Black & White--Day Four: The Creatures
Religious stories tell of worlds structured by the gods' own life fluids, built of chaos and nothingness, of cosmic egg origins, and of creation in six days with rest on the seventh. Peter Molyneux's Black & White has taken more than three years to create, and inside his universe you are the god--not one who has created this world called Eden, necessarily, but the one who is brought to certain existence by answering the hopeful plea of two of its citizens. As the game's introduction tells, a god is born every time a prayer is answered, but as we've come to find out, that's not always a good thing.
The fact that Black & White is on its final stretch with the release date in sight means answered prayers to many, as the game has enjoyed an enormous amount of hype from Molyneux fans and from those who find the god game genre appealing. On the eve of Black & White's judgment day, three GameSpot editors made the pilgrimage to the Electronic Arts offices on a quest for truth and understanding. Three editors, three gods, and about three hours to determine if we had what it takes to rule the world, for better or for worse.
As we mentioned in the
The goal for our few hours with Black & White was for each of us to play as a different creature and then to tell our tales of what life under our omnipotent thumb was like for the inhabitants of Eden. What's interesting about the world of Black & White is that the people you're ruling really don't have free will. They don't revolt and you won't have to deal with atheists blowing your scheme. In fact, they'll pretty much adhere to the structure you give them and reserve their free will for judging you. They will slowly and progressively lose faith in you if you don't do anything remarkable, good or bad (in black and white terms). But they'll always respond to your godliness, even if you're feeding their children to your creature. Yet the real question seems to be, will your creature turn out as you personally expect him to? That's what we set out to find out. Read on for three distinct experiences from three equally distinct editors.
Editor at Large
I knew going into the game that I would choose the ape character and then later, once a greater number of creatures became available, progress to the wolf--a strong, great creature whose place is questionable in this world because he's too free and wild to fit within the confines of society. Besides, I was born in the year of the dog so it's a perfect fit. Shucks, do I think so highly of myself? To be a strong, greatly misunderstood beast who's too big for this world? That's the catch. Peter Molyneux said it himself: We go into a game such as Black and White not with a vision of what we are but with hopes for who we want to be. Then hopefully we find out who we really are in the process.
The ape is the smartest of the three starter characters, at least at its base. I wanted my creature to learn quickly and become independent, so I chose the ape. The way I see it, a god has plenty of stuff to do besides training a parasitic puppet all day and night. I wanted my ape to stand on his own and quickly. I saw him as more of a pupil, less of an extension of self. Although at the end of the day I'd built what was decidedly a mirror image of my so-called true self.
Once you acquire your creature, through a series of tasks that ultimately teach you the controls and make you more comfortable with controlling him, he appears within the fenced courtyard of your temple. He's unsatisfied immediately in many areas; he's hungry, scared, and somewhat dumb (a meter you call upon by moving your camera closer to the creature tells you what your beast is in need of). From this point on you have to not only satisfy his needs but do so in a way that builds the type of creature you'll actually want to spend the next few days, weeks, or months playing the game with. Too much affection and satisfaction with too little discipline can create a dependent, passive monster of your creature. Likewise, too much discipline with too little reward or assurance may create a mean-spirited, powerful god the people work incredibly hard for out of fear. As Buddhists would say, and for me at least, the middle road, the way of balance, is the only way.
I wanted my ape and someday my wolf to be smart, generally benevolent, and yet tough on the inconsiderate, greedy saps society threw my way. But the Black and White civilization didn't offer me the opportunity for such black and white judgments in dealing with my people. The citizens won't go bad, which means you won't have a rational excuse for your course of forceful action. Unlike in real life, where you can react to defend your existence, you won't have opportunities to justify the bad things you do or want to do. You have to make bad things happen to good people. There's no free lunch here, folks. You won't be rewarded for burning down the corporate headquarters of an evil dictatorship, rich off the labor of the third world's women and children. You have to drop a boulder on the house of innocent bystanders. You have to take away the baby daughter and feed her to the sharks. You have to be truly bad, and that was much harder for me, in this fantastical, fictional realm, than I thought it would be.
Through actions none other than my own, the beaming, intelligent, powerful ape creature of my imagination known as the vehicle of my god turned out to be nothing more than a peaceful, lazy, homebody collector of things like sheep and piles of wood who happened to also like to eat a lot and carry around his feces. I followed the prescribed course of action, but in the immortal words of parents everywhere, "somewhere I must have gone wrong."
The training is easy enough to comprehend but much more challenging to carry out. One of the most interesting game constructs in Black and White is the concept of using leashes. You don't guide or call upon your creature through an icon-based interface; instead you lasso your beast with one of a few leashes at your disposal. There's a learning leash, a leash of compassion, and a leash of aggression. While wearing the learning leash, ideally your creature will follow you around (your pointer is in the form of a hand, tethered to the other end of the leash), observing what you do and hopefully picking up those skills. The leash of compassion can be used to teach your creature affection for other beings and kinder, gentler skills. The leash of aggression is used to teach your creature to be tough--to fight, essentially.
Once my ape's belly was full and I'd given him a few hearty scratches to cheer him up, I put him on the learning leash and took him out to meet the people. He watched me rip trees out of the ground and place them into the grinder to make wood suitable for building. He also watched me perform water and food miracles, satisfying the hungry and thirsty people of Eden. I had a tendency to move the cows and sheep around the environment, just because I could. I was, after all, learning as well. Little did I know that my ape (while on the learning leash) was observing that, too, even though that action really didn't have any purpose. When you take your creature out into the world, at one point you'll meet up with an ancient creature. This god is an animal elder to your character, although not the same species, as it were. The ape's elder creature was a bear, and it was the bear's duty to teach my little sprout the ways of war. Having had few experiences outside of being given lots of food and carrying items around, my ape wasn't built for battle. He cried and bruised when disciplined only slightly. He learned so quickly that I didn't have to hit him much at all--or so I thought. But that all changed when I had to spar with big bear. Because our first battle was a sort of training mode, it just kept going, even though I was weak, until I'd sufficiently learned to block and throw punches. After this first battle, my ape was depleted and had to go back to the temple to rest.
Shortly after my ape woke up (I let him sleep in--another bad move), I put him on the leash of compassion. After walking around a bit, I realized he was compassionate enough and decided it was time for the little mammal to leave the nest and venture off on his own. I'd check on him from time to time, but he seemed perfectly content, wandering around looking for things and seemingly amusing himself. I spent my time completing tasks and gearing us up to move onto the second world.
Only when the ape and I slid through the vortex into the second land did I realize what an odd, complacent, domesticated creature I'd created. As I rushed around trying to gather resources and perform miracles so that the folks of this new area would find me to be an honorable god (ideally, by this point, the ape should have been performing many of these tasks himself), the ape hung out by the temple and took walks every so often to break his boredom cycle. In fact, we'd bump into each other around the village. "Hey, god." "Hey, ape." My creature liked to venture out into the world when he wanted and didn't really like a schedule or a series of organized tasks such as learning to fight or to cast miracles. He liked his lack of restrictions and seemed completely disinterested in gaining power or respect. He just wanted to be free to come and go as he pleased, passing the time with farm animals and crafts. The omniscient voice of the game's narrator told me, "Your creature likes to stay at home" and "Your creature is going to go find something to bring home." And "home" was indeed the key. The poor guy was perfectly happy just bringing sheep, cows, grains, food, wood, and other items into his domicile. I set out to make Che Guevara and instead I got Martha Stewart.
Unfortunately, we only had limited time to build our creatures and put their godlike skills and know-how to the test. As you'll see, the two other editors built fighting machines. They trained and taught and whipped and disciplined with an iron fist. Amer was so strict with his creature that his sky was dark purple, red, and blue with black, and the eerie, cottony whisper of "deaaaaaaatthhhh" could be heard for miles around his island. The Electronic Arts crew said my world didn't show a definitive good or evil aura--it seemed entirely neutral. My creature was mostly good, but I accidentally dropped a few rocks on passersby and I think I let a kid drown once, by mistake. And well, I'll admit I tried to make my ape eat a lady once, but he only carried her up to his fenced-in yard where she hung out until she presumably grew bored with being part of the menagerie and walked away on her own.
I look forward to spending more time with Black & White to see if I can actually turn my fairly docile, satisfied creature into a ruthless dictator. Then again, that's what I said the first time around.
Assistant A/V Producer
My approach to playing Black & White was a little different from Lauren's; initially it was one of ignorance. While both of the other editors had diligently familiarized themselves with Black & White lore ahead of time, I arrived without a clue as to how the game would play, let alone what kind of creature I was going to select and raise as my personal incarnation. I suppose this was a good thing after all, due to my complete lack of expectations and a missing plan for becoming an electric god of the highest order.
The game's controls were easy enough to get the swing of, and it became immediately apparent that the actual motor control of the game--miracles and micromanagement--was easy to manage. The true management came in restraint. I almost immediately found myself wanting to abuse my power in all of its cataclysmic glory. No longer was I restrained by the inability to commit acts of extreme violence and sadism; indeed, I had a little devil floating on my screen, egging me on and planting visions of violence firmly between my ears. Likewise, I had a jolly old man asking me to be kind and show compassion instead of ruling my newborn world with an iron fist. Both were enticing. What would happen if I killed someone and took my objective, instead of helping out and earning my goal? I would find out soon enough.
I like to consider myself a relatively kind person, capable of compassion as well as aggression in acceptable portions. I tend to be reserved, a strong silent type mostly, except while around friends and family when I naturally become more outgoing and downright obnoxious. I also tend to put the important people in my life ahead of myself, thinking about how my actions will affect these people and others. I wanted to see this reflected in the game and tried to play it accordingly. In every situation I was presented with any number of different routes by which I could take, from the darkest pit of evil to the highest form of compassion and caring. While I started out as a kind god, I did slip a few times and carry out my frustration and annoyance in an extreme fashion.
Since we were allowed only a small amount of playing time in the scope of the Black & White universe, I went through the paces as quickly as possible. I flew through the tutorial at light speed, having paid close attention to the demo we were given before being set loose on the game. When the time came to choose my creature, I chose the cow, mostly because the monkey and tiger were already accounted for. Considering the spheres of behavior each creature had, it was pretty appropriate that I ended up with the cow after all. The tiger was more aggressive, being more combative and geared toward offense and defense; the monkey was more inquisitive and faster learning; while the cow was the embodiment of compassion and general goodness.
I set about teaching my cow all the nuances of micromanagement, such as gathering food and wood for building, rearranging the landscape to aid in construction and growth, and retasking my followers as needed. He didn't chafe under the leash of learning; instead he flourished, learning at a respectable pace. I was amazed after only 20 or so minutes of training when I could leave him anchored to a tree in the center of town by the leash of compassion and watch as he carried out the tasks I had taught him. It went well for a while, before his first big mistake. He picked up a breeder (those inhabitants lucky enough to hold only the responsibility of replenishing the population), and rather than retasking her as a wood gatherer or farmer, as a good cow would have done, he proceeded to pop her into his mouth and devour her, complete with screaming sound effects and the crunching of herbivorous molars grinding the bones of the unsuspecting woman in his mouth.
This is where I first strayed from my initial intent to play the game on the side of good and avoid acts of evil. I temporarily became the god of vengeance, and the cow became my giant redheaded stepchild. I swept in close to deliver swift punishment, but once the hand of God slapped this cow, there was no stopping it. I slapped the cow back and forth a number of times, and finding that to bring no small amount of satisfaction, I swept his feet out from under him and beat him over the head each time he tried to regain his hooves. I cackled with glee as I pounded my cow to a pulp for a minute or so, reveling in the reactions my creature had to his previously benevolent mentor beating him senseless. After a couple of minutes of this, I stopped, let the cow regain his feet, and smiled at the fresh bruises and welts that had risen on his black and white hide. He was even sporting a purple shiner around his left eye and cowered away from me when I extended my hand to pet and scratch his ego back into the land of confidence and careful consideration. I was caught up in this as well before too long and ended up bolstering him a little more than I should have. A quick smack to the side of his head corrected my oversight, and I had to restrain myself from beating him senseless yet again.
After this, he was more manageable in town but seemed to have forgotten how to retask my followers. A quick refresher course with the leash of learning remedied that, and I set out to complete some of the silver scroll tasks, which represented the less important quests in the game. It proceeded smoothly for a while, until I met with the men building a giant ship by the coast.
The encounter started off well enough. There was a large ship by the sea, with a silver scroll beckoning me to their aid. I went to them with the best of intentions, planning to aid in whatever way I could do so. What I got in return was a lilting song set to the tune of an accordion (truly the bane of all gods, be they good or evil) in which the wayward sailors bemoaned their self-inflicted situation of building a ship too big and running out of wood. I exerted patience in large doses and decided, despite their annoying and unavoidable song, that I should bring them some wood. When I came back with mass amounts of lumber and a good mind to send them on their way, something terrible happened. I accidentally used the action key in the wrong place and watched in horror as they burst into song again. The accordion seemed to speak to me at this point. "Kill them," it said. "Kill them slowly."
I had to suffer through the song again, but when they were done, my previously helpful hand took a new course of action. It went searching for a large stone, and after finding one in the woods, it returned and dropped it squarely on the incomplete ark of idiocy. This satisfied me for a moment, but it wasn't enough. I quickly swept the sailors up in my hand and hurled each and every one of them into the sea as Hercules did with the discus. Tasting the coppery power in the back of my mouth again, I went out and found them floundering helplessly, pleading for help. I let two drown before picking the last up, if only for a moment. I let him recover for a moment and then hurled him out of my ring of influence.
After this debacle, I headed back to town and completed a few more of the silver scroll side quests and taught my cow a few new tricks. I decided that in light of my recent negative actions, I needed to return to the good way of doing things and stray no more. After completing the necessary gold scrolls to progress in my story, I took the cow to see a giant ram that promised to teach him the ways of being a creature of great power. He pitted himself against my cow and taught him the ways of combat, which, as it turned out, the cow wasn't exactly ready to master. He did manage to send the ram away with a number of bruises, though.
This essentially completed my adventures in the game in terms of action and method of rule. I did progress further, making my way into another realm via a vortex opened up by a fellow god in need. I also managed to escape the trap of animal abuse whenever I was called upon to reprimand my creature for being a naughty cow, and I restrained myself from torturing any more annoying villagers. In addition to all of this, my cow began to grow, sprouting little horn buds on his head, and the villagers that I tended believed me in such a way that they were completely content. No longer were they awed by the simple miracles I carried out regularly, such as uprooting trees and transplanting them, or other minor acts that would leave unbelievers gasping in amazement at my power.
When I left the Electronic Arts offices, the realm I had created in Black & White was a good place, one that I would be content to live in myself, especially if I were allowed to be a breeder. Being a god takes a lot of responsibility, but it can be great fun. I'd like to think that the world I made was in my own image and that if I were a god, good would outweigh evil, and life would flourish without fear of a bitter and cruel god.
But then, I only played for an hour and a half. Perhaps after a few eons of spoon-feeding ignorant villagers and leading giant creatures by leashes, I would become a bitter god and rain down sulfur and fury to rid myself of their weight. Maybe I would've turned the cow into a great bull of nightmarish proportions and let him rule while I amused myself by throwing giant rocks and dropping the town's food supply into the sea. It could have ended up either way.
When we sat down to play Black & White, I knew that we wanted to "test-drive" as many creatures as possible, but I didn't know what kinds of creatures would be immediately available to us. So after completing the game's first quest that opened the huge doors that housed the first creatures, we were given the option of choosing from the ape, the cow, and the tiger. Right off the bat, I knew that the tiger was the creature for me. I generally hate all primates for some reason, and I had no desire to order a cow around my newly acquired village. Besides, as a villager, I don't think that a giant cow or a monkey would exactly compel me to do the biddings of my god, but if I saw a hulking tiger tearing through town, I'd be at church 24 hours a day. When screenshots of the tiger in Black & White started surfacing a few years ago, I knew that when the game came out, the tiger would be my avatar in Eden. And so the tiger it was.
When Sable, the villager who watches over the creatures at the beginning of Black & White, relinquished control of the tiger to me, I found the creature to be very curious. When I zoomed in the camera on him, he'd pay very close attention to the mouse cursor, which represents the hand of God, and he would track its movement with his eyes from side to side. He'd even emit subdued sounds of glee when I moved my hand slowly across his line of sight. It was almost as if he were purring. The tiger was awestruck--it was the first time he'd every interacted with me, his master, and he was enjoying every moment of it. That's when something inside of me snapped, unfortunately. I don't know what came over me, but I soon proceeded to beat the living daylights out of my creature. If you move your hand slowly across his face, you'll gently caress and scratch your creature. But if you jerk your mouse around, the caresses will turn into slaps. Eventually, my slaps turned into all-out punches, as I swung back and forth. As Trevor did with his creature, I even swept my tiger's feet out from under him and sent him crashing to the ground. There was actually a small hut behind the tiger, and when he fell down, he came crashing down on top of the structure, destroying part of its roof and all of its rear wall. After a few more minutes of relentless flailing, the tiger's will, like the rest of the hut, was utterly destroyed. The whole thing was incredibly addicting.
I should note that when you interact with your creature in the game, you're prompted with several bars that show his vital statistics like hunger and health. One of these bars indicates your discipline, with the harshest on the far left of the meter and the most compassionate on the extreme right. Even after a severe beating, a few minutes of petting your creature's head and scratching his stomach will quickly move this meter from the left to the right.
After my brief stint with creature abuse, I actually started to take the time to show him around the rest of the world. I tried to show him how to pick up wood from the village store and move it to a spot where three sailors were constructing an ark, but I quickly grew bored with doing such mundane chores. It was time for my tiger and me to have some fun.
I took him to the center of the town, and using my hand of God, I picked up a random villager and dropped him at the tiger's feet. The tiger, following my cue, promptly picked up that villager and looked at him for a few seconds, before looking back up at me with a somewhat confused stare. Because the beating was still fresh in his memory, the tiger set the villager back down on the ground, for which he received a quick punch to the face. Once again, I placed the villager at the tiger's feet, and the tiger promptly picked him up. This time, he examined the villager for about a second, and then stuffed him into his mouth. The handful of Electronic Arts staffers standing around the computer let out mixed hoots of approval and dismay. Elated, I proceeded to pet the tiger and reward him for a job well done. I plucked a few more villagers from around town, and he gladly ate each one. Although I wasn't able to try this out, you can train your creature to eat villagers of a specific sex or age by properly rewarding and chastising him. At any rate, humans apparently don't go down so smoothly, because after a handful of villagers, my tiger actually began to defecate all over town. Additionally, my earlier severe beatings probably had a negative effect on the tiger's logic, because every time he'd relieve himself, he would "sample the goods," so to speak.
My creature was becoming a sports all-star. I taught him how to shot-put villagers across town and how to bowl using boulders for bowling balls and huts for pins. I wanted to teach him how to play golf using trees as drivers and villagers as balls, but I wasn't able to. I'm confident that I can get him to do that with some more training, though. After a while, I looked up at my world to find that it had become significantly darker than when I had first started that session about an hour earlier. The sky was purple, the ground was showing signs of blast marks, my citadel had become a darker hue of gray, and even my mouse pointer hand was starting to resemble a demon's hand. The music was slowly becoming eerie, and the villagers had stopped praying--they were whispering words like "death."
But my treatment of the tiger is completely justified. Toward the end of the session, I met up with an ancient lion, who towered above my tiger. The lion, who belonged to the original god in Black & White, Nemesis, started to tutor my creature in spell casting and other menial tasks. Soon after, he challenged my tiger to a fight, and undoubtedly due to his harsh upbringing, my creature was able to soundly beat the lion, who was much more experienced than my tiger. Remember, Lauren's ape and Trevor's cow were unable to defeat their respective trainers. The lesson to be learned? Violence is your friend.