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)