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598 - Populous

Best Games - Populous

Populous is a game where your primary method of interaction is to raise and lower the level of the ground one small patch at a time. Understandably, that might not sound very compelling, but when you play Populous hours disappear in a snap.

While there might be an argument to be made that there are a couple of simulations that might count as the first ‘God Game’, I don’t know if there are any contenders for the first truly enjoyable ‘God Game”. Populous is it.

Before Populous there was no ‘God Game’ genre. A game where you don’t directly control the tiny characters running around on screen, but instead, you control the world they inhabit. Changing the land to direct outcomes. Using natural disasters as weapons. Reinforcing your followers’ zealotry, making them more formidable and destructive when they tangle with an opposing god’s followers.

And that’s the magic of Populous. While you are consistently told that your followers are good and the opposing followers are evil, when you survey the world this other god’s followers largely resemble your own. They build the same homes and structures. They operate by the same rules. They are a palette swapped version of your own people. So that means you must destroy them.

You probably won’t be more than a few levels into Populous when it occurs to you. Am I the baddie? Is there anything that truly makes my people different from the ‘Evil’ populous. Did they do something to deserve the volcanoes, earthquakes, and floods you send their way?

Of course, that’s a question the game will never answer. If they are left uncontested, the other god’s people will surely eradicate your own. So there is no sense equivocating. An uncaring world has set you in opposition, so you must fight. Or tip the balance in favour of your own people so that they can fight.

Certainly, the structure of how the game is played, with very clear and simple icons as an interface, might make it compelling. Especially for people in 1989, accustomed to much more arcane and impenetrable game interfaces. But I think it’s simpler than that.

Populous, like a lot of other Bullfrog and Peter Molyneux designed games, the morality of Populous is grey at best. There is something inherently exciting about being a tiny bit evil. Synthetically dark hearted. Populous is a game that understand that the very notion of an all powerful god that favors one people over another comes from a very bad place in human nature, and then makes light of it. After all, these are just a bunch of goofy little pixel people, right? When you destroyed a thriving village with an earthquake just so it would be easier for your devoted knights could more easily walk in and slaughter the survivors, that was all in the name of good, right? It’s just a bit of digital fun.

If you can play all 500 levels of Populous and come away with a positive outlook on the way people have conducted themselves religiously over the past several thousand years, I would be very surprised.

On the upside, you would probably have had a lot of fun.

Populous is, absolutely, one of the Best Games.

This post is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 by the author.
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