Peter Molyneux is an infamous figure in the game industry; a developer famed for his over-promises and occasional bending of the truth. However he is also known for making some fantastic video games. His now defunct studio Lionhead Studios created some phenomenal titles, including the first three Fables for the Xbox. However, before they moved to developing RPGs for the big green and black box, they made PC games. These games were weird and experimental in a way that does not happen often nowadays. Their debut title, Black & White, is no exception. It’s perhaps one of the most trippy and cerebral games I’ve played. It’s also a fantastic god game.
It starts normally enough: a child is found drowning in a lake and his tribe call out to the heavens for help. Naturally you show up as a giant mystic energy ball from space. You embody a giant hand hovering over the land. You save the child and become the supernatural leader of the tribe. Soon after, a little old man and a chubby devil begin teaching you the rules of being a deity and give you a giant cow to do your bidding.
Needless to say this game has some character – this is just the set-up for the tutorial. It is essentially a typical god game; you grow your followers by providing the resources they need and appeasing their wishes. You help them make buildings and grow their society. You can convince disparate tribes to join your religion. There are several islands where you need to get everyone on there to believe in you.
What makes it stand out is the unique angle that the gameplay takes, as you can be a benevolent god or an evil devil. Your interaction with the world is done through a giant hand that can pick up all sorts of stuff, from trees to disciples. You can perform various “miracles” which can do anything from making food to shooting lightning. Additionally you have a creature that can support your efforts and that you grow like a virtual pet.
Black & White uses these various elements combined with a wonderful physics engine to create a diverse set of challenges. These start out incredibly easy, letting you get a hang of the controls, but can quickly become hectic and difficult. Your overall goal is to take down an evil entity called Nemesis.
As you progress through the game you are presented with situations you need to navigate with your own abilities, and crucially, your creature. The creature is basically your physical avatar in this world, actioning peripheral actions like moving a tree or setting fire to buildings. But the creature can directly interact with followers and the world.
This is easily the most fascinating aspect of the gameplay, because the creature is almost like a giant Tamagotchi. You have to train, feed, and punish the animal to make it behave in specific ways. The AI ultimately has the reins, and while this may sound frustrating, miraculously it totally works. It can be frustrating at first; the immediate gaming reaction is to want direct control, but the AI is unbelievably smart and adaptive, as you have access to lots of tools to wrangle them and get them to do the jobs.
It actually becomes a lot of fun trying to control these beasts, so much so that eventually you can’t help but feel connected to them. Especially because depending on the moral choices you make, they change in appearance. If you’re evil they become mean and scary looking. If you’re good they become cute and cuddly.
Another excellent addition is the inclusion of silver scroll objectives, which are essentially sidequests. These are where a lot of the charm of Black & White really shows itself; the followers are often hilariously written and voice acted. There are many weird and humorous stories hidden throughout these. It’s a great reinvention of the typically dull side objectives in many games of this genre. This is instead one of the highlights of the whole experience.
Black & White is a difficult game to get running today – you may have to look up some guides to get it working on modern systems. However if you’re interested in playing something that is genuinely unique and incredibly fun, it may be worth the sweat it takes to get it moving. Without a doubt, Black & White is a total hidden gem that still holds up.