Playing God – A look at the God Game genre
We all wish we could be God for a day, some of us even longer. In the videogame world that dream becomes a virtual reality. The ‘God Game’ genre (also known as an artificial life games) allows gamers to have control of a game on a large scale
The first ‘God game’ created dates back to 1978 and appeared on an issue of SoftSide magazine as a cassette for the Apple II. Considered to be more of a strategy game, Santa Paravia en Fiumaccio (created by George Blanks) gave the player the opportunity to be the ruler of an Italian city in 1400’s. The player needed to manage their town in such a way where it would grow and prosper where the end result of the game was to become the King or Queen.
Never heard of the game? Until recently, neither had I! Let’s take a look at some of the more popular titles in this genre.
The Sims (Maxis/EA Games – 2000 – Windows, Mac OS)
If you haven’t heard of The Sims, you must have been living under the rock! Released in early 2000 by EA Games, developer Maxis learnt fast that they were on to a hit after first rejecting the idea back in the early 90’s!
After losing all of his possessions in a house fire, creator Will Wright had to start again and rebuild his life. This life experience influenced him to start creating a life-base game in conjunction with the ideas he had from SimCity – another game he had developed. After pitching the game to Maxis in 1993, they felt that PC’s at the time could not run the game and it game idea was rejected. Determined to see The Sims ‘come to life’, Wright was back on the door step of Maxis as well as EA games and in 1995, the game idea was approved and design and production started soon after.
A single player game, players are in control of the day-to-day lives of their virtual person (or people if you are feeling adventurous) by giving them direction to ensure their virtual person/persons has their needs met. Much like a real human being, your Sim needs to eat, sleep, bath, make friends, get a job etc and the player has 100% control of whether these needs are fulfilled or not. The player can also be in charge of creating their Sim a home or take the easy option and find a pre made home.
There really is no primary objective on The Sims. Instead of completing objectives like in other games, players have to make the choices and engage with their Sim. Whilst your Sim has some ‘Free will’ to an extent, they are not completely independent and require you to make the right decisions for them to live long and happy lives.
The Sims created a total of seven expansion packs for the first instalment of the game. Each expansion packs generally featured new characters, items and skins. The last expansion pack released in 2003. The Sims 4 is due out in September and the word is that this version will be the best yet!
Considering The Sims sold a whopping 11.3 million copies of game worldwide in its first year and knocked Myst off the top spot at the time, I’m almost certain that EA and Maxis were more than happy with their decision to bring The Sims to life.
Populous (Bullfrog/EA Games – 1989 – Amiga, Atari ST, MS DOS, Mac OS, Master System, SEGA Genesis, SNES, Windows)
Created in 1989 by eccentric gaming designer Peter Molyneux and released originally on the Amiga, many gamers regard Populous as THE first God game.
Inspired by Bullfrog’s artist Glenn Corpe who was seen drawing isometric blocks after playing a first person shooter called ‘Zarch’, Molyneux soon set about creating an isometic landscape and filled it with characters which he nick named ‘peeps’, later referred to as followers. He watched as these followers wandered around the landscape and stall when they hit something such as water. Developing terrains, the gameplay mechanics of being able to raise and lower the terrain became the source of your power and the game started to come to life. This soon followed with the introduction of ‘thoughts’ to the follower that if they found a sparse, empty landform that they could build a house. If they found a larger piece of land, they could build a bigger house.
Comprising of a huge 500 levels, the sole objective of the game was to increase your number of followers to then allow you to take out enemy followers. Your main God like powers in this game were the ability to raise and lower land. Now whilst this sounds basic in this day and age, back in the late 80’s this game was cutting edge. The ability was to allow houses to be built, thus allowing for more followers. The more followers you had, the more power or mana you had. By increasing your mana, you unlocked additional power levels which allowed the player to have further interaction with the land. The ability to cause earthquakes, flood the land, erupt volcanos and create swamps were just some of the additional powers available.
Populous wasn’t without its fair share of controversy. Whilst it received worldwide critical acclaim, its release and game premise of ‘good vs evil’ occurred at the same time as a controversial religious spat was occurring with a UK newspaper warning of the possible ramifications. Nothing ever came of the warning and Populous was months later named ‘Strategy Game of the Year’ in 1990.
Black & White (Lionhead Studios/EA Games – 2001 – Windows, Mac OS)
2001 saw EA Games join forces with developers Lionhead Studios for the release of Black & White. Taking on the role of a God ruling over an island populated by various tribes, the objective of the game was to gain control over every village on the island. This was done by performing wondrous feats to win the islanders over and coerce them to believe in you, the player – God. These acts of coercion could include kind gestures such as helping them or on the other end of the scale, frightening them creating the conflict of good vs evil, thus the games name sake – Black or White.
Your control over the island rested with in the Hand – an on screen animated hand that was used for moving people around the island, casting miracles and many other things. Depending on whether you are on the good God or an evil God, the environment changes based on your ‘moral’ decisions. If you were a good God, your environment will be white marble temple, full of light with happy villages and a shining white Hand. However, if you took the side of evil, you will have a surround yourself in a black and red poisonous temple, your villagers will be petrified and your Hand will resemble a burnt, claw-like hand. A player can fence sit and not pick a side of good or evil if they so wish and stay in the grey area of the game, however the decision on what side you use is 100% in the player’s hand. The game will not make you be good or bad – this decision is yours to choose.
The game saw the introduction of the Creature – a pet like creation that could be trained to carry out the same actions as the player. Training the Creature was done by the use of a leash and the Hand and over time, it can perform complex tasks. Over time, the Creature will mimic of sorts the players actions – be they good or bad. Lionhead Studios based the Creatures learning and decision making skill set on Stanford University professor Michael Bratman’s Belief-Desire-Intention model which was a theory and way of explaining human practical reasoning and intention. This model is widely used today in various artificial intelligence programs.
Whilst Black & White initially received high praise for its early gameplay, many critics and gamers felt that game was overrated and lacked the interaction that you would have expected to see in a God game.
Dungeon Keeper (Bullfrog/EA Games – 1997 – Windows)
Bullfrog Productions, under the direction of Peter Molyneux, again teamed up with EA Games in 1997 for the PC release of Dungeon Keeper. Here players would attempt to build and maintain a dungeon or lair whilst guarding it from invading good characters who were hell-bent on stealing your treasure that had been accumulated and killing monsters along the way.
Returning to his roots with Populous, Molyneux uses an isometric perspective in Dungeon Keeper. The player uses a mouses where the on screen pointer is a hand – the Hand of Evil. This hand can be used to interact with the menu bar to select rooms in which they want to build and for casting spells. The hand can also be to pick any creatures or objects that may appear in the dungeon. Using the Hand of Evil can have rather alarming effects – if a creature is slapped for example as part of a tactic to move them on, this can result in some traps being activated and any prisoners who may be in the torture chamber being tortured.
A single player game, you also have the ability of possessing one of the poor creatures which may come across your path. However, this comes with an added bonus. By carrying out the possession, you gain the ability to see the world through the creature’s eyes and also have the ability to use any powers that it may have. The goal for each level was fairly simple – eliminate the hero.
SimCity (Maxis – 1989 – Amiga, Atari ST, DOS based PC’s, SNES)
1989 saw the release of another EA/Maxis partnership with SimCity – the brainchild of designer Will Wright. An open-ended city building game, players were given the task of developing a city whilst making sure their city’s residents were happy and the city maintained a profitable income. Using zoned areas such as commercial, industrial and residential, players are required to build structures, install power grids, and establish road ways and public transportation. Once infrastructure has been set in place, residents (known as Sims) will then guide you with respect to you their needs. Their needs may require you to build for houses, roads, churches, hospitals etc depending on their demands.
Players are presented with ‘real life’ challenges that one would expect when they are in control of the city such as crime, natural disasters such as fires or floods and your actions taken to react to these scenarios were pivotal with respect to the success or failure of your city.
Originally released on for home PC’s (Amiga, Atari ST and DOS based PC’s) SimCity was ported over to other platforms such as the Commodore 64, Macintosh and even the Super Nintendo. The Super Nintendo version’s Godzilla event was an attack from Bowser – the boss from Super Mario Bros.
SimCity was incredibly successful and won a multitude of awards including game of the year and best simulation program in 1989. Needless to say, the success has proven a fruitful enterprise for EA Games A total of 5 ‘SimCity’ games have been released to date The other titles include SimCity 2000 (released in 1994), SimCity 3000 (released in 1999), SimCity4, SimCity Societies and the more recent release in 2013 returning back to the simple title of just SimCity. The SimCity franchise has fuelled a plethora of spin-offs such as SimFarm, SimCopter and SimsVille all using the same principals, guidelines and concepts as SimCity.
Viva Piñata (Rare/Microsoft Game Studios – 2006 – Xbox 360, Windows)
One game that may not come to mind when the phrase ‘God games’ is thrown around is the 2006 release from Rare – Viva Piñata on the Xbox 360.
Players are tasked with turning an empty and bare patch of land in to a beautiful garden which is then inhabited with animals – in this case piñata animals. A sandbox style game (open world or free roaming) there is no win or lose when it comes to playing Viva Pinata. However, this being said, if you don’t make the correct choices for your piñata’s such as providing food, water and shelter, your pinata’s can be met with an untimely passing of one of your favourites.
Development of your garden is critical before you can introduce a piñata. If basics such as plant life and shelter are not available, you won’t be able to attract piñata’s to your garden. Once the basic requirements are met, your garden will attract a simple black and white piñata. Over time when additional requirements are met, the piñata may decide to become a permanent resident of your garden and when this occurs, it will shed away the boring black and white to become a vibrate multicolours piñata! With over 60 species of piñata in the game, including hybrids and kooky interbreeding of species, the options for how many piñata you can attract to your garden is endless!
When playing, you must also watch out for the bad guys, known as Ruffians as well as sour piñata’s – angry, evil piñata who are hell bent at either eating your other piñatas or causing havoc. Purchasing items using in game points can help deter the sour piñata’s from visiting your garden, thus making for a happy confortable time for all.
If the unfortunate occurs and your piñata is ‘broken’ (Rare’s kinda way of referring to close to death) your prompt attention to call the doctor will be the only thing that will save them. It really is as true to the ‘animal kingdom’ as you can get – eat or be eaten. Some pinata’s being ‘piñatavores’ who must eat other residents of the garden to become a resident or be able to reproduce. This subject matter could appear to be a little controversial to younger players, however it is part of the life cycle in nature and Rare’s approach to how the ‘eating’ occurs is done is not traumatising in anyway…. Unless you became overall attached to that particular piñata!
Surprising, Viva Piñata is actually quite complex with regards to the constant needs and requirements that have to be met. Its colourful and fun game play makes for plenty of surprises and at time, brain boggling decision making.
Viva Pinata was met with positive acclaim and many suggesting that it may have been one of Rare’s best games to date. Whilst sales were not as good as Rare had hoped for, this game in my opinion was incredibly underrated initially but has slowly but surely received a big following of fans and is definitely one that should be checked out.
Spore (Maxis/EA Games – 2008 – Windows, Mac OS X, iOS)
Another game from the ‘God game’ addict, Will Wright, is the 2008 release of Spore, again from Maxis and EA.
Released on Windows and Mac, Spore allowed players to make a creation from a microscopic organism and develop it into an intelligent and social ‘creature’. Using not only the ‘God Games’ genre, Scope crosses in to the action, real-time strategy and role playing game genres as well.
When broken down in to the multitude of components and stages your creation will go through, Spore is a rather complex and thought provoking game. Unlike the other titles from Will Wright (the Sims and SimCity) Spore does have a game objective when it comes to ‘winning’ – reach the black hole at the centre of the galaxy and collect your prize.
Spore has varying levels of difficulties and is broken up in to stages for ‘life development’. The outcome of each stage can alter the conditions you face when you level up. With each stage, different goals and experiences are presented to the player. Cell Stage, being the first level explains how your cell got to the planet and you get set at the task of guiding your microbe around a 3D water like environment similar to the game Flow on the PS3. Along the way you can chose if you want you creation to be a carnivore or a herbivore and ‘feed’ it either chucks of meat or plant materials. Once your microbe has found its way, this is where the fun begins. Players can begin to meticulously start to create their creature with ‘DNA Points’ collected in the game to which they can modify the shape, appearance and abilities of their Spore. The first stage along has a whopping 5 further levels of development to deal with before moving to the second stage. The other stages include Creature (further development of the arms, legs and brain of your creature); Tribal (Introduction into a tribe of other creatures for which you are required to control, teach and nurture); Civilization (where the goal is to gain control of the entire planet) and Space (opportunity to explore neighbouring planets). I would honestly be here all day explaining each on in greater detail, but you can get the gist.
Spore is one game that will keep you entertained and can take some time to complete each stage, there is no time limit to the game itself. The evolution stages may not be everyone’s cup of tea as a lot of time is needed to get to the end game – the Space level. However, in saying that, Spore’s concept of the creation and evolution of a biological organism and execution, set this game high on the list for originality.
Simlife: The Genetic Playground (Maxis – 1992 – Amiga, DOS, Windows 3, Macintosh)
In 1992, Maxi released a game where the concept was to simulate an ecosystem in which players could modify the genetics of plants and animals that inhabited a virtual world trough experimentation. The end result – create a self-sustaining ecosystem.
Originally released on the Amiga, DOS, Windows and Macintosh operating systems, SimLife allowed uses to manipulate genetics of animals and plants and figure of if their creations could survive on Earth. Players were also able to create their own worlds and use the ‘Frankenstein abominations’ they had created or Earths own species to also see if they could survive.
Having the ability to create and modify worlds, alter plants and animals at a genetic level and tinker with environments and ecosystems, SimLife was a ‘true biological’ simulator and right up the alley of anyone interested in the genetics, entertainment and in a slightly strange way, education.
Featuring 19 ‘animal’ options for manipulation, such as a monkey, kangaroo, a toucan and rhino, the outcomes of splicing the DNA of two animals together had some rather hilarious and at times alarming results. Can you imagine a small kangaroo that laid eggs and ate bugs or a rhino’s head wandering around with a tigers body attached to it?!?
SimLife was not a game that would have you sitting on the edge of your seat with excitement. Whist the game was received well by critics, the game was at times difficult to understand and required a lot of patience when it came to the game play.
Godus (22Cans – 2014 – Windows, OS X, iOS, Linus and Android – downloadable game only)
After leaving Microsoft in 2012, Peter Molyneux created an independent game company, 22Cans. In December 2012, the company launched a crowd funded Kickstarter to raise funds to create a game which would be the spiritual successor to Populous. That game is Godus.
Released as a beta on Steam in 2013, Godus’ full release will happen sometime in 2014. Taking on the role of God, you sculpt the world, inspire you’re your follows, possess powers, explore neighbouring lands and evolve. Presented with a piece of land, you will need to clear the land of trees and rock to enable followers (again with the followers Mr Molyneux?) to settle and build on your land. As you start to clear the land and carve into the landscape, this automatically creates plots for your followers to start building their homes. In this game, belief is what gives you your God powers. Your followers must believe in you to help you obtain great abilities.
Godus is still in the development stage and has the potential to ‘re-invent’ the ‘God Games’ genre, however to date the reception of Godus at the beta stage has been met with a great deal on controversy. Gamers have commented that Godus is nothing more than a mouse click fest and is a disappointment as they feel that more was to be expected from Moylneux. Whilst I can appreciate the frustration felt, the game in my opinion is beautifully presented and takes a step back from the normal highly rendered 3D and detailed games we are used to seeing. The game at current build stage is just under 50% completed and yes, 22Can does have their work cut out for them if they want this game to be a success, however if they can work out the bugs and concerns expressed by players of the beta, the game does have potential in the niche that is the God games genre.
The God Game genre is not for everyone. It can be time consuming and at times down right frustrating. However, if you are prepared to stick with it, the concept of being in control and being able to create and mould your world can be incredibly rewarding, fun and entertaining. But be warned, God Games can be addictive and once you start your reign of power, you might never want to end.