Playing God

The long-awaited game Black & White is everything fans hoped it would be: A state-of-the-art excursion into our own souls.


Wagner James Au
April 10, 2001 11:30PM (UTC)

It may be hard to believe that the future of 21st century art is represented by a giant bipedal tiger who farts, break dances and flings livestock around when he's bored. But it requires only a few hours of play in the lands of Black & White, the new PC game from Lionhead Studios and lead designer Peter Molyneux, to know that this is exactly the case.

For many gamers, that realization may come as a relief. The game arrives after more than three years of development and missed publication dates. At the Game Developers Conference in March, where Molyneux was scheduled to give a talk but unexpectedly canceled just the day before, the prospect of Black & White's imminent arrival was on everyone's mind.

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Would Black & White really be the summation of all the acclaimed games Molyneux had designed before, an impossibly ambitious melding of the real-time strategy "god game" genre (which he invented), insanely complex artificial intelligence (AI) and a wreath of unproven technical innovations? If Peter Molyneux is the Stanley Kubrick of computer game design, then, after all the delays, it started to seem like Black & White might not, after all, be the "2001" we were hoping for, but rather would finally stagger to the shelves looking more like a vaporware version of "Eyes Wide Shut."

Our concerns were groundless. Black & White is everything promised, and perhaps much more. It is a great game, and if it becomes the mass market hit it deserves to be, it should shatter the last arbitrary boundary between culture and technology. And if that happens, and its success carries over to its online versions, it might even change the world.

Taken as a literary work, Black & White fits into a distinctly British sub-genre best exemplified by the works of authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien (and to a lesser extent, J.K. Rowling) who create fully-realized fantasy worlds that embody the human spirit. Black & White is their peer. With the creation of the first truly lifelike AI the gaming world has ever known, implemented into open-ended gameplay that accommodates a limitless range of emotionally and morally resonant paths, Black & White succeeds as a work of art as vital as our best films or interactive media installations -- and perhaps even surpasses them. You watch a movie, take in an art showing, and whether you come away affected or not, the work remains the same. By constrast, this is a game that learns to understand you as you play it, and alters itself accordingly, to become a reflection of who you really are.

If Aristotle is right, and goodness is the careful cultivation of virtue, then Black & White is a kind of ethics simulator, showing you the sum of your character and the consequences of your actions, physically imprinted on the shape of your world. Other god games give you power; Black and White gives you yourself.

The gamers who have been waiting anxiously for its arrival for years and who have no doubt already immersed themselves in its intricacies understand this, without prompting from any critic. The question is whether the rest of the culture is ready to join in, too.

As the game begins, the player is literally summoned into existence by a tribe's need for a god. You begin your life as a deity on a verdant island, populated by aboriginal peoples. (There are seven races, each with its own distinctive traits, including Aztec, Celtic and Tibetan.) A faint red line demarcates the geographic boundaries where the population believes in you -- while neighboring gods with their own circles of influence develop their own faithful. As your population grows, so does your power -- in Molyneux's game logic, a god's omnipotence is directly pinned to the number of adherents you have, and the intensity of worship they pay you.

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To increase their faith, you go about tending to their basic needs: food, shelter, offspring and so on, expressed by totemic flags the villagers raise from their civic center, and spoken out loud in prayer, when you pass over them. As in most real-time strategy games -- a genre conceived by Molyneux with his games Populous (1987) and Powermonger (1990), though younger gamers are probably more familiar with Starcraft, Command & Conquer and the innumerable variations they inspired -- the fundamental elements of human society are represented by a few emblematic buildings. Raising a village store, for example, gives it an economic base; erecting a graveyard allows villagers to bury their dead and get on with their lives -- that is, get back to obeying you.

Your sole on-screen interface is a giant hand hovering above the planet. Controlled by the mouse, the hand can move over the surface by gripping the ground; it can rip trees from the earth and lob boulders across the island. You have similar control over the population. You can pick people and move (or if you prefer a harsher theology, toss) them at will. The action enables you to assign them social classifications, too: Pick up a villager and drop him into a fertile field, he'll begin to farm the land. Drop him next to another villager of the opposite sex, and they'll start a family.

But while the hand interface is impressive and mostly successful, especially with magic spells that can be cast by drawing symbols on the ground, it's not as seamless as originally billed. The game field is so intricate, you'll probably end up using it in conjunction with the keyboard.

And though the title suggests otherwise, the game doesn't simply plunge you into a clear-cut sense of moral choices. Because this is morality on a godlike scale. Early on in the game, for example, you're presented with the pleas of some incompetent shipbuilders, who beg you to help them complete their ship.

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From a human perspective, their constant requests soon get annoying. But from the god's-eye view, your alternatives are ambiguous. Assuming a Christian/humanist perspective, perhaps, you should refrain from helping too much, begging off on the principle that the Lord helps those who etc. But from a more Greco-Roman point of view, you kind of want to get pissy, and hurl a few boulders at their ship.

The ambivalence is offset, unfortunately, by a pair of consciences, an angel with a plummy British accent and a devil who sounds like a New Jersey henchman from "The Sopranos," who pop up on occasion to spell out the moral issues involved. It's a sometimes humorous conceit, but also a bit too pat and cutesy.

The decisions get substantially more complex when you're given the most impressive feature in the game: your own Creature, a giant-size emissary that takes the form of various animals. (You're first presented with a cow, a tiger or an ape to choose from.) You get the creature in its infancy, a gurgling, playful tabula rasa; making him grow into a worthwhile pet and servant requires training and a scrupulous regimen of punishment and reward. (Rub your god's hand over his fur, and he purrs -- jerk your hand across his body, and he's hit with a barrage of slapping.)

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This is achieved through an AI (by Lionhead programmer Richard Evans) that is so supple and contoured, it entirely reworks your expectations of what good gaming artificial intelligence is. Your creature stops to watch your hand when you're performing tasks, and learns by your example -- though not always perfectly. Throw trees to your villagers, to help them with their wood-gathering needs; after watching awhile, he'll try and imitate this, though he may end up throwing villagers instead. A painstakingly raised Creature becomes the perfect ward for your people. (There are reports of creatures who become so altruistic, they spend all their time feeding villagers, and actually end up starving themselves to death.) Every now and then, he even glances back to make eye contact with you, as if to seeking your approval; the doglike effect is utterly eerie.

While the game really doesn't make a moral distinction on your method for building faith (you can assign a villager to be the town craftsman, or lob him over the town as an example to terrify the rest; the aggregate effect on belief is tallied numerically) the consequences either way are palpable.

In Black & White, the landscape changes according to the tenor of your moral choices. With enough acts of cruelty, it begins to take on a dark, ominous hue; with consistent kindness, colors grow more vivid, and lush. This moral coloring even affects your interface. Get nasty enough, and your god's hand morphs into a gnarled red claw. This ethical algorithm applies most vividly to your Creature. A fully moral lion Creature takes on a crystalline glow, a kind of leonine angel. But with enough consistent sadism on your part, he'll get blackened and fangy, testament to the ruthlessness you performed to make him that way.

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None of this is to say the game is a somber, allegorical tinker toy. For all the highfalutin ideas woven into its design, it is nimbly free of pretense. It has a sense of fragile delight that no other game has quite matched, from the giggles that tinkle out of village children when you pick them up to the hushed, breathtakingly beautiful way the land looks at night. (The art direction by Paul McLaughlin makes the world a dreamy, iconic paradise; the 3-D engine from programming lead Jean-Claude Cottier is astoundingly agile, enabling you to zoom from 10 feet to 10 miles above the surface, in a second.)

There's also an underlying wackiness reminiscent of Monty Python, especially Terry Gilliam's surreal animated interludes: Much of the initial Creature training involves curbing his farting and toilet activity, which he often ends up unleashing on village huts or the hapless villagers themselves (not to mention what happens when your creature learns to dance in rhythm to the village tribal music, and lays down a line of fresh moves like a furry, 30-foot James Brown).

In all this, Black & White realizes a design ideal established by the late lamented Looking Glass Studios: the triumph of emergent narrative over embedded narrative.

Embedded narrative is the preconceived story created by the developers: scripted dialogue, stand-alone cut scenes and so on. (And in Black & White, this involves the player's ongoing struggle to defeat a dark master god known as Nemesis -- a compelling story, but not necessarily its strongest feature.) Emergent narrative, by contrast, are the stories that evolve organically through the gameplay itself. They're the stories that the players create for themselves. And if the game design is robust enough, they are unique to each one. Will Wright's the Sims succeeds on these terms as well, with players endlessly fascinated by the kinds of suburban perversity they can stick their Sims into, bizarre love triangles and household disasters. Black & White has this, too, but elevated by its archetypal scope; emergent myth, as it were.

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My first such mythical moment came after enormous frustration teaching my tiger Creature to treat my villagers kindly. For a while there, the rambunctious dimwit was more prone to pick them up, deliberate a moment then cheerfully toss them in his mouth. But after an irksome cycle of punishment and reward, neither of which seemed to be sinking in, I happened to catch him at just the right moment. Lumbering through the village, with a crimson sunset behind him, he stopped to pick up a villager, patted her on the head and gently set her back down. It was a perfect, surprisingly moving tableau; but more key, it was mine alone.

That a game could create such moments deserves special attention. For too long, mainstream coverage of games has been cordoned off into the technology section, blurbed alongside spreadsheet software, or worse, the subject of clue-impaired exposés about their putative negative influence on children. When will we stop treating computer and video games like mere geek trifles, and acknowledge them as the emerging art form they really are? Like the Thief games from Doug Church and Looking Glass Studios, or Deus Ex from Warren Spector and Ion Storm Austin, or even the Sims from Maxis and Will Wright, Black & White is an affront to this ignorant dismissal, and a challenge. With Molyneux's game, the mainstream press is now obligated to explain why it hasn't given these designers their due as artists, so late into the development of digital culture.

That need should become crucial when the full online versions of Black & White -- Black & White Worlds and Black & White: The Gathering -- launch. Internet communities are fast becoming influential social forums, and the growing numbers of Internet users will only amplify their importance. Online multiplayer games are playground and theater in this new social realm -- but up until now, they've mostly been about pseudonyms and false fronts, generic heroes with little individuation, as in Everquest or the anonymous bloodbathing of Quake deathmatches.

Peter Molyneux's Black & White suggests a new route, and a new way of thinking about online interaction. What happens when your avatar is a unique and telling reflection of who you really are, and the choices you've made? As the designer once promised a conference of game developers, speaking of players' Creatures, "You'll have to justify his appearance to others." What will happen when we interact in an online world, where everyone enters it in a similar state, wearing our souls, so to speak, on our sleeves?

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Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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