Civ II and The History Of God Games

With news that one obsessed Civ II fan has been playing the same game for the last 10 years here's a tribute to the video game genre that changed the way we waste our lives.
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With news that one obsessed Civ II fan has been playing the same game for the last 10 years here's a tribute to the video game genre that changed the way we waste our lives.

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With news that one obsessed Civ II fan has been playing the same game for the last 10 years here's a tribute to the video game genre that changed the way we waste our lives.

More so than TV, cinema or even (as sad as it is for a writer to admit) the novel, modern videogames make headlines. It’s a billion dollar industry that has battled its way from the dusty corner of socially inept teenagers bedrooms to sit acceptably at the forefront of the entertainment industry. Videogames no longer simply exist for those who wish to experience them, they sit pride of place in our living rooms - they’re important, and they matter.

As a form of pure escapism, nothing can come close, and it’s shocking how relatively easy a couple of thousand pixels can provide such quality excitement, when shoddy soap operas like Eastenders have spent decades trying to get it right. Their presence in our lives is now such that no matter what your social-economic status, or even (shock horror) your age, it has been made practically impossible for anyone to be completely ignorant to the power of the pixel.

But videogames success story isn’t solely down to the appeal of humongous action set pieces and the crash, bang and wallop of franchises like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Sure a controversy or two will help to shift a few units, and I doubt an overabundance of crass semi-naked female characters have done the industry any harm, but what really made the difference? Who is to thank for launching videogames into the stratosphere? Sure a great story and fantastic visuals are important, but for me there is only one person to thank for the power of videogames, who brought them out of the darkness and into the light. I recommend you all get on your knees and praise God for their appeal.

But when the ‘God game’ arrived in the late 1980’s, it contained a simple idea that in essence created the industry that we know and love today

Ok let me rephrase that before you think I’ve gone all Catholic on you. When I say you should praise the power of God for the appeal of videogames, I’m not suggesting for a second that you should reach for your nearest copy of the Bible and recite the ‘our father’. But when the ‘God game’ arrived in the late 1980’s, it contained a simple idea that in essence created the industry that we know and love today.

The God game couldn’t have be a simpler premise, but what it lacked in depth, it made up through its diversity. It offered the chance for you, the player, to become your very own God. It might seem an obvious thing to do in hindsight, but at the time the decision to give the hand that held the controller the power to create, to control and to destroy was simply revolutionary.

Towards the end of the 1980’s videogames were generally created to task the player with a number of simple challenges. For the first time the user would be granted ultimate control (limited only by the hardware of the time) by offering a near infinite amount of possibilities. The God game reinvigorated the market by offering a wider choice, and more importantly, it appealed directly to the very nature of human existence. What man or woman, with a modicum of imagination, could resist the temptation of absolute control?

Populous presented the player with a rudimentary map interface that contained a ‘detailed’ reconstruction of the earth

1989’s Populous is widely considered to be both the Adam and the Eve of God gaming. Created by Bullfrog Productions and lead by the vision of the genius designer Peter Molyneux, Populous presented the player with a rudimentary map interface that contained a ‘detailed’ reconstruction of the earth. Its people could flourish or die under your rule, and through a number of options Populous allowed you to raise or lower land at your whim. The aim of the game was simple, to grow and develop your civilization, further than your enemy.

Populous’ influence on future videogames would be huge, but it has sadly failed to survive as a franchise during the console revolution, and in its place came a mix of the fantastic and the benign. Throughout the 1990’s both the forgeable ActRaiser on the Super Nintendo and the classic institution Sid Meier’sCivilization were brought into the world. One would spawn a multitude of sequels; the other would soon be forgotten.

Although arguably not a true God game, Civilization took the core elements of their success to charge you with the control of an entire race, and allowed you to lead them through history to global domination. Its success was mainly through its diversity, offering the player a number of unique ways to gain victory; Civilization’s victory was not only to be gained through battle, but offered the player the choice of winning a cultural or diplomatic race instead.

Games such as Black and White and Fable in the noughties on placing control in the hands of gamers

Peter Molyneux’s success with Populous would forge him a career in videogames that focused on placing control in the hands of gamers. Games such as Black and Whiteand Fable in the noughties took the God game to the masses, and continued a rich vein of creativity that has thrived from one generation to the next. But during 1989 another videogame, SimCity, hit the shelves with a bang, and took the idea of creation and control and channelled it into a more specific and specialized area.

Rather than allowing its player the freedom to rule the world, SimCity focused the player’s attention to the micromanagement and development of a living-breathing city. Although you could argue SimCity isn’t a God game, and more of a Major game or Prime Minister game, for me, the game doesn’t need to have an obvious deity or physical religion for the power of God to be felt. Rather than literally labelling the player a God, games like this would still place a God like power in your hands, and challenge you in a number of ways with being successful. Will Wright’s SimCity would of course be the first in a long line of games that specialised in management of Sims, and would later spawn one of the biggest videogames of all time in the year 2000 – The Sims.

Allowing you to play God with your very own living breathing person or avatar, The Sims would not only be responsible for the first real generation of teenagers who spent far too much time playing computer games, but would also push gaming out to a much wider audience. Equally it was the first time that a videogame of this nature was marketed to appeal directly to women, although it’s a misconception that The Sims is simply game for girls. That’s not to say that the God games that came before it didn’t have their female fans, but The Sims was something real and tangible, and inevitably had a much broader appeal.

Spore was a continuation of an idea that began nearly 30 years prior

Games such as Spore in 2008 attempted to offer the traditional God game a way back to the big time by specialising in the control of cute and cuddly spores. Although it was widely criticized for numerous delays and limited gameplay, Spore was a continuation of an idea that began nearly 30 years prior, and proved that there was still live to be found in an old and flagging genre.

Thankfully it wasn’t long before the long prophesised second coming, and as recently as this year we finally saw the true evolution of the God game in the form of Ubisoft’s From Dust. Although an Xbox Live and PSN only release (widely considered to the be the equivalent of a direct to video release) From Dust managed to win over its audiences with a traditional yet innovate structure that once again saw the power of God placed in the palm of your hand.

The invitation to play with vast and ultimate power, is an offer very few of us are able to turn down.

Much like Populous so many years before, From Dust gave back the power of terraforming to the player. The aim of the game was simple, to stem the tide of Mother Nature’s evil wrath, and protect a nomadic tribe to allow them to reach enlightenment. What made the experience so fantastic was a unique use of sound, a fantastic design and an intuitive and original control system. Rather than franticly clicking buttons, the player is given control of a spherical cursor that intelligently collects and drops mass as you see fit.

So it proves that God comes in many guises, and across the videogame industry that initial revolutionary idea to place the power of God in the gamers hand can still be seen in a variety of forms and genres. Perhaps you have you been caught up in Bioware’s magnum opus Mass Effect? Crafting your very own Commander Sheppard and controlling his/her path for good and evil has been key to its overall success. Perhaps you enjoyed taking control of the characters in Quantic Dream’s fantastic Heavy Rain? The lives of the characters were literally placed in your hands, turning you into the God of a digital world.

Although it would be hard to say the God game was solely responsible, without its success in the market and undoubted popularity amongst gamers, the vast level of character customization and player generated content that we see in videogames today may never have come to pass. So although we will never know for certain if God really did create the world in seven days, one thing we can be certain about is that as humans, the invitation to play with vast and ultimate power, is an offer very few of us are able to turn down.

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