One of my New Year’s resolutions was to make at least one post on the blog every week. I knew that there’d be weeks like this week when work hit me like a truck, which is why I spent a large part of the Christmas break writing some shorter pieces chronicling my experiences with Bullfrog’s games so that I’d have something to fill the gap. Some of them I’d never played, and most of the rest I’d not played in fifteen years, and since I was stuck with a low-tech laptop for a week I just bought the lot off GoG and played through as many of them as I could, in chronological order. First up is Populous.
I think it would be fair to say that Populous is not a game that has aged terribly well. It had its 25th birthday last year; as Bullfrog’s first release all the way back in 1989 it would be pretty surprising if Populous wasn’t showing those years somehow. Even so, as somebody very used to archaic control systems (I once spent a summer playing through the pre-Civilization Microprose titles) I was a little taken aback at how basic Populous seems given the benefit of modern hindsight, and how painful it is to try and play now. Running at a whopping resolution of 320×200 didn’t give it too many pixels to play with, but even so Populous is downright wasteful in the way it uses its screen real estate, with two-thirds of it taken up by the UI buttons and the minimap. All the action takes place in a small box crammed into the centre of the screen which is commensurately awkward to deal with, and I use the word “action” with a certain degree of irony here because there isn’t much you can actually do in Populous.
I remember Godus came in for some considerable criticism last year after the game turned out to be mostly about clicking on land to dig holes. Based on my time with Populous I don’t know what the people who backed Godus were expecting when they were promised a spiritual successor to Populous, because Populous is almost entirely about clicking on land to raise and lower it. You start each map in control of one sect of followers – we’ll call them the Blue People, because I like Megalomania — and your opponent god controls the Red People. Your objective is to grow your population to the point where you can exterminate every single one of the Red People with extreme prejudice; said population growth occurs in settlements that your people automatically build when set to “Settle” mode, but the type of settlement you get depends wholly on the amount of flat land around it that’s available to grow crops. The better the settlement, the faster your population grows and the stronger they are. The best settlement type, the castle, needs something like four tiles of flat land in each direction, so if you want to maximise your population growth you’d better get digging with that Raise/Lower Land spell.
This is what takes up maybe 80% of your time in Populous. Being able to sculpt the landscape at whim like this was probably a great technological achievement back in 1989, but coming to it in 2014 it’s painfully obvious that this is all the game really is. Control of your population is almost totally hands-off; settlements periodically spawn walkers who will meander about and eventually found new settlements, and this is how your population spreads. When they encounter a Red walker or settlement they’ll fight it out, with the victor determined by the strength of the walker (multiple walkers can merge into each other to increase a walker’s strength) and the tech level of the settlement they came from. The winner claims the land and the settlement. All of this will happen without any direction from you; in practice, I found that aside from raising and lowering land plots all I had to do was wait until my population had reached a reasonable density before plonking a waypoint down in my opponent’s territory. Once I had enough walkers merged at the waypoint I’d convert them into a knight, who would then tear off on his own to fuck shit up. Ten minutes later my knights have torn apart the entire enemy settlement and I’ve won.
I played five levels of Populous. That’s not a lot considering there’s apparently five hundred of the things, but I find it significant that aside from the topography (which was rapidly smoothed over into a boring flatland anyway) these levels didn’t differ from each other in any way; they each started and finished in identical fashion. Yes, there’s spells you can cast — if the game will let you, it turns the fun ones off to start with — but while a volcano is certainly pretty it doesn’t match the fucking-shit-up potential of a knight. To create knights you need population. Hell, to cast spells you need population, since your mana stock is dependent on how many people you control. Having the game be all about population might be tremendously fitting for a game called Populous, but when that population is so uninteractive it does rather limit the scope of Populous as an actual game.
As a system, though, I find Populous very interesting. You can trace the structure and philosophy of literally every single subsequent Bullfrog game directly back to the concepts Populous pioneered – they all involve independent, living systems that the player can only interact with in an indirect fashion. (Well, okay, in the case of Syndicate gunning down half the population of the city is pretty direct, but the city and its inhabitants are entirely autonomous.) While they’re comparatively basic here, the spells in particular reared their head again in Dungeon Keeper, and Magic Carpet was an entire game built around them. Early Bullfrog games are also put together in a very similar way to Populous — the system and the levels are built first, and then they come up with a context to justify it. Syndicate’s infamous ending — where it dumped players straight to the DOS prompt after they completed the Atlantic Accelerator mission — is easier to understand when you consider it was their next game after Populous (and Populous II). Populous had a hastily-added ending screen that was only included after Molyneux realised during testing that yes, people would eventually batter their way through those five hundred levels, and so Syndicate just flat-out not receiving one makes more sense after you remember that Bullfrog’s general tendency was to treat it as an afterthought. This is a great example of Bullfrog never being too concerned about their worlds, instead always seeing the system as the key thing to get right. In some cases this worked well (Syndicate, Dungeon Keeper) and in other cases less well (Magic Carpet, anyone?) but the approach remains the same all the way up to Dungeon Keeper 2 and Bullfrog’s subsequent demise.
When viewed in that context, Populous starts to make a lot more sense. Populous was merely the first stab at something they continually refined over the next decade, and while it hasn’t so much aged at this point as it has ossified, the system Bullfrog created here must have been tremendously impressive at the time. It’s a world that evolves with or without your input that you can influence but not directly control; that this reduces Populous to what today would be little more than a flash game doesn’t diminish how innovative it is. It’s rare that developers get things 100% right the first time around, and since Bullfrog spent the rest of their existence iterating and improving on the ideas they came up here I can hardly hold the basic nature of the game part of Populous against it. I don’t think it’s a game that’s very fun to play today, but it has definitely been an educational experience.
(Oh, and then you’ve got Populous II, which — as you’d expect from a sequel — adds a few more bells and whistles but is pretty much the same game in a less offensively-ugly package.)