There’s nothing in the world like a good god game.

Ever since 2001, I’ve held onto my original copy of Black & White, keeping it safe and secure in its weathered old CD sleeve. Developed by the now-defunct Lionhead Studios and spearheaded by Peter Molyneux, Black & White still charms me every time I fire it up and meet the two halves of my conscience all over again. Or maybe it charms me when this earworm starts up. Or when I have a mountain-sized unicorn squat and poop on an enemy’s house.

Other than perhaps Molyneux’s own Populous or Godus, Black & White is the perfect encapsulation of the ‘god game’ – a genre that seems to be all but extinct, with relatively few titles even attempting to emulate these bygone designs, and even fewer making significant waves. So where did all the god games go, and can they ever be brought back?

The definition of a god

Compared to genres like first-person shooter, the descriptor ‘god game’ feels nebulous and vague. General consensus is that god games challenge players to foster populations and help them grow; everything from simple organisms (Spore, Evolution: The Game of Intelligent Life) to small tribes (Black & White, From Dust) to entire civilizations (Black & White 2, Godus) can be the subject of a god game’s focus. However, the most crucial criteria is that a god game lets a player exert influence indirectly as opposed to explicitly.

Unlike strategy games or city-building games, which gave players direct control over their units, buildings, and sometimes even cities or nations, god games rely on players making more subtle influences to artificial intelligence algorithms. If you move an orc into an empty field in Warcraft, it’ll just stand there and wait for your next command. In a god game, NPCs must be largely able to function on their own, and should react to their environments in a contextually appropriate way. They need to have autonomy.

The most godlike action you’ll get in Maxis’ city management simulator is calling in a tornado or meteor apocalypse. Everything else is just cornflakes.

A god game will often feature (but not require) environmental manipulation, typically through means presented as otherworldly or supernatural. Dredging lakes, shaping mountains, causing massive thunderstorms, that sort of thing.

In other words, while the denizens of SimCity may be able to drive to work and pay taxes, any changes made to the landscape are often minimal or are simply expressed as if they were the act of bulldozers and construction equipment. The most godlike action you’ll get in Maxis’ city management simulator is calling in a tornado or meteor apocalypse. Everything else is just cornflakes.

Artificial intelligence evolves

Where god games have fallen behind, ironically enough, is where they once outshined all others: implementation of artificial intelligence. If a single human in a god game were to be dropped off in an empty pasture, it should be able to find its way back home safely, or at least find food and shelter without input from the player. These individuals also need to function within a larger society, fulfilling the various roles needed to advance their civilization.

To go back to Black & White, a village can sustain itself even if I don’t do anything to interact with them. They gather the required amount of food to eat and the required amount of lumber to build and expand, and will reproduce at a slow but steady rate. I can meddle by inspiring villagers to become farmers, fishermen, builders, breeders (yes, that’s the actual word the game uses, and yes, it’s a little gross), and so on. I can also just take care of their needs by harvesting food and dumping it into their grain silo, or dumping piles of wood into their reserves.

When I interact with the village, their artificial intelligence recognizes me and adapts accordingly. If I inspire the village to be littered with builders, I’ll get a sprawling settlement in no time, but their food reserves may start to run low. If I just take care of the village’s needs instead of inspiring its populace, they’ll become lazy and start relying on me by default. And if I do nothing, I run the risk of losing my power and having my village taken over by another god.