Tribal Spirituality in ‘Populous: The Beginning’

Spirituality and gaming: surely a toxic combination if ever there was one? The former is — however broadly defined — about the serious task of attempting to engage with forces beyond the material realm, while the latter is often about sitting on a sofa, bashing bad guys and notching up high scores. What links the two pursuits is that arguably they are both concerned on some level with escapism, defined as the search for experiences outside the norm. Whatever their reasons, games developers have from time to time included religious and spiritual references in their games, resulting in the crossing over of these two usually disparate worlds. One particularly fascinating example that I’ve recently been reacquainted with is Bullfrog’s 1998 strategy game Populous: The Beginning.

Unlike games based explicitly on real-world religions like Christian titles (for example, The Bible Game) and the controversial (Left Behind: Eternal Forces), the gameplay of the third game in the Populous series operated within its own fictional spiritual cosmos. 25 tiny planets orbit a sun like ours, each populated by primitive human tribes, their characteristics based heavily on various pre-modern civilizations. The player controls a female shaman, the only person in her village who can cast spells fueled by mana, the spiritual energy which flows through the inhabitants of the Populous world. This distinction makes her the natural leader of her community, and leads to her receiving a premonition, one recounted in the game’s opening cutscene. If the shaman — the player — does not conquer the three rival tribes on each of the 25 worlds, her own tribe will be destroyed by those enemies. If she succeeds, she will become ruler of the entire solar system and will be granted godhood.

Each of the game’s missions takes place on one of the twenty-five worlds, and the campaign takes in all manner of spiritual influences. The many nods to Native American culture include the reference to the basic tribal workers as “braves” and the inclusion of totem poles as one of various structures that can be worshipped by the shaman or her followers in exchange for new spells and technologies from the gods. Other structures that can be worshipped include stone heads — based on ones built by the moai hundreds of years ago on Easter Island in Polynesia — and “vaults of knowledge” based on the ziggurats and temples of Mesopotamian and Mesoamerican origin respectively. The spiritual referencing extends to the shaman’s mana using spells too; among the most powerful, the “Angel of Death” and “Armageddon” spells transparently draw their names from Christian texts. The shaman’s mystical ability to travel from planet to planet echoes the notion of astral projection, itself a feature of spiritual traditions from Japanese mythology to Hindu scripture.

Intriguingly, The Beginning goes deeper than merely including incidental references to these kinds of concepts. Indeed, its whole premise can be construed as a comment on the tribal nature of belief. Consider the heroine-shaman’s premonition that she must conquer the rival tribes in order to attain heavenly favour. What if the shamans of the enemy Dakini, Matak, and Chumara tribes were themselves confonted with the same vision? That would surely explain the efforts of those tribes to impede the player and invites comparisons with the religious conflicts of the real world. Today’s religious followers can be as “tribal” and aggressive as The Beginning‘s warring factions in their battle across their solar system, and historically any number of armies have marched on missions of conquest in the name of their god or gods. Much less than a thousand years ago, popes sometimes led armies personally, not unlike the game’s shamans. The game even features a structure in which braves can be trained as preachers, special units able to permanently convert enemy tribesmen to the player’s cause. They are the game’s battlefield missionaries, its epitome of “convert or kill”, and are often integral to victory.

A further and even more disturbing inference can be made from The Beginning‘s premise — that if the gods did disseminate the same vision to the four shamans, then the game’s whole campaign could serve as a scheme manipulated by the gods, using the thousands of tribal people as pawns to determine which shaman is worthy of elevation to godhood. This idea of wilful destruction brings to mind the the more capricious and disruptive godly acts from various scriptures, not least the various cataclysmic acts of God in the Bible’s old testament.

Besides tying the game elegantly into historical spiritual traditions, the richness of the references and allusions that Bullfrog packed into Populous: The Beginning can change the player’s thinking in a subtle way. Somehow knowing that we are the prospective deity of these “brave” little sprites makes us feel more responsible for them. Watching them build houses and train as warriors or preachers, we feel a need to defend them from the other tribes. Yet on thinking about it, the Dakini, Matak, and Chumara are essentially indistinguishable from the player’s unnamed tribe but for their different tribal colours. They are far from classically villainous and commit no great crimes except for being in the way of the player shaman’s ascent to supremacy. All of this can perhaps be taken as a reminder that in the real world, much fought-over religious differences can be, at their core, relatively superficial.

Arguably the most missed of the now defunct, but great British development houses, Bullfrog were known for packing into their games all manner of careful details. The inclusion of this tapestry of spiritual background into the game is just one of many reasons that cry out for Populous: The Beginning to be recognised as one of the best strategy efforts of the late ’90s. Its colourful and trend-setting fully 3D graphics and innovative gameplay make it well worth seeking out today. Sadly, the game’s unique and unfashionable concept and its lukewarm initial reception mean that we may never see its like again. We can only pray.

Where’s a stone head when you need one?