In Reus, four giants create and manage an easily-navigable little spheroid world (a Little Prince world, or a Raphael the Raven world, if you prefer to keep your visual touch-points nice and videogamey). It’s a planet of featureless badlands until you grace it with oceans (which nourish forests and swamps) and mountains (which carve out deserts). As soon as any of these inviting biomes offers some source of food, a plucky band of humans will emerge and settle.
From this point on, Reus is a game about balance. First you’ve got finagle the relatively simple juggling act of controlling all four giants. Then you’ve got to use plants and animals and minerals in beneficial combinations, providing not just food, but also technology and wealth. As the villages grow ambitious and want to build libraries, barracks, granaries, and so on, resource management becomes a full-time job (or rather four full-time jobs, one for each giant).
Allow two or more villages to develop, and time management becomes the key thing: who most needs the attention of the Powers That Be, and for how long? Do you focus your attentions on a single, time-intensive project, or do divvy up your divine eggs into an array of smaller, less auspicious baskets?
It’s immediately tempting—or it was for me, anyway—to favor one settlement over another, and this temptation becomes an explicit, zero sum psychomachia as the humans’ projects start to focus less on getting richer and more on being the richest. Soon they’re simply asking you to snuff their neighbors out. Maintaining the balance becomes primarily a matter of keeping the humans from rendering their homeworld a lifeless, war-ravaged husk (as they do in the game’s wistful, bracing pre-title cinematic).
To the degree that the systems at play in Reus are cynical, this is the root of their cynicism: human greed is inevitable and immutable, a force of nature even to beings who command the actual forces of nature. Preventing an earthquake is nothing. Preventing a war of territorial expansion is much trickier.
But cynicism isn’t the right word. The tone of the game isn’t cynical, nor for that matter is it resigned or defeatist. It’s more like the tone of an early Kurt Vonnegut novel, full of humans who are ceaselessly creative, full of unquashable hope and limitless potential—but who have an infuriating way of wasting that potential on selfish, short-sighted pursuits, over and over again. The giants in Reus accept those disappointments stoically, and then they set about making things a little better, village to village, eon to eon, inching toward a human race that actually is what it clearly could be.
I can’t think of another god game that so perfectly conveyed this cocktail of possibility and disappointment, or that made me see human beings not as impediments or playthings, but as wondrous, perplexing works in progress. That’s a tougher way, but also a more humane and ultimately more hopeful way, of representing and simulating human progress.