Retro review: Black & White

In the beginning, God created a hand. God’s hand, actually. It’s kind of meta. Anyway, he saw the hand, and it was good, but not that great, so he created a humongous creature and a big heap of rocks, and realised there was still loads more to do and he was pretty knackered, so he also created a bunch of people to do stuff for him. Then he picked them up and chucked them into the sea for the lulz.

–  From the Book of the Lands Part One: The Monkey and the Lightning-Struck Crèche

Even ten years later, there’s nothing else quite like the original Black & White. Peter Molyneux might’ve cultivated a bit of a reputation for talking up a big game that seldom actually turns out that way, but there’s simply no denying that Black & White was extraordinary, and still is.


The game’s premise is simple enough – there’s a series of islands, and you have to convert everybody on them to your holy cause, which is anywhere on a continuum ranging from “saintly” to “really, positively wicked”. To accomplish this, you have both your own divine powers (FOOD! FIREBALLS!) as well as a creature who responds to your commands, but has also a certain degree of autonomy based on your own previous positive and negative reinforcement. Basically, you train your creature to be as saintly or as really, positively wicked as you like, and leave him to get busy with whatever while you do things your own way.

The more you impress / terrify the people, the more they believe in you, and the more mighty you become, until, eventually, THE WORLD. Then the chapter ends, and you start all over again. There’s sort of a story, but I didn’t pay it much attention. It’s much more fun burning mom and dad in front of their kids (impress / terrify, belief, mighty, THE WORLD, etc.).

It’s the gap between you and the creature where some of the game’s most remarkable (technically, exploitable) mechanics are hard at work. For example, it’s possible – and, actually, perfectly sensible – to be entirely at moral odds with one another. As a tyrannical monster-god, you can rain fire over the heads of your grovelling disciples, and watch as your creature, an angelic paragon of every virtue on the rainbow, rushes in and douses the flames with miraculous water. MAXIMUM POWER.

The game got a sequel in 2005 that, while not altogether horrible, somehow managed to miss what it was that made the first one so special, focussing instead on city management and military conquest. It’s a tremendous shame, really, because the core concept – quite literally playing god – is an instantly compelling one, for all the obvious reasons. Most recently, Ubisoft’s From Dust tried something very similar, but inevitable comparisons with Black & White left it feeling a bit underwhelming. Maybe it’s time the ‘Neux binned the increasingly tedious Fable franchise, and went back to this one.

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