Black & White

Black & White was released by Feral Interactive for Mac OS X in January 2002, developed by Lionhead Studios. My parents bought it for me a few years later, most likely in 2003/2004. It was a god game in the most direct sense: you played as god who could interact with the world with an actual hand of god, through miracles and a creature that you could train and teach through reinforcement training: petting them when they do something you like and hitting them when they do something you don’t. I loved this game when I was a kid. Being able to throw digital rocks, fireballs, cows and villagers across the map is always fun for a fourteen year old boy, especially when the camera would cut into an action shot of the hapless item/victim as they pinball around.

Your creature, your temple and your hand would change based on their alignment. Evil god’s hands are smoking, red and withered with long black finger nails; good ones create rainbows as they move and have soft white fingers. Creatures change as well and their alignment is unrelated to yours, so an evil god can have a good creature. When I played I tended to make both match, so if I was good, my creature was good. Playing as an evil god was always easier. Villagers believe in you only if you do things for or at them. So a good god has to provide food, lumber, protection and buildings to a village in order to win over the inhabitants. An evil god just has to terrorize them into submission. Smash houses with rocks, set fires with fireballs and lightning, kill villagers by feeding them to the creature, or just throw them over the heads of their kinsmen. Always simpler to do the latter over the former.

I never made it past the third of five islands despite years of trying. In one of my many playthroughs I was trying to be as good as possible. But on the third island your creature is taken away from you and you have to convert three villages on the map to get it back. The first two are relatively close to your first village and so are not too hard to convert. But since you can only affect the world within your range of belief, which is limited to the area around your villages, getting to that third village is hard. I was striving to be a paragon of virtue. My villages were blessed by bountiful harvests, protected from attack by rival gods and creatures, and I never countenanced human sacrifice which is a quick and easy way to generate power needed for miracles.

But the distance was too great and my patience too short. In desperation I started to hurl fireballs and stones across the map into that village. Bracketing the village took time but eventually I had it and rained hell down upon them. To fuel my campaign I started sacrificing my own villagers at my temple. Darkness blanketed my land but I freed my creature from its prison. I had earned a victory but at a cost.

The cost was I had sacrificed everything I had worked for in that playthrough. And I was disgusted with myself. I remember after getting my poor creature back, who was being tortured the entire time it was imprisoned, looking at my stygian hand and the nightmarish temple looming over my cowed and terrified believers and quitting to the main menu, deleting the save file, quitting to the desktop and going out to do something else. I had compromised everything for the sake of making achieving my goal a little easier. It was not even that much faster; I must have spent a solid three hours throwing fireballs at that damned village. And in the end I decided that I would rather quit than continue because I felt there was not a path to redemption for that playthrough.

I have played a panoply of games that billed themselves as having “choices that matter.” The translation of that is that they have a series of binary options, archetypically good/peaceful vs evil/violent dichotomies, that follow parallel paths. I do not mind the binary nature for the most part; I understand that games are unbelievably expensive projects that must compromise between ambition, means and time. The games that do “choices matter” best either are narrative sandboxes, e.g., Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, Stellaris; or push back against the notion that you are a hero who can save the world, e.g., The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and Red Dead Redemption to a lesser extent. In the former list you are given a time frame, a set of rules and are set loose. Do you want to create a Viking Ibadi Caliphate? Conquer the world as the Free City of Ulm? Or build a Dyson Sphere to harness the power of a star to fuel your galactic empire? It can be done in Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis and Stellaris respectively. In the Witcher you can try to do “good” but you will never save the world. The world is what it is and no matter what you do it will not change simply because you want it to. You can scare off those men harassing the Elven woman in the street, but she will tell you haven’t fixed anything: they will be back later and you will not.

Black & White falls into the sandbox category. It was a game where I could be a god and manipulate the world to my own ends and amusements. But I also saw the consequences of my actions. In that game I went from being a god to whom people could pray to for aid and receive it to a god only to be feared and appeased. For the sake of expediency I betrayed everything I had worked hard for. And in the end it was pointless; I could not bear to continue despite my success. I was only fourteen years old but I still could feel the cognitive dissonance of my choices. The game did not care, it did not judge my decisions, it merely showed their consequences. And I think that is what I look for in my games with “choices that matter.” I do not need be to the sole actor upon the world, a messiah delivered unto the acquiescent masses. Merely give me some options and make me live with their ramifications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.