Fable II: Narrative Betrayal

Nothing like anger to get me to write.  I’ve just finished Fable 2, and, well…

There’s lots of things I liked.  The dog really did feel like a companion, possibly one of the best ever in a video game, and very realistic.  It’s very rare to see quadrupeds animated well in AI, but I think they set the standard.  The amount of NPC barks is incredible, mind-boggling, and really helps to make the world feel interactive.  Speaking of which, that living world illusion, while fully a deceptive illusion, is superficially fantastic – if you just walk through places everything really will seem somewhat real and reactive.  Villagers recognize you, comment, go about their day, day and night cycles, all top of class stuff we’ve been seeing for the last few years.  And I particularly liked the story fable aesthetic – the art style, lush colors, moralistic good and evil, British style childhood fairy tale.  Conveyed exceptionally, and an important part of why the narrative is the way it is.

In fact, my friends reminded me that I was gushing about it about 4 hours in.  “It’s the opposite of Fallout 3, the complete opposite, but in a good way.”

But… I’ve beaten it and feel betrayed.  Angry, even.  Fable 2’s not all different in a good way.

Issue 1.  The game systems don’t always work out right.  For instance, thin celery.  There’s a little appearance game that affects your weight.  Most things make you fat really quickly.  In fact, the only thing I found that actually made you thinner was celery, which is sold only rarely in shops.  Even on an all vegetable diets, I still ended up looking chubby, with no real recourse.

Or the NPCs.  Unlike other role-playing games, there are a tremendous amount of passive dialog options.  But there’s very few interesting active dialog interactions.  All you can do is use animated emoticons to influence 3 sliders, none of which have any real effect besides what prices you get, what people say around you, and if they run away or not.  While the world feels alive, and you can even interactive with it in a superficial way, even your marriage (very cool idea, btw) in my game ultimately ended up without choice or growth, just a couple of sliders a character will max.

Another example, I found Combat is “solvable”.  I won’t say how, but suffice it to say that once you find it the game loses quite a bit and it points to a general problem I had with the game – it’s ultimately a ride masquerading as a game.  Sure there’s lots of mini-games in it, but they don’t really meaningfully integrate towards the whole, particularly once combat is simple.  Instead, they serve as grind-esque distractions from what seems to be the game’s true intent, the fable-esque story.  That would be ok – I enjoy ride games too, particularly with good stories, but..

Issue 2.  No saves before story bottlenecks.  I do think that no intermediate saves can be an interesting design, particularly if your game is very short.  Fable 2 isn’t that short though, and it has unpredictable story bottlenecks.  Several times the game warned me that there’s no going back after the next quest, but wouldn’t tell me what would happen.  I ended up running around trying to finish every quest and mini-game, because there were unpredictable (yet in the end minor) consequences for the main path, and I didn’t have a save game to fall back on.  In lots of narrative designs, particularly dialogue trees and quests, this can be a real trap – the player usually has to know what the consequences of a choice will be before they take it or they will avoid that choice until last resort.  In part, I think this is why dialogue trees have tended towards clear good/evil choice patterns in recent years – as a way of distinguishing consequences clearly.

Major Spoiler Alert!

Issue 3: And this leads to the third, most aggravating issue.  The Ending.

For those who don’t know, in the end every character you’ve ever loved is killed, including your dog (and irreplacable gameplay element), in a particularly powerless and arbitrary cutscene.  This is the end of the game!  It’s completely done just to arbitrarily set you up for the final “moral” choice – would you rather bring them to life, make a ton of money, or 100000x more souls who died to the villain.  The whole element just left me feeling hurt, powerless, and betrayed, almost like I wish I’d never played the ending to begin with.  Hardly the way I wanted to end my game.

I’m sure Lionhead would say, “You could have just brought them back, so we didn’t take anything away!”  True.  It’s more evidence of the ride.  The “right” choice is to save your unchanged old gameplay.  But much of my play was spent defining the character – are you a good or evil character?  It’s about role-playing.  But the final choice sets me up to hate the game – I role-played a good tragic character, who couldn’t not choose to bring the villian’s victims back.  But I didn’t want to play the resulting game the choice forced  me into.  I liked my character and his family and his dog from before.  I didn’t want to have to dig around blindly for chests.  This choice blindly changed the game, all for dramatic narrative effect, but in a way that made me powerless and angry about it, when I felt the game was about heroic empowerment.

End  Spoiler Alert!

Moral choices are all well and good, and involve moral quandry.  Some of this is inevitable.  But when they involve significant gameplay players have a conflict of interest.  If that gameplay is inherent in the morality(kill villagers to be evil), if the consequences are clear then it can work great.  But if you make player’s kill villagers to be good, or sacrifice friends to be true to their character, then they won’t do it, and they’ll just stop playing instead.  It can kill the role-playing, the fantasy, with your own designer ideal instead.  It’s a hard problem, but that’s why morality choices in games are so rare and so precious.  And I say moral choices ultimately should be handled better then they were in Fable 2, for meaning and self-realization rather then show and strung-up shock.

(Edited for clarity 01-09-2009)

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7 thoughts on “Fable II: Narrative Betrayal

  1. Oh man, I thought Fable 2 was a great game! They knew what game they wanted to make, and made it. So many games try to be more than they can be. And the ending was great! Well, better than most video game endings. They had a surreal sequence that was reminiscent of the beginning which brought a sense of finality. The didn’t make you kill the final boss using the combat system which is good, because the would have made him feel weak. And the choice was awesome. The choice made you realize how much you loved the dog. No way was I going to save soles or get money (or save my family if that was the choice). It made the game end on a interesting moral choice, which was the theme of the game. Even if it did leave a bad taste in your mouth, well, that’s kinda the point of a moral choice.

  2. Classic non-role-player! 😉 Really? I mean, I liked the look-back video, but the rest of it? It was the most manipulative, disempowering, low-key climax I can imagine. 😉 Sure, it’s manipulative to make you see that you care, but I already appreciated that. It’s still just a go-back button and 2 other choices that heavily penalize other styles of play.

    Maybe Any emotion is good emotion? I was pretty darn angry. 🙂

    • On reflection, I think they could have gotten away with taking it back. I understand why they wanted it to be final, and they should have said it was final, but after you landed back the choice-giver could have given you one last chance to go back to the gameplay mean (middle choice), even forcing you to payback the cost to get it to happen (lives or money). It could even only be once. It gets back to my knowing and being able to react to the consequences, through a loop. I think this would have supported both goals and let narrative players feel the quest was “fulfilled” but still be able to participate in the experience.

      After thinking, I really did enjoy the first 80% of the game. It’s interesting how just those few last sections managed to change my play experience.

  3. I always found theoretical moral dilemmas to be really fake, I could always see another option, or I would think that I’d have never got into that situation in the first place. So any moral dilemma that is forced on you with a limited number of options is a really stupid thing to put in a game. I haven’t played Fable 2, but I’ve heard such contradicting views on it that I will certainly be waiting a while before I buy it at least.

    • I think that if you can see another obvious option that’s consistent with — but clearly superior than — what a game allows, you might be playing a bad game.

      And if you’re playing a game, by definition you played an indispensable role in getting into every situation that occurs in that game!

      Hence, I conclude that finding “theoretical moral dilemmas to be really fake” only happens when one is playing a bad game (ie a game the gamer in question does not enjoy).

  4. “If [morality] is inherent in the [gameplay] (kill villagers to be evil), if the consequences are clear then [that’s] great.”

    It sounds like you’re saying that harmoniously embedding moral choice in gameplay only works when each choice appears to lead to the most interesting gameplay for each gamer who would make that choice; the moral choice you wanted to make was to save the most lives, but the choice you felt would lead to the most interesting gameplay would be to save those characters closest to your avatar.

    But if the consequences of choice must be clear, then it seems that with each choice, the designer must:
    (a) design the gameplay-consequence of the choice to be the most attractive option to all players who would prefer that moral choice
    (b) clearly communicate this gameplay-consequence

    While (b) seems challenging, (a) seems nigh-impossible; it would seem that each choice is a chance for the designer to mismatch the morality/gameplay-consequence for a class of gamers, who will then quit rather than accept an unattractive moral choice and/or gameplay-consequence.

    Perhaps obscuring the gameplay-consequence of a moral choice will lose fewer players? After all, I bet that a percentage of players who think that a given gameplay-consequence might be uninteresting could be persuaded otherwise when suddenly thrown into that gameplay-consequence (as with almost everything else, this would need to be verified with playtesting).

    For example, in “Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together”, the player, having forcibly rescued hundreds of his countrymen from a powerful and racially oppressive government, is pressed by his superior officer to murder the very people he rescued so as to frame said government such that certain factions on the fence about the racial conflict will become so outraged that they will provide decisive military assistance, and likely turn the tide against the oppressors.

    Morally speaking, does the end justify the means?

    Gameplay-wise, it’s not at all clear how the game’s sequence of turn-based tactical battles and character-ability-progression will be affected by the decision, thus freeing the player to explore his own morality independent of the (unknown) gameplay consequences.

    It also sounds as though you felt blindsided by a disconnected contrivance of a moral choice, rather than being confronted with a decision point that naturally grew out of the rest of the game experience.

    Here, too, I point to the TO:LUCT as an example of a game that presents its moral dilemma as a natural outgrowth of its core gameplay experience.

    Then again, maybe the only way to really drive home the consequences of a moral choice is to make the player sacrifice something she values. And maybe this sacrifice diminishes a game’s audience out of commercial viability, and into the relative obscurity of “traditional fine art”. Apparently, Hollywood thinks film audiences don’t much like moral ambiguity; watch Alan Moore’s fine-art comic narratives commercialized for film audiences*.

    I feel like it all comes down to making sure the game experience is always interesting, no matter the choices the player makes. An interesting choice that leads to an uninteresting experience is failed design.

    SPOILER ALERT BEGIN (comic-to-film adaptations of “V for Vendetta” and “Watchmen”)
    * “V for Vendetta”‘s comic book ending, a violent and ethically questionable uprising against a tyrannous status quo, is film-adapated into a peaceful “us rebels are the good guys, see?” demonstration. The “Watchmen” film adaptation omits protagonist Ozymandias’ tormenting feelings of guilt# about the millions of people he murdered for what he believes is the greater good.

    # “I did the right thing, didn’t I?” Ozymandias asks Dr. Manhattan in a private moment. “It all worked out in the end.”
    “‘In the end?'” Dr. Manhattan replies. “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
    SPOILER ALERT END

    • Having some distance from this, I think I agree with Tod more here, that what they set out to do here was sharp. It was the magnitude of the betrayal, at the end of the game, relatively meaningless gameplay consequences, and one choice that had much greater character moment-to-moment significance then the others. Bluntly, they ended the game and then had me wandering around the world feeling bad about it with no way to save/restore out of it. Now I know Manveer is arguing that’s how moral choice has to be, but I’m not sure I agree with him on that point absolutely – here there were really no meaningful consequences and only a bad taste in my mouth. Yeoch. I didn’t even feel like a great role-player/storyteller, I blamed the designers.
      To contrast, consider Deus Ex, which had similar moral choices at the end, more ambiguous, and yet left me wanting to play again. Since games are meant to be replayed by their nature, that part of moral choice is very important – otherwise it eats at the heart of what games are. By denying me the chance to learn from my mistake, making it all or nothing, they denied the whole experience. Morality isn’t a one-moment thing – drama is. But games don’t need that kind of drama; they aren’t soap operas. The two things don’t need to overlap so starkly.

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