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February 8, 2012 / jwaxo

Black & White (Morality)

More games should have this little of a heads-up display.

At some point in the beginning of the 21st century, my mom presented me with a list of magazines. She had apparently accrued enough frequent flier miles to sign up for a few, and not many of them interested her. My eyes immediately gravitated to one of the longest-running and highest-quality gaming magazines I’ve ever encountered, PC Gamer. Nearly jumping with excitement, I checked it on the list, and proceeded to wait at the mailbox for the next three weeks. When finally my first issue of PC Gamer arrived, I flipped open the pages and found a game that would have a huge affect on my view of the world.

Black & White.

If I had known the history of its creators, and had known that almost all of them had come from the legendary Bullfrog Studios who also put out one of my favorite childhood PC games, I would not have been surprised. Because Black & White sounded like about the coolest simulation game ever. The premise was simple: play as a god, represented by a giant disembodied hand, enlist the help of a creature that grows and learns with you, and guide your chosen people to their destiny as the rightful rulers of the world.

Naturally the issue of certain gameplay elements (namely, being a deity) were called into question when I was asked what the game was about. In fact, if we weren’t in the car driving home when it happened, I’m not certain if the game would have been purchased at all.

Good thing for nondescript names.

Once the game was installed and shown to my parents to be a somewhat lighthearted take on the idea of being a god in the style of ancient mythologies, my parents’ concerns were alleviated. There was one major thing, though, that still made them a little upset:

The “black and white” in the title wasn’t referring to colors. It was talking to different gameplay styles.

You see, the main draw of the game wasn’t the open-world, very flexible strategy-game that it presented. It wasn’t the creature that had some very advanced AI that allowed it to mimic the player in somewhat sophisticated way, and develop its own personality. It wasn’t even the idea of being a god that could cast miracles to gain followers as their citadel of worship grew more spires and floors. It was the very backbone of the game that particularly interested me: the fact that the player could pick to be either a “good” deity or a “dark” deity. And it wasn’t a binary choice, either: your actions were cataloged and remembered by the game, and your followers, your creature, your hand, and even your island would change and react accordingly.

The idea intrigued me to no end, and, after weeks of playing, I came to a simple conclusion: I was absolutely bugged to no end by that system.

I admit, being absolutely good was a great feeling. People loved you, you got the prettiest rewards, and it was genuinely satisfying when you were trying your hardest to be kind to a village and they finally realized how much better it was worshiping a Good god over their stupid one. And being evil was satisfying in its own cathartic way, too.

But there was no middle ground.

Balanced you could not be.

The frustrating thing was, if you were an Evil god, you understood that people would be upset. You were Evil. You didn’t care if your people were starving, or if they quaked in fear at your creature’s approach. But you still had to keep some food in them, or they would starve. Alternately, if you were Good, your people grew fat and lazy. “Food,” your people would cry, and being a just and caring god who understood that they were giving you an awful lot of power, you would give them food. And seeing that they had a surplus of food, they would start praying again. “More babies,” they would ask. So you would assign a few of them to be breeders. Which created a surplus of people, and thus they would need more food.

The only way to get them to stop complaining would be to be a bit of a jerk who didn’t care that they were a little low on food, and then gained some Evil points.

Even worse was playing along the Good path and getting a mission with someone who’s obviously a jerk. Say, a sheep thief. If you just take the sheep back you get Good points, but you feel useless for not punishing the thief and you even get called on it while the jerk gets away with it and continues to steal. Whereas if you punish him, you gain Evil points.

I guess my main point is that I learned a few things through this game: 1)Bipartisan morality systems (which pop up in almost any game that pretends to have choices nowadays) are always, always stupid, mainly because 2)morality is much more complicated than it seems. The worst part was that the game pointed this out itself, right before forcing you down one of two paths.

The guy deserved it, anyway.

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One Comment

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  1. supermeeshi / Feb 8 2012 10:12 PM

    Haha great read! I love this game, but i must agree with you. It really was bad or good, no in between. But I guess that’s why its called Black & White, and not Black, Grey and White…

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