Every self-respecting fantasy title - role-playing, action, strategy or otherwise - needs an ancient civilization, be it a tribe of living gods, a sentient machine republic or those bloody road-destroying, settler-ambushing Egyptians.
For years, I've attributed this common theme to the need to invest the universe with temporal depth, buttressing its bright, breezy surface with age-old secrets, forbidden knowledge you'll gradually uncover as proceedings, um, proceed.
This weekend's first go at From Dust, the first proper god sim on Xbox 360, suggests a different interpretation. Games like Mass Effect and Halo need ancient civilizations because games like Mass Effect and Halo need potentially universe-ending screw-ups for dramatic purposes, and if there's one thing you can count on an ancient civilization to do, it's screw up so horrifically the rest of global and/or galactic history becomes an exercise in damage control. Short of a crisis? Phone your ancestors. SPEAK LOUDLY AND CLEARLY, and wear a helmet.
In From Dust, you play Shaman/God/divine Targeting Cursor to a tribe of hardy hippies in masks. At first you think you're there to colonise a world, leading the faithful from one perilous Neolithic sandbox to another via mystic portals, but actually, what you're doing is repairing it. Your tribe is the last vestige of a society known, imaginatively enough, as the Ancients, and the Ancients spent their brief, miserable time on Earth turning Earth into a living hell.
This has resulted in, among other things, a desert that's secretly an ocean. On arriving, I was lulled by the panorama of sweeping dunes, and set about colonising the place in cheerful anticipation of absolutely no unpleasant surprises whatsoever. 10 minutes later, a dozen inexhaustible, ineptly buried water sources had transformed half the map into Pirates of the Caribbean. Yay for procedural water physics! Boo for oxygen-breathing lifeforms!
Having watched my flock disappear down nature's toilet, I paused to reflect on a few better-known examples of ancient racedom, and the rose-tinted scales fell from my eyes. Consider the Dwemer, ladies and gentlemen, the long-extinct/vanished dwarves or "deep elves" whose cities and temples pack Skyrim's underbelly. They were a disaster, albeit one whose effects are (or at least - touch wood - seem to be) limited to the Dwemer themselves.
Realists to a fault, the dwarves not only founded their civilization on empirical science, but also elected to shun and actively bait Tamriel's divines. There's a charming book-length anecdote knocking around somewhere in which a Dwemer notary conjures Azura in order to piss her off. Holy porridge. It's one thing to pour scorn on the Almighty in the presence of angry zealots, another to pour scorn on the Almighty to the Almighty's face. Digest that, and the Dwemer's abrupt and all-but total disappearance from Tamriel some years after becomes a little less mysterious.
Mass Effect's Protheans are easier to forgive. Their sins are ones of omission - omitting, that is, to mention that the large, well-accoutred space station on the galaxy's south-western rim is, in fact, a portal to death by giant mechanical squid. You could argue that the Protheans performed better here than the civilizations that preceded them - they did let Shepard know in the end, albeit not soon enough to stave off a Reaper attack on the Citadel. I say don't count your Krogans. We're not out of the Thresher Nest yet. And other Mass-Effect-3-related proverbs.