The murky blue depths try to pull a small child down into the never-ending waves. His parents frantically call for help but there is no one to be found. Desperation leads them to kneel and call out to the heavens ‘Please, someone help us’, they cry. As they pray, way up in the stars something is born; it’s a faceless entity of unimaginable power. A ruthless beast who prays upon those who wander the world maybe. Perhaps a benevolent overseer with untold scope for care and compassion. Whatever this God is, this God, is you.
Epic intro out of the way this is Black and White. Developed by the genius minds at Lionhead Studios and published by EA in 2001 (before they got all up in our DRM), upon its release it was lavished with critical acclaim for its innovative systems which I’ll wander through during this little Throwback. Designed primarily by the god of hype Peter Molyneux, you take on the role of a newly born Deity, on a You given mission to lead your people through times of hardship and of plenty. As the game progresses you learn of other Gods in the world who will ally with you or attempt to destroy you in their quest for ultimate power and total domination of this stunningly rendered world.
Putting this back into my disk tray yesterday afternoon, because there is no such thing as a digitally available Black and White, those memories from my childhood came flooding back. In its heyday this game was a fairly taxing affair on hardware and little 11 year old me got his first experiences of PC building thanks to this wonder title. The first thing that is instantly striking when looking back over it from a world of stat heavy games from today is the total lack almost of a user interface. Any selections or choices made when playing are done either through the game’s intuitive (read as: has a mind of its own) gesture system or through changes you make to the world using totems and picking up elements of the world to directly or indeed indirectly influence its people.
This detached control system is something that really always set Black and White apart from other titles and left it with an enduring place in my heart. Being the great power and overlooking this world full of possibilities for your influence, and indeed your random screw ups, you would think gives you the feeling of a god complex but I found it was quite the opposite in most cases. I for one always found myself playing the omnipotent carer, never wanting to see my realm and its subjects need or want for anything. Here within this thought however another comes flooding back. You don’t need to. Benevolence and dictatorship may be two totally different ends of the scale but each is just as viable as the other. Made even easier with Black and White’s signature entity – your creature.
Turning this game from a simple God sim, not unlike Populous, into a whole different beast. Here you have a pet who you can mould into your anything-companion, warrior, carer, gatherer, war-monger or manure factory. Well before the travesty of Kinectimals you could interact with your creature directly and use it to interact with the world of Black and White. Initially your creature is a tiny runt who struggles to decide what to eat and can’t decide where to poop – not because the AI is poor, heavens no, but because the AI is a small child. The beginning of the game plays like suddenly receiving a 5 year old child with no idea of what the world has. It tries to eat everything, throws villagers about like toys and flings rocks into buildings like they’re table tennis balls in a playpen.
However just like a child, this little animal’s capacity to learn is remarkable. Through a simple system of reward and punishment you can teach this creature the basics. You don’t want him to go to the toilet in the nursery? Then punish him for it. You want him to go to the toilet in the nursery? Then praise him for it. This little thing may have a mind of its own, but it’s a mind that you can mould. It makes for a truly remarkable case study in intelligent, evolving AI for the gaming masses. You can teach it not to eat children or fling its poop into the food stores of your people (which is amusing) and combining this with being able to teach it spells and how to behave around different people, the depths here are too deep for me to plunge in this short segment. A marvellous system that gave birth to this gamer’s passion for artificial intelligence and shows us all what can be done.
Black and White still has so much more that I haven’t even touched upon. The conscience that bring a little light hearted comedy to the game. The innovative scroll quest system which lets you unlock new creatures. Finding the balance between belief management and village management. The spells, the multiplayer, the skirmish modes, the sailors on the beaches, everything. Its about £10 on Amazon right now and for that price there are many more hours of fun to be had. If you missed it then pick it up if you enjoying seeing something grow or enjoy being a good or evil deity. There’s simply not enough space on the page to cover the game’s exhaustive features for which you have my whole hearted apology. But buy the game nonetheless – and I hope you all enjoyed my Throwback Thursday.
Did you play Black and White and enjoy it? Did you miss it and want to pick it up? Leave your experiences thoughts or comments in the little box underneath.