Retro Corner: Black & White

Posted on September 8, 2010 by


There’ve been a fair old whack of ‘God’ games over the years, first popularised with populous in 1989, fine tuned with Dungeon Keeper in 1997, and then finally perfected in  2001 with Peter Molyneux’s magnum opus (best thing) Black & White.

There aren’t many games I’d describe as being pretty much perfect, but god damn it, (see what I did there?) B&W is one of them. Punted out into the faces of the unsuspecting masses by Lionhead games, B&W featured some of the most advanced AI in any video game ever made (Sort of, I’ll get to that in a minute), and even to this day is still highly regarded by connoisseurs.

Black & White is one of games where you can choose to be the good guy or the bad guy. As is so often, (if not always) the case, being evil is not only easier, but more fun. Or maybe that’s just me…

You are a god. Not ‘The’ god, but one of many. Called into being by some parents who, for reasons that utterly escape me, walk miles away from their village (which is already by a beach) to go to the seaside and let their precious, beloved children swim in SHARK INFESTED WATER. All I can assume s that they hated the kids and wanted to get rid of them, playing the part of ‘worried parents’ in case anyone was watching, totally unaware that they would actually call into being a deity. If they’re lucky, the player will be a nice deity. Whenever I play however, they are far from lucky. Annoyingly, though, you will always, always have to save that whiny little brat from the sharks when you start out. If I had my way, I’d watch him get nommed to death, and then chuck his murdering evil parents in after him for the lulz.

After preventing their attempted filicide, they take you back to their village, and immediately build a temple to you. A really big, really ornate temple. Thanks and all guys, but all I did was save a kid from drowning, i’m not exactly Jesus, y’know? Besides, as soon as that tutorial nonsense is over with (which you have to do, Every. Single. Time) I’m basically gonna spend the rest of the game throwing boulders at your houses and setting your children on fire.

You might think i’m being a bit over-zealous, but no. The quickest, easiest way to get belief from followers is to perform evil, horrible, yea, even dastardly acts. You can sacrifice things for a quick belief boost to work miracles (spells), and sacrificial offering vary in power from farmyard animals, followers, and best of all, your follower’s children. It is better to be feared than loved, and this game gives you a surprisingly large and varied number of ways to engender that delicious fear.

While you have your giant pimp-hand of doom to manipulate stuff manually, you also have an avatar on Earth. No, not the crappy James Cameron movie, (or the crappier M. Night Shamylan movie), which takes the form of a giant animal. You get a choice of three at the beginning of the game, and over the course of proceedings you can opt to move it’s consciousness (gained intelligence, temperament etc) into a different animal. I myself always pick the Ape, quickest to learn, reasonably good fighter, looks awesome when turned evil (You can also pick a tiger or a cow, but seriously, who the hell picks a friggin’ cow?). And learning is a big thing for your avatar, which is where the amazing AI comes in to play. Your creature will watch you, your followers, other gods and their creatures, and learn stuff. It might learn how to feed your villagers for you, harvest crops dance to amuse villagers, or it might learn how to abduct their children and sacrifice them for you, and how to rain down fire and lighting on the helpless mortals. Which is more likely.

Your creature will grow over time, and like your temple, his/her appearance will be affected by how good/evil you are. It’s entirely possible to be a good god but raise your creature to be evil, or vice-versa, though i’m not sure why. Plausible deniability, perhaps? You can tattoo your creature, and it may get scars from battle with other creatures, which is how gods sort out arguments like who that village belongs to, and who had the salt last. It will basically develop a personality. Maybe it will be shy, or outgoing, friendly or aggressive, efficient or clumsy, It grows and learns like a person. Which is a little bit creepy.

I’ll take a minute here to explain why being a benevolent god is so darn hard. People are bitches. Whiny, useless, lazy, stupid bitches, who, if you’re good, cannot go for more than five minutes without demanding your aid with some trivial rubbish like getting the harvest for them, which they should be able to do themselves (You can assign ‘disciples’, villagers with specific task like mating, farming, logging, fishing, building etc). They will rely on you for everything, be more critical of you, of, and your miracles will suck. As a good god, the miracles you get access to are going to be nice things, like Heal, Rain, Summon a flock of doves, which Evil gods can cast fireballs, rain down lightning, set hurricanes loose and, if your feeling particularly nasty, set a pack of ravenous wolves lose on an enemy village (When evil, enemy villages can in fact include your own villages).

Now, there is a plot behind all this apparently senseless (but wonderful) violence- A big bad god, imaginatively named Nemesis wants to extinguish you, and every other god he finds, so that he can be top dog. or god, depending which way around you spell it. This includes you. And, having spent the whole first level trying to be a good guy, you will be totally unprepared for the onslaught of fiery death he spends the rest of the game throwing your way, with your efforts being limited to damage control as your pathetic wailing followers scream for help, mercy and pies, and losing faith in you every second. As an evil god of course, your villagers are not only used to being set on fire and electrocuted, it will only boost their faith in you, because you know when to stop to maintain good order and keep the faith coming. Fear of being burned alive is always more effective than wholesale slaughter.

All this time, your actions are guided by your conscience(s), a floaty bearded nice guy, and a fat ugly devil guy, frequently at odds with one another, though prone to sometimes agreeing, and a pretty funny pair, bouncing ideas and jokes off of one another throughout the game, offering advice and filling you on things you might not have noticed, like your village being under attack or your creature having stumbled into enemy territory and getting set on fire for not wiping it’s feet, damn it.

You then spend the rest of the game dealing with Nemesis and his lackeys, occasionally being helped by other nice gods, who you can casually destroy and steal their stuff to make yourself stronger and more powerful.

Black & White was undeniably Molyneux’s masterpiece, and will live on in our hearts as a unique gaming experience, and we can only hope to completely forget the sequel.

Posted in: Games, Retrospective