30 Years of God Game History Part 6

Villages will expand on their own, and will build more homes as needed, but you can always speed that process up by providing them the materials they need, and by using the workshop to craft scaffolding for more advanced buildings. Villages are composed of a simple set of structures, farms, civic buildings, and potentially, your civilization’s wonder. Black & White toes the line so as to not demand too much micromanagement — emulating the more elevated influence a god would have, rather than a more hands-on mayor or king. And for the most part, I think the game aces that balance, it never becomes a SimCity clone, but you still have ways to direct your sometimes wayward followers. The core activity of the game is harnessing belief. Worshippers at your temple fuel your miracles through prayer.

You can demand more prayer (and thus more power) through raising or lowering your godly totem, with the drawback of taking villagers away from their day-to-day jobs. Miracles have a wide variety of uses, for good or evil. Summon rainstorms to replenish farms and forestry, throw fireballs to smite nonbelievers, summon doves or wolves to impress or threaten other cities, or replenish your wood or food stocks. Belief is also crucial when capturing other towns.

Even randomly tossing a giant stone over a village will impress the inhabitants somewhat, but they will grow tired of seeing the same trick again and again. So you’re constantly having to find new ways to wow outsiders into believing in you. Either peacefully, or aggressively. Once they have gained enough belief, the village will turn to your side, and your influence range will expand further.

The satisfying and sometimes kinetic feedback of simple actions in the world feels so empowering. A deft hand and flick of the mouse can fling entire trees toward your storage facility, which get ground up into reusable wood. Villagers witnessing your feats of dexterity will also be impressed and gain belief.

But if you slip while showing off, that rock you tossed may crush a few of them before you notice. There are a few shortcomings to the game, most notably its long and tedious runway. Lionhead made the game intuitive and natural to control. Though it has a few more obfuscated mechanics, none of them justify the hours you’ll spend as the games’ narrators hold your hand through every step.

Even getting used to movement and shifting your viewpoint takes several minutes to burn through, whereas they could have explained this with a single prompt. The game features a multiplayer and skirmish mode which pits 2, 3 or 4 gods against one another. You can play solo against AI enemies, or with other humans online or over networks.

It’s fascinating watching other gods move around and tend to their civilizations in real time, and these modes were incredibly enjoyable additions to the game. Your creature would even grow and learn throughout your skirmishes and multiplayer matches, and those changes would be retained when you came back to the single player campaign, creating a sort of persistent progression. Black & White was so ambitious that during the game’s alpha phase, multiplayer was almost removed entirely.

And it seemed like Lionhead cut their post-launch support of the game short. A more ambitious online mode, where a large number of players would battle it out in a last-man-standing arena was planned, but later cancelled. So all we got were three official maps outside of the campaign, a step down from the large set of maps available in Dungeon Keeper and Populous. And the small and unrevolutionary expansion pack was set on a single map with no multiplayer support. Though Black & White saw great success on the PC, selling two and a half million copies, plans for a set of console releases were cancelled one by one in a cascading series of failed projects. A Sega Dreamcast port was reportedly nearly finished when the system saw a sudden drastic decline in the wake of the Playstation 2’s release.

Lionhead planned ports to the Playstation, Playstation 2 and Xbox, but quietly cancelled them, with no announcement or reason given. Even Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS versions were in development, until EA’s lack of interest killed them. Black & White was clearly a passion project, something that Peter Molyneux and the other talented and inspired creators at Lionhead had wanted to make for years. And the result shows in every corner.

These are the game developers that would even sneak interactivity into their logo reveals, after all. Though more narrative-driven and linear than the god games before it, and almost serving as a big, fantastic tech demo rather than a game, in a world of tightly crafted corridors, and minutely tailor-made cutscenes and scripted sequences, a great big sandbox which lets you make it your own, without any one right way to play it, is about as unique and memorable as a game could be. After Black & White’s success, Lionhead quickly grew out of its original one-game-at-time routine.

They started multiple projects, most notably the open-world caveman action-adventure game, B.C., and an experimental fantasy RPG known then as Project Ego. Both were to be published by Microsoft and intended as exclusive system-sellers for what would be their most successful foray into console games: the Xbox. Due to the monumental effort put into these games, their E3 and trade show demos and the ever-expanding hunger for resources needed to make Project Ego, now famously known as Fable, a reality; the cost was the cancellation of B.C., and undivided attention toward Fable. Lionhead’s rapid growth put Molyneux in more of an executive role than he had ever been previously, less hands-on in programming and day-to-day design, but holding more of a detached director’s role from above. Daily costs of employment and running the shop were reaching sky-high levels for an independent developer, and resources were being spread thin.

Despite mounting tensions, a sequel to Black & White was released in 2005, but Lionhead Studios had become a very different company in the four years between these games. The first game’s artist and creative director Mark Healey had left, to later go on to make the smash hit, LittleBigPlanet at Media Molecule, and Lionhead experienced growing pains from developing multiple games at the same time, especially following the 2001 economic crash. Fans must have spoken, as Lionhead listened.

The glacier-paced tutorial in the original game has been hastened in the sequel. Basic controls are in an optional segment, and in fact the first two entire worlds you visit are skippable. But I immediately felt something was off about this game when I first played it. Maybe it was the obvious re-use of the first game’s intro animation, or the lifeless and unenthused way you’re thrust into the story.

It just didn’t have the heart or soul of Black & White, which immediately hit you with an emotional bond as to why and how you became a god, with the theme of personal story and tragedy echoed through its quests. For example, one of the earliest quests in Black & White was a desperate woman crying out for help in the rain, as her sick brother wandered into the woods. One of the first quests in Black & White 2 features a man with an inconvenient boulder in his front yard.

It’s the same type of tutorial: picking up and moving objects, but a far cry in terms of emotional investment. There is also an incessant flow of trivial objectives sent your way this time around, like collecting a specific quantity of ore, or achieving a population milestone. It’s the most barebones method of engaging the player with a game, an odd design choice since Black & White naturally has so many interesting abilities, objects and worlds to discover and interact with.

Four years of technological advances were kind to Black & White 2, which featured much improved graphics: higher definition models, and landscapes and miracle effects that still look stunning even today. The aim for a minimalist interface was discarded, instead replaced with a tacked-on objective window, and a clunky building and upgrade menu that clashed with the rest of the game. Much of this stays on your screen at all times. This sequel offers a wide swath of new buildings, with many favorites plucked straight out of a city-builder.

Multiple types of houses, baths, amphitheatres, pottery markets and even old folks’ homes, among many others. There’s a lot more micromanagement this time around, requiring explicit placement of roads, buildings and farms. Most notably, you can now force your creature to build buildings, or you can hold down a button when carrying materials to construct buildings directly, without any villagers at all. The game introduces a third resource, metal ore.

This is most used in constructing higher-end buildings, and is a key requirement to build armories and siege shops, and equipping an army. This is a new focus for the game: military tactics, and has a strong effect on the tone and style of gameplay. The first game was more about swaying belief through godlike means, whether aggressively or peacefully, but this sequel often suggests or demands that you conquer enemy towns by building up a platoon of soldiers and taking land by force. Your creature can also fight in battles, which can be amazing to watch. Seeing a towering lion kick dozens of foot soldiers into the sky never gets old, and some new miracles can be devastating and beautiful to watch.

Summoning a meteor swarm and seeing death rain from the skies is oh so satisfying, but it seems the focus has switched toward a more aggressive (or evil) playstyle, rather than the more balanced set of options the original game touted. This emphasis on city building and battle strategy is empowering, but now it seems like you have to do all this busywork, and less divine activity. Black & White 2 sees you constantly building out your town, spending currency to unlock more buildings and abilities, and planning wars, rather than influencing and guiding a more autonomous civilization. One of the sequel’s bright spots is the inclusion of Epic Miracles, which are like the more powerful abilities from Populous — on steroids! Firstly, the Siren converts enemy soldiers to your cause. There’s the Hurricane, a devastating whirlwind that sweeps up entire buildings and towns.