The best computer games are those without a victory condition. There is no such thing as “winning” a game of SimCity. Just as good are games that have victory conditions, but enjoyment of the game isn’t particularly tied to fulfilling them. In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City wandering around and doing your own thing was much more fun than following the game’s plot. Some weird convergence of thoughts on this style of gaming, Exalted and the butterfly effect resulted in the following game concept:
The setting for this game is region (or, perhaps, world) populated by human beings, but ruled by a superior form of life, perhaps humans genetically modified to be perfect and not require sleep, magical creatures (e.g. elves), an artificial intelligence, or even aliens. Maybe it’s a fantasy genre continent or a sci-fi genre planet. Whatever it is, the entire thing is run by the ruling class. Humans live decently; these rulers are not despots. The world runs fairly efficiently, but it is not a utopia by any means. Much of the system is designed to keep those in power on top, not least of which is their superior abilities. Much of the elite’s authority, however, stems from the fact that their abilities keep a large invading force at bay. Maybe they can work magic that keeps out a horde of demons, or they control ships that deter an invading alien force. Whatever the reason, the human population has a vested interest in having these elites remain in control.
An important aspect of this setting is that it has existed this way for a long time, a millennia-long stalemate between the elites and the impending doom. The economy runs like clockwork. Naturally, there are fads and trends and boom and bust cycles, but in general, everything is in a steady equilibrium.
Into this equilibrium, you, the player, is injected. You are stronger than even an elite individual, but not as strong as a group of them. You move through the world as the humans do, walking through a 3D rendered landscape and interacting directly with those around you. For some reason, you have incredible powers. Through play, you can acquire more abilities, allowing you to hold off larger and larger groups of elites. Your abilities are not only physical, but also mental and social, able to manipulate people and groups in increasingly effective ways.
Fairly early in the game’s progression, your powers make you largely immune to law enforcement, but you are never free of consequence. Your actions, even your mere presence, disturb the world’s equilibrium, you see, like The Mule. Even your smallest actions can have radical consequences down the line. Some players would seek to replace the old equilibrium with one closer to their liking. Others would foster complete chaos.
There would be several paths to playing this game. Those who focus on physical might start beating and killing people to achieve their goals, or perhaps destroy key shipments or installations. More social players would mentally dominate key figures, altering the policies of the organizations and assets they control.
In principle, the player could do anything. Want to use your powers of metal suggestion to overthrow a government? No problem. How about to sleep with a stripper you see in a club? Check. How about make yourself hideously wealthy? Have at it.
In response, the world would be simulating as much as possible. Will your seduction of a stripper effect the price of gold tomorrow? Probably not, but overthrowing the government certainly will. The idea is to have player actions generate consequences that are logical but difficult to predict. This feeds back into the player, causing even more action. Perhaps a religion springs up worshiping the player, or dedicated to his destruction.
Some of the more drastic consequences would be a concerted effort by the elites to destroy the player or the weakening of the elites to the point that the waiting invaders invade or both (perhaps at the same time). Perhaps the player can organize armies to the point that he can stave off these threats himself. Perhaps he allies with one force to destroy another. Maybe the forces ally to destroy him.
In essence, the game would be a god game, but without the controls of a god game. You can’t just hit a button to throw rocks from the heavens, mobilize armies or summon tornadoes. You have no “god view” with which to select people and change their mood; you actually have to find, get to and interact with them. There is no progress graph that shows you perfect information of the economy, attitudes or anything else. Your knowledge of the world is partial, only as good as the conduit by which it is delivered to you. While you may gain abilities that improve this, even getting information “supernaturally”, your information is never perfect.
Given the free form nature of this game, I think it would be a hit. Then, once everyone is addicted, you come out with a multi-player version, where dozens, even hundreds or thousands of Mules are let loose into the world.