And so's the gameplay. Black & White
can only be shoehorned into one category before it defiantly slips out and trods on new ground -- god games. It makes sense, then, that the originator of the genre is the creator of this game as well. And while it has its issues, some of them more frustrating than they should have been, Black & White
is a genre-buster that we'll be talking about for years to come.
You play as a god, created when a young child is about to be attacked by sharks and the parents plead to the heavens. After an informative tutorial session with the game, you get down to the business of actually playing. The game takes you in small steps, giving you more information as the plot progresses, in an attempt to not overwhelm you with the complexity of it all. And your consciences -- good and evil, very reminiscent of the helpers in Afterlife -- guide you through much of the beginning of the game.
And you'll need the help. Black & White is a truly massive game, both in scope of the worlds you play in and in the complexity of the experience. There's a definite plotline to follow, but you can take it at your own pace, and most of the game's enjoyment comes from doing things that have no relationship to the story bits at hand. Indeed, the game encourages you to experiment, finding the side quests and exploring the land and training your Creature.
The Creature has been played as the big draw for Black & White, and justifiably so -- while the game doesn't require you to deal with your creature as much as you'd think, its ability to learn as you reward and punish it is truly impressive. And as it grows [and grows, and grows . . .] the experience only gets more and more surreal.
I started the game a number of times with different profiles and played a while, to see how the Creature differed between each instance. Each one had its own core personality. One, a tiger, was curious to a fault, and would run around like a crazed, er, beast in an attempt to find out something about everything. Another, a cow, rathered pooping on the temple and occasionally eating a villager. You can control most behaviours by rewarding the beast or punishing it, depending on what you'd like to do, but there are core traits that aren't meant to change, and make the game a unique experience for everyone.
The core method of the game is expansion, a la Molyneux's Populous. There are a number of villages on any given island, and to get them to worship you and therefore extend your sphere of influence, you must convert them to your faith. This can be done a number of ways, ranging from being helpful by giving them food and wood and healing the sick and whatnot, or you can destroy their homes with flaming fireballs and throw the nonbelievers across the village like so much chaff. The game doesn't make this value judgment for you -- it's all up to how you play as to how evil or good you are.
Unfortunately, this is where the game starts to bog down a little. Playing as a good god means keeping the people happy, which can be a thankless task. Teaching your Creature to do some of the work for you is a very wise maneuver, and will help the headaches somewhat, but even the Creature is limited in what it can learn to do, and in the end you'll still have to do more than you'd like. Constructing buildings has a neat method to it, but you once again have to micromanage more than is entertaining.
Of course, if you're playing as an evil god, you can just forget your people's needs and occasionally kill a few off to remind them who's really in charge. They won't be as efficient, but that's the price you pay for maliciousness.
There's a lot more to talk about here, such as making disciples, who will work singlemindedly on tasks to make them go faster but be unable to pray to get you miracles, the various miracles -- from food to fireballs -- and the gesture method used to cast them, and the multiplayer experience, which while very lengthy is also quite enjoyable -- besides the highly entertaining experience of watching your beast duke it out with other people's. But we don't need any more treatises on the gameplay, so suffice it to say that there's enough variety here to keep you going for a long, long time.