Aug 02 2009

Black & White

zorro @ 10:07 pm

It had been a few years since Peter Molyneux’s departure from EA/Bullfrog and, as usual, the gaming press were running preview feature after preview feature on the game from his new company, Lionhead.

An E3 preview showed the attendees an example of what the engine could do, zooming from a vantage point high above an island down to a barrel outside a village hut and down to a worm crawling from an apple sitting on the barrel. Much was being made of the deformable landscape which was tied to your alignment. Though not much was shown of the creature itself, which would eventually end up with most of the game’s focus.

Early screenshots released to the internet.

An article in Edge Dec ’98, showed some early screenshots and revealed Molyneux’s ambitions for the game. “The most beautiful world in any game ever.” said Molyneux. The article also revealed Molyneux’s feelings on Dungeon Keeper‘s interface – “icon hell”, clearly the mouse-based, gesture system of Black & White was in the design from the start. The article described the overall concept of Black & White as “Populous meets Pokemon”.

As Black & White’s development dragged on, another Edge preview in Jan 2000 displayed a version much closer to what would be released a year later in 2001. In this article Molyneaux referred to it as the first RPG God game. Here too was mention of the perceived lack of a specific plot, though some text was given over to discussing some of the missions that appear throughout the game.

During the course of the development a freely downloadable plug-in for the popular mp3 player Winamp was released from Lionhead. One of the creatures from the game would dance in time to the music being played.  An early example of the use of viral video-game marketing.

Finally, in April, 2001 Black & White was released. A big hit in nearly every magazine around the world and a recipient of a huge number of ‘Game of the Show’ awards from E3 2001, Black & White blew away critics and amazed gamers the world over.

The combination of classic Populous-style play and attending to the training of your creature kept the player occupied for the first few levels. Black & White didn’t force you to complete the levels, Molyneux had clearly taken note of the Sim-series’ philosophy of sandbox gaming. The initial world was really a giant toybox for you and teaching your creature was entertainment enough.

For those people that have never played this game perhaps a summary is needed. You start the game with a sorceror’s tower and a village who think you’re pretty special. Your interaction with the world is via a floating hand icon which allows you to interact with the world and its objects. Feeling mean? Pick up a villager and hurl them across the town square. The rest of the villagers go very quiet. Soon it’s time for you to pick your creature from a choice of three – a cow, a tiger and an ape. These creatures are over one hundred feet tall for reasons that aren’t adequately explained but they think you are ‘da man’. Training your creature is a bit like training a dog at first, games of fetch and catch can take up a lot of time and be a lot of fun. Eventually though, things get more advanced.

Spells are learned and are cast via the ‘gesture system’. That is, they can be cast by ‘drawing a symbol on screen with the mouse. Some are simple, like a circle or a square, but some are more complicated runes. Again, these can be taught to your creature and when he performs his first spell and does his little happy dance, it almost brings a tear to your eye :)

On my first go I found the creature to be irritatingly needy and no amount of petting and / or slapping seemed to make him happy. He kept eating villagers and livestock and sulking around the tower. Concurrently my villagers needed food and supplies to survive – I found myself overwhelmed by the amount of things I needed to do – this wasn’t a game, this was parenting!

I started again and this time resolved to teach my creature how to pay his way in this world and I soon realised that if I kept him close by while I attended to the villagers needs – food and material stockpiling in particular, my creature would attempt to mimic my actions. Oh sure, there was a bit of spilt milk – a few villagers were killed as my creature got lazy and threw the trees into the village instead of carrying them but a few smacks and he was doing it all properly. A few hours playing this way and I pretty soon sat back and realised that I didn’t have to actually play the game at all – I had taught my creature to do it!

Soon enough though, the game’s missions were introduced. Villagers prayed to you and asked for a small favour – a little boy lost in the woods, a farmer who’s sheep have wandered off and fulfilment of these wishes rewards you with more power as your villagers increased their worship. That’s not to say that you had to complete the missions – you could instruct your creature to find the little boy and eat him instead. This all shaped your path through the game.

The game is really divided into three chapters. The first chapter is the sandbox aspect of the game – get to know the world and the mechanics and of course train your creature. The second has you fighting off other gods and their creatures and the third has the player battling a god who is the polar opposite in alignment. Good and Evil. Black and White.

At first, the game seems like a dream come true. Gaming distilled down its most playable components. But its shortfalls cannot be ignored. Large sections of the game really come down to resource management. It’s no fun being an all powerful god if you have to worry about your creature’s poo killing villagers as it rolls down a hill or where your village’s next meal is coming from.  Black & White lives up to each element of the hype – the graphics are stunning, the AI amazing, the gesture system is innovative and the attention to detail is staggering, but somehow the sum of all these parts fails to live up to the lofty goal that Lionhead set itself.

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