Playing God

By Wagner James Au

By Salon Staff
Published April 11, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Read the story.

People unfamiliar with computer games who read Mr. Au's review of Black & White would think it must be a social and technological achievement on the level of the invention of the car or the Internet itself. They would be wrong.

I bought Black & White the day it came out. It's an excellent realization of a unique concept in video games. Peter Molyneux should be (and I assume is) proud. But let's be clear about what it is not. Black & White will not "shatter the boundary between culture and technology," nor will it "change the world." Though he lambastes the hyperbole in major media coverage of computer games, Mr. Au seems all too willing to engage in the same conceits.

The development of the creature and environment within the game and its character is no more a reflection of my soul than a picture I paint or a program I write. It's simply a product of following a chosen path in the game, choosing from a number of options as far as how to behave toward your villagers, how to train your creature, and how to complete tasks. I've been able to create a number of worlds, some good, some evil, some trying to hew a path through the middle. All in all, a deeply gratifying entertainment experience. It's not my soul, though.

-- Gregory Dyas

Mac version Mac version Mac version Mac version.

-- L. Belcher

Put [Wagner James Au] into suspended animation with a pair of goggles and headphones to play his game, and the dude will be happy forever. Meanwhile, chess has lasted for hundreds of years playing "black and white."

I spent last New Year's Eve trying to listen to some enthusiasts explain to me about the rules of some obscure fantasy game they were playing. But my eyes kept drifting to the television which was showing Texas A&M and Mississippi State playing an obscure football bowl game, in real Louisiana, in real snow.

I'm guessing this new game of genius will be all the rage exactly until the next one comes along, say in six to 12 months. Anybody heard a good true-life murder story based on Dungeons & Dragons recently?

-- Lodger

Reading Wagner James Au's "Playing God" article, I couldn't help laughing at the irony implicit in this paragraph:

"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 exposês 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?"

Where's the irony? Of course, Au writes this in an article posted to ... the technology and business section.

-- Geoff Gill

I have never enjoyed Molyneux designs, and while I find Black & White to be an appealing "busybox," it is not as great a game as it could be, due to poor game design.

Dungeon Keeper was a very popular title, and had a well received sequel as well. But the game just was not worth playing for the fundamental reason that the design of your dungeon made no difference whatsoever. As in all Molyneux games, you had this hand floating above the world that could pick up people or creatures from any point and deposit them somewhere else. A direct consequence of this was that the space of the world became irrelevant, as any virtual entity's position within it could change instantly by any degree. Imagine chess where every piece were assigned the flexibility of motion normally reserved for the queen.

Another fault is the maddeningly indirect nature of the game. You are supposed to build up villages with villagers in them, but your villagers have no direct function in the game at all. They exist merely to worship you (or not), and this worship gives YOU the powers you need to do all the work. It sure is easy to resent those schmucks, and perhaps that is the message, but gee, I'd sure like this game more if, when I'm going to try to seize control of a new town, I sent some of my armed villagers over there, rather than wafting over there with my hand steadied by the devotions of my cutely animated villagers back at some shamanistic hootenanny.

Lastly -- and pertinent to Black & White especially -- is the lack of focus in the game play. The creature is so well-crafted in animation and behavior, but you only get one of them, and this is often just an alternative means of doing things with the godly hand. Is the game about you (the god), or about the creature? Why not dismiss the god (a wonderful alternative for the atheistic) and focus all on the mesmerizing critter?

I'm still exploring Black & White, but the more time I spend with it, the more I'm reminded of why I've disliked "the British invasion," at least where software is the medium.

-- Anthony Lovell

Salon Staff

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