They say you can't remember much until your third birthday.
A lot happened when I was three that shook the world - but I'd be lying if I said much of it mattered to me at the time. I was more preoccupied with staring intently at anyone in the room and trying to get older, faster. It was at a party for ringing in the new year - he was tall, lean, and handing out sets of old floppy diskettes to anyone who'd take them. I don't know how my parents knew him, but he was certain it was going to be the 'next Tetris'.
While I'm pretty sure he was just saying in the hope that someone there, in our cramped house with our completely unremarkable friends, would hear - and through the magic of word association, his game would become famous. Not so - The disks sat unused in our garage until I was about seven; my dad used to claim that too much gaming would ruin someone, so I learned to game quietly. We'd been thinking about moving (again!) and I'd been helping clear things out. Pocketing them had felt like a tiny victory - and I eagerly awaited the thrill that came with discovering new games, usually reserved to pilfering shareware catalogs from the library.
It loaded up fine on my Macintosh - "Generation" in huge red letters with gold trim. The words hung over a tiny cross-section of city; from the hodge-podge of tech (wheeled, covered wagons, stone knives and running water) this is obviously what the designer felt a fledgling town looked like.
All the music was (through necessity) public domain stuff. Still - it was obvious that this is where whatever budget or teamwork the guy'd had had went. Dvorak's Romance in F major through Punya X is still Dvorak; I remember I'd queue the game up sometimes and just listen to the opening strains while doing homework.
There weren't too many options; new game, load (from file) and fired.
Fired was your quit option; you could still use the reliable old apple-q, but more often than not it would hang terribly. Most of the game had been run through a translator several times, or maybe the programmer had simply picked words he liked the sound of and used them for terms. Pretty much everything besides the music varied terribly in quality; the sound effects were horrible synth-barf that sounded like nothing at all, and although the city art was actually fairly pretty and detailed, you only had the one city.
And the first chapter? A randomly generated set of three generations of civilians has to survive to move on. And of course, the title (or 'Age' as the game calls them) is Generation. I remember groaning at some point halfway through high school when it finally kicked in.
Age 0: Generation
Most hidden games stay hidden because of something to do with the gameplay, and that was no different here. It was terrible; to do anything, from interacting with one of 'your' people to accessing the main menu, you had to go through four or five sub-menus, each one with poorly-translated options that only occasionally made sense. Quitting in game was no longer fired, but discharge. Building or construction didn't cost money or resources but time units - which was a blatant lie, as buildings were completed in one turn regardless of whether you'd built a small well or a medieval style castle. (which would share the same graphic in the city as the well, and indeed most buildings - a small black square with a light blue x over an o)
This part of the game passed by in years, though each year-long turn corresponded to a turn in any other age. Your goal was to survive and thrive enough to turn into a 'modern societal land' - which in my practice, meant just building whatever I wanted until roughly sixty turns or so had passed. Buildings didn't actually do anything at this point, so it didn't really matter - but usually I focused on bare necessities to make the game feel more realistic.
Instead of focusing on terrible and convoluted city-management portion - which was the entirety of the game proper - the thing that stood out were your settlers, or people. You found them by clicking on a building, which would in turn load a cross-section of that building... Over the cross-section of the city.
They came in three colors - a sort of sky-blue teal, bright pink, and deep purple. They wore clothes generated randomly (and that were usually just splotches of color that would've been at home in a game made ten years earlier!) and came in three sizes (short, medium, tall) and three shapes (thin, average, jovial - each which had their own type of 'voice' or looped-synth sounds that played as you clicked them and until you clicked something else). There was also a child-sized class of sprite, though children were usually never present in Age 0.
Clicking on them would give you a random name generated from mashing two naming dictionaries from completely different cultures together, and a brief 'story' - which consisted of the favorite location of the citizen in town, their home, what they were doing now, what they would do later, and what they wanted in the future (a hint in later ages about what you should build). They showed a pretty large level of diversity in what they wanted, which I liked; even if it was pretty random, and seeing things like children wanting 'City hall must be built' as their future never ceased to make me laugh.
And they'd sometimes stop, wave at the screen, or wobble! It was the little touches like this that made me realize what Generation's creator had been trying to do, and probably what kept me playing for so long.
More interestingly though, you attracted more citizens to your town through buildings, and having certain kind of buildings would enable citizens of certain job types - this didn't matter much in Age 0, but grew increasingly fascinating as time went on. One last note for Generation was that the game often crashed from trying to load too many menus, even if you became an expert at using the few in-game hotkeys. However, it was so poorly built you could actually stop it from crashing by 'menu-hopping' to the start menu and re-loading. I won't be mentioning it here, but in this game?
It required a LOT of menu-hopping to keep playing. Thankfully, the game always auto-saved, so the only thing you lost through this was time. After roughly sixty turns, you'd acquire the default 'Age Cleared!' victory screen. A completely anachronistic military parade would march by, and a brief fanfare would play. The only time art actively changed was at this point - as ages passed on. The next age?
Age 1: Vagary
Vagary - yeah, I have no idea - was the first real age. You had a town that looked to have jumped to roughly the 1950's, but had only recently emerged into prominence. The primary goal of this age was to attract a certain amount of citizens to your town, while keeping the levels of happiness (sic) balanced. At this point, crimes and natural disasters were unlocked, and turns had went to weeks that turned to a new month every four, and a new year every forty-eight.
Fighting crimes was easy enough - your militia (police) were jolly, drunk-looking fellows you got simply by building the militia booth. Whenever a criminal was spotted in a cross-section, you could click a button at the bottom of the screen (and trust me, you wouldn't miss it - the damn thing flashed between red and white quick enough to give most anyone a seizure) and your police would storm in to save the day! The only problem was that they couldn't enter certain buildings, but luckily crimes didn't occur in those buildings anyway.
The criminal was always the same guy, with a unique sprite. He was heavier than even the 'jovial' npc-type, and 'spoke' in a super-heavy variant of the heavy speech-type. The best part was that he would stop and sag his shoulders with the most woe-begotten look of self pity, every time! Unlike other games, the criminal would interact with your other citizens and even seemed to be pretty popular outside of his(?) criminal roll. Arresting him had no effect - and you couldn't continue without arresting him. You could always find him in random buildings, with random lines and hopes for the future, just like anyone else. His name was always just criminal, lower-case.
Sometimes he'd even smile (which looked like his headpixels wobbling left and right) and wave.
Disasters, like crimes, only occurred AFTER you'd built the necessary buildings - fire departments, hospitals, etc. Unlike crime, it was impossible to completely negate the effects of a fire from destroying a few buildings, or a plague from scaring a few citizens away - they would literally run 'out' of the city, flailing their arms from side to side - but the effects could easily be negated with time, and disasters were so rare it didn't seem to matter. At the end of the day, more people came then left, and they were safer and happier. Well, safer, at least.
The usual parade occurred, and you found yourself in the most rushed part of the game - and that most prone to crashing...
Age 2: Happiness and Age 3: Industry
This age, as you can probably imagine, was to make your citizens content and get the basics of a modern society off the ground. In theory, this meant building elementary schools - seriously, they seemed to attract the most citizens and give the largest happiness boost - and factories. Secondary education and non-polluting industries were just not a thought. I combined the two ages because of the tedium, but this is where crime started to be more dangerous.
Criminal could now succeed if you didn't press the 'INTERVENE!!' button quickly enough; failing to do so would result in criminal simply standing there, his ample gut heaving while the sound effect of him talking played - slowly, to represent heavy breathing. The screen would flash black, and criminal would continue to stand in whatever building the crime had occurred in, rocking back and forth slightly. You lost citizens and happiness for letting this happen and I remember feeling more angry than anything else.
Disasters had become less dangerous as your town advanced, children had become more common, and things were over-all looking up. Age 2's rural settlement quickly transformed into a pre-industrial town for Age 3, and after Age 3, you got one more parade before the game wrapped up... Officially.
Age 4: You're Model City
Despite the grammar, this was my favorite. The city looked fairly modern, though still somewhat anachronistic - people would use picks in mines and pitchforks in fields, drive modern-cars alongside lumpy pixel wagons... The overall feel was optimistic, and your goal was simply to play for five hundred(!) turns and make the city the best you could. Spamming elementary schools was still good, but you also had access to Advanced Hospitals and one new 'disaster' watch point: the astronomy - which did nothing and has no citizens inside it. One interesting thing I found is that you can't actually progress from Age 4 without building the astronomy, so there's no need to build it if you're content with the game as it is.
And if you just want to see your city expand, there's a lot more to do. Age 4 has even more menu-hopping, but disasters don't occur anymore, and criminal doesn't actually intervene in anything. Again - the mood was optimistic. Usually at this point, the tracklist had jumped to a song by Balakirev, though I can't remember what it was. I just remember it being really hummable as the little plumes of smoke raised from my newly cleaned-up factories.
This time, someone from another city would arrive at the end of your parade, which was even bigger and more glorious than the last two. Instead of being a blob of pixels, this fellow looked a little like a normal human - though they spoke in the same gibberish noise as the thin-style citizens. They rewarded you with a Key to the City, and all your citizens (really just one or two of each type - including criminal and the bear from the Bear Attack! natural disaster) would appear and wave at you as confetti (red and white pixels) washed down the screen.) Then you were booted back to the main menu, and that's where most people would probably click the 'fired' option and call it a night.
Age 5: Restlessness
But I was certain there was more to the game. I'd spent too many nights in only the pale green glow of the monitor to simply stop playing, and replaying a game with so few actual options or variables seemed uninteresting. Loading my old file just put me back at the tail-end of Age 4, but there was another file in my save folder - post. Loading it let you continue into the next age; Restlessness. The sky was nighttime, the only time this actually occurred.
A feature of all the post-game content was that you could not longer build anything; really there wasn't much to do besides passing the turn forward, though the game still asked if you wanted to build something. I tried to figure out a way to sneak buildings in, but nothing I did worked and finally I gave up.
Almost all of your citizens simply were prone during this Age, though clicking them once would wake them up. Doing so was the only way to restore the INTERVENE!! button if criminal was creeping towards them. This time, just criminal seeing them wake up was enough to stop criminal from doing anything, so the police were essentially useless.
Age 6: Trials
Your town had become semi-modern, at this point - a tiny, bustling city with paved roads. Still more bicycles than cars, but well on it's way to becoming a city. There was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the air - happiness had gone down slightly since Age 5, and your militia - sorry, police - and citizens would sit apart from one another in buildings. Occasionally buildings would 'shut down' due to strikes, lack of staff, or other such things. This had no effect on the player, especially as there was little the player could do.
But it was surreal to see your little citizens gathered inside the building, wobbling (shivering?) but otherwise unmoving.
This age went by quickly, but each turn continued to see a decrease in net happiness. The age ended once happiness was at roughly 25% - the bar a vivid red.
Age 7: Lordships
Criminals were absent from this age, and indeed the only disaster you had to worry about was the fact buildings were now all showing their 'abandoned' icons. The player had a little power back - you could finally send the police into buildings they formally couldn't enter. Clicking the old INTERVENE!! button would do that and cause your citizen count to drop, but your happiness to rise by perhaps two percent, if you were lucky.
The small city had become heavily militarized, and in the roads in the background moved blobs of grey and silver pixels that I think were supposed to be tanks. Your city was surrounded by barbed wire, though it was completely and utterly unnecessary, as no one left anyway. After 'restoring' your happiness up to roughly half the full gauge, you find yourself in a different Age entirely.
The parade for going to Age 8 loops for perhaps five minutes beyond it's original length, with the fanfare becoming more exhausted as the loop continues.
Age 8: Apathy
In this age, your cities tanks and barbed wire and all the symbols of state and power which were eerily present before have rusted and grown disused. For whatever reason, they didn't seem to be necessary anymore; largely because one of the modern conveniences that had been missing from the game so far has been introduced. Most house-type buildings (and most buildings have been converted into house-type buildings, regardless of their original purpose) have a group of citizens with names like BLAH BLAH and OH YEAH and other nonsense syllables, always capitalized.
Your happiness is fixed at a perfect 100%, the only time in a game you can move the bar over 95%.
There didn't seem to be goal to ending this Age when first I played it; frustrated, I remember giving up on the game for a few days. Criminals often enter houses or buildings whenever you click on them, but the only way to regain your action is to click all of the citizens randomly and frequently, hoping that they turn around - so sluggishly - before the criminal starts to enter its heavy breathing animation.
Sometimes, the criminal won't even attack, but simply watch the citizens watching their entertainment. You can let that loop as long as you like, and I remember being so uncomfortable the first time I saw it, I laughed - it was ridiculous, but it made the back of my neck crawl.
...Criminal can also enter buildings like hospitals and elementary schools, now. Despite my best efforts, I found no way to restore the INTERVENE!! button in those areas. I did find the way to advance to the penultimate Age, however - it's finally time to visit the astronomy. Entering it triggers the military 'fanfare' theme, and through the windows you can see the parade, looking slightly slumped and drunken as they lope by. The only person in the astronomy is the criminal.
Talking to criminal opens up the dialogue box. For your benefit, I'll recreate it as best I can.
Name: criminal Favorite Location?: House Home?: House What you are doing?: What you want to do?: Your Future?: Age
Both sections pertaining to what criminal was doing were walls of spaces, as if the space key had been mashed down for both answers. Closing the dialogue box would end Age 8. Criminal would 'look' up at the ceiling, nod its head textures slowly, and move towards the door as if it did not want to - and yet, it went.
Age 9: Stars
In this age, there is nothing to be done at all. No music plays. Crime occurs whenever you enter a building, but criminal is not there to commit it - instead, the INTERVENE!! bar appears, flashing rapidly and yet draining of color. Nothing I've found will stop it from draining or even do anything - instead, when the bar runs out of color and stops flashing, the black screen flash that indicates a successful crime will occur, and any citizens present will have disappeared.
Your citizens in this age are all smaller, thinner - sort of folded in on themselves. Even the 'jovial' citizen-types are thinner; their guts are even larger, but their proportions - their arms, their necks - are oddly distended and stick-like. The effect only combines with the seeming stupor of most citizens to make their movement strange and spider-like.
Frequently, the game tries to crash - but once again, fails even at doing that. I found I didn't even need to menu-hop and instead could simply pass times as I liked. The sky gradually grows more and more orange, then red; at first I thought it was supposed to be a sunset. Then, I realized that most of my citizens weren't moving at all, simply staying prone as stars began to appear in the red and cloudless sky above.
The game once again forces you back to the main menu, but loading post once more gives you one last age.
Age 0: Degeneration
Perhaps it will sound insane - but to me, after the horror of watching all the citizens slowly suffer through the last few Ages, there was something strangely calm about this Age. The sky is still an alien red, but music has returned - along with the whistle of wind. Around the edges of the city, which is overgrown with moss and lichen, steppe grass has spread.
The real action occurs beneath the city proper. A network of tunnels and caves has appeared, and in them lie shapes - furtive and spasming, ranging a gamut of colors from pitch-black to red, to deep lagoon green. Despite their overly wide eyes and the fact they do not move, but instead simply jump from one end of a room to another at seemingly predetermined intervals, I found something calming about their presence. Occasionally, they'll even wobble their hand-analogues in a pale imitation of the wave from earlier!
Not only that, but the tunnels are filled with things collected from the surface. Though I think the programmer had intended to imply the worst, to me that indicates there is still some hope, whatever it may be.
All of the buildings above are empty - usually. There seems to be a very small chance of triggering an encounter with criminal, though it isn't crime and no INTERVENE!! button appears. Instead, criminal is interacting with people who aren't there, and also waves at the player. After meeting criminal on the surface, it becomes possible to meet criminal in the tunnels, as well.
The game will go on, seemingly forever. The turn counter has went from weeks to days, and despite playing it with an obsession when I found out - nothing much happens. The stars in the sky continue to shine brightly, and eventually criminal disappears from both the city and the underground... But despite having managed to go for roughly four years of in-game time, I eventually lost patience.
At some point, my parents destroyed a lot of my old disks - and given how temperamental modern hardware is, I'm not sure getting it to work, either on a modern computer or a properly old Macintosh. But the story isn't quite over... I'd been dreaming of the game, recently, and decided to ask my parents about the developer. They'd invited him over as a friend of a friend, and my mother recalled him excitedly talking about economic miracles and developers that, quite frankly, he was two decades too early to experience.
Both of them seemed to recall him only opening up when talking about the game, and encouraging people to write back to him with any feedback - especially what they thought of the ending. But so far as they know, no one ever did, and he drifted off the radar entirely. I've tried writing our friends and relatives, but the most I've gotten is snippets of conversation that the world had changed too slowly and yet too quickly for him, and the programmer went to live in a house deep in the countryside after 1991, waiting perhaps for an Age that will not come.