The One True God Game

By Garrett Martin
Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 11:00 am
eye of god.jpg
the Eye of God: I can read your mind; I am the maker of rules.

​Check Wikipedia: From Dust is officially a "god game". It's a genre tag that goes back to Populous, Peter Molyneux's 1989 computer game that I struggled to play in 1990. I didn't struggle because it was difficult, but because the already ancient 286 PC my dad brought home from work that spring buckled and shuddered and just barely didn't collapse every time I booted the game up.

The divine is in the details with a god game, or at least the lack of details. Populous and From Dust both present God as a strict macromanager, more interested in exploding mountains and torrential floods than people. We directly interfere in the daily lives of our followers without learning the first thing about any of them.

The God of a god game isn't William Paley's watchmaker, or the personally vindictive tyrant of the Old Testament. It's not the distant Brahma or Bondye, the lusty Zeus, or some longhair convinced he's the only one who can save every last one of us. From Dust slightly resembles the Navajo Dine Bahane, with a small group of tribal adventurers moving through a series of worlds bordered by water before eventually settling down, but again, the God of From Dust isn't the trickster Coyote or the masked Talking God, although his mask resembles those worn by From Dust's tribesmen.

The Gods in god games aren't really gods. They're landscapers.

talking god.jpg
Navajopeople.org
the Navajo Talking God

​In Populous and From Dust you care about the people that worship you, but not enough to learn their names. You want them to live and thrive, but you can kill them, accidentally or intentionally, and their deaths mean nothing to you as long as enough survive to complete the task at hand. And of course that task is defined and put forth by a presence more powerful than you.

Games like Populous and From Dust are built around a depressing and deflating theology. There's no sense of why these people exist, or why we as a God take any interest in what they do. Did we create them? Did their worship create us? Or should we just not think about that and dispassionately shovel dirt back and forth until they've finished building their tree forts? We have become the Great Bobcat, the Celestial Backhoe.

We need a new name. "God game" doesn't fit. The games themselves undercut the significance of both words. "Sandbox" could have worked, especially with From Dust, if it wasn't already used to describe a thoroughly different type of game, where most of the fun comes from rocket-launchering soulless phantom people in the face. The only Gods of a "god game" are the designers, the all-pervasive pantheon of meta-deities that invite us into their realm and bind us with their prescribed rules, goals, and limitations.

A God is nothing short of creation itself. A true god game should empower you to etch your ineffable essence on a plane of reality that is both higher and lower than our own, infinite yet frozen, enslaving others in the world you craft, but helpless to closely observe or directly control their actions within it. If the one true God of From Dust is Eric Chahi, then the one true god game is C++.

Joystick Division associate editor Garrett Martin rambles about video games every Wednesday in his column Run Button.

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