Black & White
Black & White (B&W) is a game I tried very, very hard to like. On paper, it's an impressive accomplishment, and it's literally groundbreaking in the gaming industry in several aspects. At the end of the day, though, a game has to be entertaining, and in my view B&W fails where it really counts.
To say that B&W is visually stunning is an understatement, but I can't think of any more appropriate superlative. The B&W engine supports viewing the world from far above, with nearly seamless zooming all the way down to the level of an individual villager. At every step along the way, the worlds are wonderfully rendered, incredibly detailed and are surprisingly alive with an overwhelming amount of activity. The modeling is great, the animation is equally impressive, and so forth.
The only complaint I have with the visuals, really, is that I don't like the style of the artwork. Everything in the world comes off in a particular cartoonish way that, for whatever reason, just doesn't grab me. I just don't like the look of the villagers, the creatures and so forth. I would have found a different artistic style more compelling, but I wouldn't suggest taking this complaint very seriously, as I suspect I'm in the minority on this point.
The audio in the game is overall as good or better than the visuals. The sound effects are very good, the voice acting is quite professionally executed, and even the music is nicely done. I have three complaints with the audio, one minor and two more troubling. First, the minor complaint is that the music, nice as it is, gets pretty old in a big hurry. It seems as if a very limited number of background music bits are available, and they loop far too often. Perhaps others won't be bothered by this, but I found it tedious.
A second and more serious problem with the audio is that the villagers' cries become utterly maddening after a while. In the second land, for example, I'll bet I heard the villagers say "Must build homes!" in excess of several hundred times. By the time I was done with that land, I wanted to do unspeakable things to the next villager who complained about wanting a home.
The third and final problem is that the variety of samples available for the creature is quite unimpressive. One's creature and the interactions therewith is a huge portion of the game. As such, one might expect that more than two or three different sounds might be employed for the pain/pleasure sounds, for example, when slapping/stroking one's creature. Suffice it to say that my ears got very tired of the same happy bleat from my bovine avatar again and again and again and...
The interface is one of the categories in which B&W is positively groundbreaking. As someone familiar with Peter Molyneaux's last big hit, Dungeon Keeper II (DK2), which I recommend very highly, it's pretty clear to me that the austere interface of B&W is an obvious response to the "busy" interface in DK2. B&W has one of the best sets of interface mechanisms I've ever seen in a game, despite its being almost completely nonexistent. That is, despite the relative lack of progress bars, buttons, readouts, icons and so forth, the player can easily, and often intuitively, interact with all of the objects in the game world. Movement and action are all accomplished with the most basic of mouse movements.
Where B&W truly innovates is in its approach to miracles. The gesture-interpretation system of B&W, which allows a player to cast a particular miracle simply by tracing out its corresponding sign with the mouse, is sheer genius. It is somewhat tedious at times, and there are some miracles that are relatively difficult to trigger, but it is nevertheless one of the most fascinating innovations I've seen to date in game interface design. It really sucks the player into the world, and I can't wait to see other games put that sort of thing to use for casting spells or other such actions.
B&W does not merely set new standards, it also improves greatly upon the old. Whereas various other games feature static readouts and so forth, B&W makes much of its information available to the player through the temple. My jaw dropped the first time I went into the huge, ornate temple, only to find worshippers wandering about and all sorts of interesting things to look at in each of the rooms. This simple improvement greatly assists the game in sucking the player into the play. Being able to watch my creature lounge about in the lush and lovely creature room while I peruse his stats goes a long way toward suspending disbelief.
The game mechanics in B&W are a bit less wonderful than the other categories mentioned thus far. In fact, they're positively awful on several points. Most of the basics are well conceived and implemented. The ability to interact with most objects in the world, picking them up, throwing them, etc. all work pretty well. It's a bit tedious to keep track of more than one or two challenges with as few bookmarks as are available, but as long as one makes a point of working through things one or two at a time, it isn't too onerous. The game mechanics fail completely, however, in several areas.
First, they're hopelessly broken when it comes to dealing with one's creature. Creature attention to detail seems invariably either too fine or too broad in any given situation for the feedback provided. If I'm trying to train a creature to poop in the fields, for example, and I need to discipline him because he just pooped on the temple, the stupid beast is just as likely to assume I'm mad at him for pooping generally as I am for where specifically he pooped! The result is often a constipated creature, who is simply afraid to take care of his business. Plenty of other such examples come to mind, watering wooden things rather than watering trees, throwing stones for the hell of it rather than to impress and so forth. Perhaps this wouldn't be such a big deal if the AI weren't so limited, but that's another issue.
Second, the game mechanics are awful in terms of their focus. Molyneaux and company went to the trouble of developing the most advanced AI to date for modeling one, "intelligent" creature, and then laid the focus of the game squarely on responding to the annoying villagers' needs. Training one's creature might actually be fun, were the AI not so limited, but it's bloody difficult to find any time to do this while tending to even one village. The constant cries of "We need wood!", "Must build homes!", and so forth just never stop. This wouldn't be so bad, I suppose, if one's creature could really be much of a helper, but I was never able to get mine to do much of anything productive without me doing something first. The end result is that one spends far too much time twaddling around with whiny villagers.
Third, so much of the gameplay is just tedious. Consider some of the most introductory challenges, for example. On the first island, one must find a number of musical stones, find a number of lost sheep and so forth. Did other gamers really enjoy hunting all over the bloody place trying to find the one rock in twenty that looks a little different? Or straining to hear the bleat of a lost sheep? For crying out loud, the player is supposed to be a god! If he wants sheep, why can't he just conjure them up? Or at least illuminate their positions? Those challenges, and others along that line, were just awful in their mind-numbing tedium.
Fourth, so many of the challenges are wildly inconsistent in their solutions. Consider the quest in the early lands involving the villager(s) worshipping at a false idol. Somehow, the player has to destroy the idol. The obvious thing to do is simply to pick it up. But whereas the player can pick up trees, rocks, villagers, etc., he cannot pick up the idol. Why not? I'm sure the answer is simply "because that would be too easy". Ok, fine. So the next most obvious thing to do is to destroy it with a little divine power, right? Wrong. Lighting, fire, etc. do absolutely nothing to the idol. The solution, naturally, involves placing trees near the idol and setting them on fire. Apparently, the idol cannot be made to burn by god, but it can be made to burn by nearby flaming trees. Ah, yes, that makes sense, doesn't it? Sheesh.
Fifth, the ethical calculator employed by the game is a joke, and not a funny one at that. The challenge that illustrates this best, I think, is in the second land. A group of rowdy circus folk capture some free persons and force them into slavery. They demand to be brought a bunch of rare animals from around the island in exchange for the slaves. The morally right thing to do, as any good god will tell you, is not to negotiate with such evil persons. Rather, it is to free one's people, with or without smacking down the bad guys as needed. This, of course, is not an option for the god who wishes to be good. Instead, one must placate the bad guys, rewarding them for their evil deeds. Oh, you can be a sneaky god and simply pick up your people and rescue them, but the bad guys protest this, and if you do it too often, they start raining down terrible things on your villages. And naturally, as with the idol mentioned above, they happen to be the only people strutting around the world that you, a god, cannot pick up. Ah, yes. That too makes so much sense. If you actually have the gall to try to punish them for their behavior, then you're an evil god. Apparently, the foolishness of "enlightened parenting" reigns even in video games these days.
Sixth, the gameplay is seriously limited in terms of freedom. From all the hype, it sounded to me like Molyneaux was trying to make a world in which the player could explore and take it all at his own pace, doing what he wanted when he wanted to do it. That was the expectation I brought to the game. As I've detailed elsewhere in an essay about getting off to a bad start with the game, that isn't at all what the game is like. See a big creature you want to interact with? Tough. You haven't clicked the right scroll. Wanna fuss around with that cool tree puzzle? Tough. You haven't clicked the right scroll. And so goes the litany. In B&W, the mechanics are so fixed that the player's only options lie in choosing precisely when he will jump through the hoops the developers have created for him.
In short, the game's mechanics do not lend themselves well to having fun. With all the frustration that ensues from inconsistent standards of interaction, the literal rejection of righteous wrath, and so forth, the game makes it exceedingly difficult to be a good god. In fact, it seems to me that it practically rewards evil. Get tired of whiny villagers? Fine, toss them in the ocean, or sacrifice them; that will shut them up. It works, it's simple and it's fast. The good god, however, will be stuck trying to meet their needs again and again and again, which is neither easy, pleasant, nor even very effective in contrast.
The story is your basic theologically silly garbage. Every time a wish is made, a god is born. Right. Once you grant that initial absurdity, however, the rest of it flows along rather nicely. The whole gods-battle-for-supremacy theme is as old as, well, probably humanity itself. That theme made for interesting reading in ancient Greece, and it is just as entertaining today. In this aspect, the story of B&W is quite good, despite being quite predictable.
The content is similarly pretty impressive, though perhaps a bit light for the game's high price. If a gamer sticks strictly to the gold scrolls, I figure he could probably finish the game in less than one day of total playing time. If he takes his time, however, trains his creature—assuming that's really possible—and investigates all the silver reward scrolls, then I figure B&W has a good 40+ hours of gameplay, which isn't bad at all these days. The only reason I say it's a bit light is because it's relatively expensive compared to other games, and it clearly doesn't have the replay value of a lot of its competitors. One could play through Baldur's Gate at least a half-dozen times and still not see all of it, but B&W is far more limited. I ultimately spent between 30 - 40 hours of time with it, making it essentially to the end of the third land, so I saw roughly 60% of the game, but bear in mind that the majority of that time was pure frustration.
The one big complaint I have against the content, as mentioned previously, is the AI. The AI in B&W is truly groundbreaking. It is the best produced to date in any video game. Frankly, it's almost on par with the kind of AI one sees in the high-tech departments of modern universities. The creatures in B&W are "introspective", have "senses", and (supposedly) "respond" to behavioralistic training methods. The problem is that it just isn't good enough for the game. Despite how advanced it is, the AI just doesn't get the job done. So much the worse for the contemporary state of AI, I think.
I know the creature was supposed to be a helper; i.e., an avatar that, once trained, would help his god rule. What he ends up being is a hopelessly stupid annoyance. If he isn't too busy vomiting up his own poop, then he's likely wandering off accidentally destroying villager homes with the rock he just threw, casting a shower miracle on villager homes instead of on the forest, eating villagers, or something else entirely contrary to what the player has tried to get him to do. I tried to set my sights pretty low after a while. I figured I could be happy if I could just get my idiot cow to do two things: (1) poop in fields, and (2) eat grain. Despite all the hours I put into it, he pooped pretty much everywhere but fields, and would eat just about anything but grain. It made no sense.
Unfortunately, I never got to see much of the content. I know the land is supposed to respond to its god, growing more beautiful for a good god, or becoming dark and ugly for an evil god, but I never saw any of that. No matter what I did, I could not substantively change my own alignment. I had my creature cranked up to the maximum positive alignment in no time; he was literally glowing and sparkling with his righteous goodness. But every time I would make positive progress, some accident would happen, and I'd be right back at zero. In one case, for example, the villagers were whining about wood, so I plucked up a tree and went to drop it in the store, only to miss and drop it on a villager. Instantly, all the progress I had made was wiped away. All it takes, as a good god, is one lousy mistake, and you're screwed.
I have to confess that I never even bothered to try the multi-player aspect of the game. With as uninteresting as the game was in the single-player campaign, I never took the time. It's a pity too, because the multi-player mode is far more promising. It smacks of the elements common to RTS games, and I imagine B&W can be quite interesting and challenging in its multi-player mode. Since it was effectively impossible for me to train my creature for beans, however, I never even tried.
B&W is a game that isn't a game. It's simply not entertainment; it's work. If you're the kind of gamer to whom constantly responding to demands for wood, food, etc. is fun, then maybe you'll like it. If you're the kind of gamer to whom the notion of caring for a dumb-as-a-post creature appeals, then maybe you'll like it. Alternately, if you're a person with far too much time on his hands, B&W will provide you with things to do. As for me, I can think of dozens of other games, all of which are more fun than B&W. The best thing I can say about B&W, ultimately, is that it sold quickly on EBay.
Reviewed by Phileosophos