Coded blue.

Tuesday 22 May 2001

Black & White symbol

Pic of the day: The symbol of B&W.

Black & White - the game

Yes, I eventually bought Black & White. It wasn't quite in the bargain bin yet, I admit, but not overly costly either. I'm sure you can find lots of professional reviews in your favorite magazines or gamesites. I'll just give my personal opinion after a very few days of play.

So you want to be a ... god??

"If there was a god, how could I bear not being one?" That was Nietzsche who wondered. Then again, he eventually went insane. Perhaps things would have gone better if he had the opportunity to try being a god. Not a cosmic creator, just a small god.

Small gods is the name of a novel by Terry Pratchett, and it readily comes to mind almost as soon as one starts playing the game from Lionhead Studios. You see, a basic premise in the book is that it does not take a lot to be a small god. You just feed on the belief in you. (Nor is he the only one who seems to think so. The same notion has been used by people as different as Margit Sandemo and David Eddings. But as far as I know, Pratchett is the only one to base a book entirely around this concept.)

"Black & White" is based on this concept. The small gods actually look like balls of brightly colored energy, streaking across the sky. But when playing one, your focus is the hand. A disembodied hand that lets you move (by grabbing the landscape and hauling) or interact with the game world. The screen is not cluttered by icons ... instead you have to clutter your mind with how to do things. But I guess it is reasonably logical once you know it. Personally I prefer to move with the keyboard and reserve the hand for interaction. I don't usually move around with my hands, thank the Light for that.

Anyway, the idea is that you roleplay this small god who is summoned into a fresh world by a pair of desperate parents. From then on, your fate - and that of your believers - is in your hand. Heh. You soon get two advisors (the good and evil conscience) and eventually you will meet other deities, both friendly and hateful. And not least, you get your own creature.

The creature is some monstrous combination of avatar and pet. It is a smart animal that does your bidding, more or less. You have to train it. It can learn by example, or by being held on specific leashes, or by reward and punishment, or by trial and error. If you pay it enough attention, it can be a quite handy representative and even a coworker that does part of your work for you.

Study, study, all day long

The game is complex. As well it should be, as you roleplay a small god. It is kind of like a first-person roleplaying strategy game. A strange mix indeed. If your mouse hand is not quite in shape - and mine is not - you may find that all the micromanagement gets to you. You don't actually need to micromanage, but your people are not exactly the brightest bulbs. They will not build anything without you placing out the scaffolds first. They don't even breed very fast unless you supply them with a "disciple of love" for a while.

With such a complexity, it is a good thing that the first part of the game is almost entirely dedicated to teaching you the basics. The two advisors and various other non playing characters take you through the ropes, from moving about to doing miracles. As if this was not enough (and it may not be, if you are an adult with normal IQ) there is a very thorough training ground. At any time can you leave the game and jump to the playground to practice your skills, then jump back in where you left.

In fact, you can break off whatever you do and play entire levels which are not part of the main story. This way you can test out your theories in a "skirmish" against one or more enemies.

The game consists of various levels or "lands", and an epic story arc takes you from one to the next when you are ready. Or perhaps before. There are several quests dotted around the landscape, and it is easy to overlook one. The quests typically reward you with some new skill or knowledge, and you will probably wonder what you missed if you don't do them all. Certainly I wonder, because I skipped some and failed to complete two others, already at the first level. In general, it pays to take your time. You will arrive at the next level with more skills and knowledge, and you can even take stuff with you when you cross over through the magic wormhole.

My advice, if you even buy the game, is to take the time to try out everything. I discovered by accident that it is possible to take over a neighboring settlement by throwing cows through the main street. Evidently throwing cows impresses people no end, and gasps of admiration rise to the sky along with colored dots and numbers signifying belief points. I wonder if I could teach my creature to throw cows, instead of eating them ...

In short, this is not a lunch break game. It is an epic in computer game form, and a project that is likely to take quite some time to complete, if you even have the patience. But with patience, you can do it. Because there is no straight way to the goal. You can take as many twists and turns as you like, and probably some more. And then perhaps you will, as their motto says, "find out who you really are". Good luck.

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