Have you ever dreamed of being a god? Whether keeping fish in an aquarium, watching little civilizations grow and interact, playing with figurines, or tending to an ant farm. We’ve fallen in love with the prospect of reigning over miniature worlds. With the technological boom of the 20th century, it’s no surprise this would find its way into video games. It grew into a niche and often misunderstood genre, but one that inspired some of the most empowering and creative games ever made.
But for us to discuss them, we must first break down what a god game really is, and whether it’s technically even a genre. The definition is vague, but I’d argue “god games” are more like a set of loose design elements, limitations and rules that a variety of titles share. I’ll try my best to lay down the rules I am following for this video here, based on dozens of studied examples. The more a particular game has these elements, the more they approach a “pure” god game.
Autonomous people or creatures Growing power through gaining believers Supernatural abilities and world-sculpting And most of all, the focus on influence, rather than direct control Most “proper” strategy games let you select units and give orders. Conversely, a god sim lets you influence rather than micromanage. This means that god games often overlap with city builders and life simulators. But I’d argue the focus on belief as a resource and wielding supernatural powers helps differentiate a god game from the more realistic activities of a pure simulation.
Because of these more conceptual and less tangible design goals, the god sim has always been a treat to play, as each attempt at the formula is like an experiment in itself, a freeform sandbox you tinker with and discover more about over time. And for that reason, it has become one of my very favorite types of games to play. So let’s explore the decades-long history of our obsession with playing god. In the earliest days of electronic entertainment, if a game wasn’t mindless action and reaction, it was a foreign idea. Arcade games and basic platformers dominated the 1970s and early 80s.
Graphics and controls needed to mature enough for deliberate strategy titles to even exist. After home consoles became more than simple Pong-machines, the first strategy game with real-time elements was born. The 1981 Intellivision title, Utopia, pitted two players against each other. Each trying to bring their own island to prosperity, sometimes at the expense of the other island. It’s a hybrid of turn-based commands: like constructing buildings, farms and boats, or ordering rebels to sabotage the enemy. But real-time elements like changing weather, boats harvesting seafood, migrating fish and moving storms kept things dynamic.
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This was a seed, that sprouted the roots of city builders, 4X strategy, real-time strategy, and god games. Will Wright’s 1989 smash hit, SimCity, popularized the city builder. Here you don’t control your citizens directly, instead you influence them via taxes, construction and city planning. Other developers imitated this style, creating a rich library of city builders set in Rome, Egypt, Heaven itself, or just about any setting you could think of.
These share similarities to god games like having an autonomous population. But mundanely building and managing excludes them from being true “god games”. Sid Meier’s hallmark classic, Civilization, inspired its own genre, now known now as the “4X Strategy” (EXplore, EXpand, EXploit, and EXterminate). It is likewise involved in leading people to flourish, and spread commerce and religious influence.
Yet the direct control of units and cities, and the lack of supernatural powers solidifies it as separate evolution of strategy games. Real-time strategy games which focused on creating buildings and battling armies to the death rose to popularity in the 1990s. Westwood Studios’ Dune II paved the road that so many games followed. Being controlled by the player through direct orders, and their focus on micromanagement and tactical combat, RTS games are not god games.
But as we’ll prove later, the god game and RTS do cross over sometimes. To describe the history of the god game, you have to start with the story of one ambitious man and his love for video games. Guildford, England. Early 1980s. Entrepreneur and programmer, Peter Molyneux, started a small company selling Amiga and Commodore game disks. The first video game he designed himself was in a way, ironic: a simple text adventure called Entrepreneur, a game about starting a business.
Molyneux’s first game sold very few copies, but he remained undeterred. Accidentally landing a programming contract, after his company was mistaken with a more established one which had a similar name. They nailed the job. Peter Molyneux and his friend, fellow entrepreneur Les Edgar forwarded this success into founding a game development studio together: Bullfrog Productions.
The concept behind their first big hit was accidental. In-house artist and programmer, Glenn Corpes, created some isometric tile art which inspired Molyneux to dabble with in a prototype. It featured a landscape of varying elevation. Then they added people, who wandered around until reaching an obstacle or a body of water.
Next came raising and lowering land, from the oceans to mountains, for the people to traverse easier. It was a neat little distraction, until the idea sparked that these denizens should create buildings and homes on suitable terrain. And so formed what would become the core element of god games: influence over creatures or people, rather than direct control. The design philosophy that defined Populous was that the player alters the WORLD, not its people or their buildings.
Populous, as the title suggests, was all about increasing the population and prosperity of your people. To ease expansion and remove obstacles, with the end goal of defeating your rival god‘s followers. You start out with limited land manipulation, but if you gather enough followers, you gain access to more biblical powers. Summoning volcanoes, floods, earthquakes and pestilent swamps, and the ability to rally your people via a divine banner. Most of the gameplay involves helping your followers settle land, then “sprogging” them out of a building to found another settlement. To win a match, you can kill off the enemy’s flock with divine sabotage, you can rally enough followers and create a path to defeat them in hand-to-hand combat, or you can reach the level required to cast Armageddon, which immediately converts every person in the world into fighters, who duke it out til only one side is left standing.