RTS Galore! Episode 1: Populous

It was an early December morning. The streets were still engulfed in darkness when I took a sip of fresh coffee. Clouds were gathering above the horizon, and lightning flashes in the distance heralded a coming storm. Then it hit me! I have to play as many RTS games as I possibly can! Because of reasons, you know. It seemed a perfectly logical decision for me at the moment; why the hell haven’t I thought about it earlier?

Edit: There is another thing I should’ve thought about earlier: the need to establish a more solid framework to avoid misunderstandings and make the series less arbitrary and more. Here it is.

So join me on this lengthy, turbulent, and perilous journey through those worlds filled with violence, warfare, moral bankruptcy, and intense mouse-clicking! We’ll start with Populous.

But first, why RTS?

The real-time strategy genre fascinates me with its simplicity and boldness. You have your troops, you have your enemy—send your troops to destroy the enemy. That’s basically the whole point of RTS games. Morally ambiguous choices and an adventurous sense of wonder? That’s for RPGs. Diplomacy, thorough planning, and worrying about the happiness of your people? That’s for turn-based slowpokes and 4x spreadsheet lovers. Even the shooty-bang-bang action games evolved into something more complicated than a mere shooty-bang-bang.

Most real-time strategy games reject complexity. There is nothing but irreconcilable war. Accumulate wealth, compose an enormous army, and crush your opponent, burning everything to the ground. Conflict reasons never really matter, nor do amounts of lives wasted. Only power, dominance, and superiority matter here. RTS games are precisely like capitalism if the veil of neoliberal justifications was ripped off from its ghoulish face. That absence or scarcity of justification makes most RTS games fun in the digital fictional spaces. Rarely you’ll have a need to wade through thick layers of ideological myths and wave off cultural constructs to touch the core of guilty enjoyment from the game. Most global strategy games whitewash nationalism and colonialism. Most city-building and management simulator games celebrate neoliberal urban economics and corporate culture. Most turn-based wargames fetishize the noble war idea, devoid of horrors and gore. Turn-based tactic games a-la X-Com and Jagged Alliance, on the contrary, emphasize the horrors but precisely because of that try to make the player’s side of violent confrontation as much justifiable as possible.

Even when they do all those things, most real-time strategy games are incapable of justifying them ideologically because of the genre’s strict mechanical constrictions. It doesn’t mean that RTS games are somewhat less charged with political messages than other genres. Those messages are there, intentional or not. They’re just far less hidden under the covers. Meaningful or not, that’s a thesis that I intend to test by playing as many RTS games as possible. The main goal, though, is lots of unapologetic fun to have in the process.

For the sake of widening the area of (well, let’s call it) research, diversification of content, and additional challenge to the (let’s call it) thesis, I won’t limit myself to the typical RTS formula of base-building, spice-harvesting, and wave-attacking. That’s why my first post in this series is not about Dune II.

Populous

Populous was developed by Bullfrog Productions and released in 1989 originally for Amiga. It belongs to the peculiar sub-genre of strategy and simulation games, known as «god game» or «god-sim.» I prefer calling such games RTS with indirect control because that’s what they basically are. You don’t control your units per se but affect their behavior by manipulating the environment.

In Populous, you take the role of a deity that seeks total control. You do this by accumulating the only resource in the game—people. The more people you have, the more mana you receive, which grants you more magic powers of mass destruction.

People love to settle on the flatlands — it gives them more place for crops. By lowering and raising the ground, you provide better conditions for your people to build larger settlements. The larger these settlements, the more people they breed. Additionally, you can set the population models of behavior—settle, gather together, search and kill members of another tribe, or follow the leader. The leader is the only unit you can control somewhat directly by setting the so-called Papal Magnet (symbol of your rule) to the place he has to go.

Your opponent does exactly the same, and eventually, the time comes for an open confrontation. Victory is achieved by complete obliteration of the enemy. 

Populous doesn’t try to hide its bloodlusty nature. This game’s main point is genocide—no other way to deal with people, following another god. There is an arbitrary definition of the warring deities as The Good and The Evil, but the only difference between them is the color (blue and red, respectively) and the way Papal Magnet looks (skull for The Evil and ankh for some reason for The Good). In other words, the only difference between good and evil is aesthetics. That’s a bluntly nihilistic way of seeing things.

Members of the warring tribes despise each other’s guts and fight to the death every time they meet face to face. Almost all of your divine powers (except for raising and lowering the ground) are meant to destroy—turn that lovely village into the deadly swamp, unleash an earthquake, or turn your leader into the hero, whose only purpose is sowing death and destruction until he dies or there no-one left to kill. When your power reaches its peak, you can trigger The Armageddon: all members of both tribes gather together and clash in the middle of the map for the final showdown.

There is a sort of campaign mode in the game called Conquest. It’s a series of 500 or so pre-built maps with increasing difficulty, but it’s not really the way Populous have meant to be played. Running the genocide frenzy across a myriad of randomly generated worlds with highly customizable rules and settings—that’s the sandbox for a total control freak!

But what about your followers? What do they achieve by bringing you the laurel wreath of victory and supremacy? Why they follow you in the first place? No-one cares—people don’t matter. As soon as you win, you’re off to another world, leaving your followers behind. There is no point in being a god of the people without another deity to humiliate.

The gamification of the war between selfish, cruel, and murderous deities could have made a solid base for some artistic statement about religious intolerance. But Populous instead chooses to say, «look how fun it is to be Old Testament god!» It’s a perfect place for your power-mongering sadist desires to run wild. Which admittedly can be pretty fun.

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