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Out of Control
Chapter 13: GOD GAMES

Populous II is a state-of-the-art computer god game. You play god. A son of Zeus to be exact. Through the portal of the computer screen you spy down upon a patch of Earth where the tiny figures of men scurry about farming, building, and wandering around. With a shimmering blue hand (the hand of god) you can reach down and touch the land, transforming it. You can either gradually level mountains or gradually build up valleys. In both cases, you try to create flat farmland for people. Except for the power to deliver a spectrum of disasters such as earthquakes, tidal waves, and tornadoes, your direct influence over the people of your world is limited to this geological hand.

Good farmland makes happy people. You can see them prosper and bustle about. They build farmhouses first; then as their numbers increase, they build red-tile roofed town houses, and if things continue to bode well, eventually they construct complex walled cities, whitewashed and gleaming in the Mediterranean sun. The more the little beings prosper, the more they worship you, and the more manna (power) you, the god, accumulate.

Here's your problem, though. Elsewhere in the greater landscape other sons of Zeus are contesting for immortality. These gods can be played by other humans, or by the game's own AI agent. The other gods will rain the seven plagues on your populace, wiping out your base of support and worship. They can send a crashing blue tidal wave which not only drowns your citizenry but submerges their farmland, endangering your own divine existence. No people, no worship, no god.

Of course, you can do the same -- if you have enough manna in store. Using your destructive powers consumes manna by the barrelful. Besides, there are other ways to defeat your enemies and gain manna without sending a zigzagging crack through an area, a crack which swallows groaning people as they fall in. You can devise Pan figures that roam the countryside luring newcomers to your religion with magic flutes. Or you can erect a "Papal Magnet," a granite ankh monument which acts as a shrine, attracting worshipers and pilgrims.

Meanwhile your own citizens are dodging fire storms from your scheming half-brothers. And after those minor-league gods are through trashing one of your countries, you've got to decide whether to rebuild it or go after their populations with your arsenal. You could use a tornado which sucks up houses and people alike and visibly tosses them across the land. Or a biblical column of fire which scorches the earth into barrenness (until a god restores it by sowing healing wildflowers). Or, you can send burning flows of lava from a well-placed volcano.

I got an expert tour of this world from a metagod's point of view on a visit to the office of Electronic Arts, the game's publisher, where I was taken through the paces of god powers. Jeff Haas is one of the developers of the game. You could call Haas a supergod who created the other gods. He pointed to a gathering dark mass of clouds over one village that suddenly erupted into a shower of lightning. The bolts shimmied down to Earth. When a white bolt struck a person, the figure fried to a blackened crisp. Haas chortled in delight at the exquisitely rendered graphic but caught my raised eyebrow. "Yes," he admitted sheepishly, "the point of the game is destruction -- total slash and burn."

"There are a few positive things you can do as a god," Haas volunteered, "but not many. Making trees is one of them. Trees always make people happy. And you can bless the land with wildflowers. But mostly it's destroy or be destroyed." Aristotle might have understood. In his day, gods were entities to be feared. God as a buddy, or even an ally, is hopelessly modern. You kept out of the gods' way, appeased them when needed, and prayed that your god would vanquish the other gods. The world was dangerous and capricious.

"Let me put it this way," Haas says, "you definitely do not want to be one of the people in this world." You bet. It's godhood for me.