! New Game? Yes!

The Populous games introduced – albeit didn't outright invent - concepts like manna/mana as the energy that lets gods perform miracles, regenerated by the prayers of your followers. The more followers you accumulate, the more impressive your power becomes.

Another standard god game trope is that you're not an active participant in the action, but a manipulator, viewing it from afar. Instead of specifically building houses, as in a strategy game like Age of Empires or even The Settlers, you simply flatten the land for them to do it themselves. Most god games are based on this kind of system; individually simple rules that combine to create a believable simulation. That's the key word. It doesn't have to be realistic, just as long as the results are predictable and satisfying.

This is where SimCity scored, even without the divine powers. You played a mayor, not a god, with a budget to work to, and no real goal but to build the best city. You got complete control over the most important structures, such as power plants and stadiums and police stations, but you could put all of them down and still end up with a crappy, run down city.

People would only move in, and districts only improve, if the conditions were right. Luxury housing right next to a smoke-belching coal plant? Not going to happen. A raging fire because you didn't have the support services in place to handle an earthquake? Your own fault… or more likely, the result of not having the money to do everything.

Book of Job

SimCity and The Sims are easily Maxis' biggest games, but far from the most ambitious simulators. You don't get much bigger than SimEarth (1990), which spanned 10 billion years and challenged you to create sentient life. On the other end of the scale entirely came SimAnt (1991), which zoomed in all the way to a single ant colony, with resources ranging from pheromone trails to food regurgitation. Others included SimLife, SimFarm, SimIsle and – bizarrely – SimTower, based on a simulation elevator management tool.

None of the Sim games had the same hook as SimCity. It's not hard to see why. We know – roughly – how a city is meant to work and what we'd do If We Were In Charge. Even entomologists don't have the same burning desire to beat ants at their own game, and running a whole planet? Where the hell do you begin?

There's no perfect scale for a god sim, but neither end of the curve works very well. The bigger the sims get, and the further from common-sense/wish fulfilment thinking, the less they connect on that all important personal level. At the other end of things, the more specific the simulation, the more the player has to feel in control and the more they resent seemingly artificial barriers.

Creating lifeforms proved a particularly painful cul-de-sac for the genre, whether it was the all-out ecosystem exploration of SimLife, the action-focused Gene Wars (where the idea never got much further than the plot), or even last year's Spore, we're not even close to doing it properly.

City builder games have increasingly suffered from the same problem – particularly when the camera zooms in on individual people responding to your strategy. As satisfying as it is to build a pretty, fully functional little town, it's hard not to get cross when the lazy bastards would rather starve to death than walk two streets to get to the food shop. This particularly plagued Impressions' otherwise excellent Caesar/Pharaoh games, with their reliance on grid layouts and very artificial requirements for getting people to set up expensive homes. You could build a town that looked Roman, but that didn't necessarily mean you were creating a Roman town.

It's telling that the same problem hasn't particularly struck the Civilization games, all even more abstracted from reality, while the original, ultra-simple SimCity still tends to be more popular than its more advanced sequels. Building a city is fun. Worrying about its sewage system, not so much.