by David Nieborg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Does Fable 2 live up to its promises? That depends on the player. Those willing to play the game several times will find a well-designed, deeply engrossing, morally challenging game. Conversely, the casual gamer will see ‘just’ see a well-designed action game. The game’s biggest problem though, is its lack of immediate feedback. Every ingame action – being good, evil or anything in between – does lead to a reaction, but it is not always clear which reaction is the result of a particular decision made by the player.
There seem to be two ways to discuss, or review, Fable 2: to constantly compare it with the first Fable, or on its own merits. The release of Fable 1 was, for many gamer reviewers, an event that did not have anything to do with the question of morality in video games at all. The hype leading up to Fable 1 was all about Peter Molyneux – Lionhead’s soft-spoken and amicable lead designer. He made, in the eyes of game critics as well as fans, a capital mistake by overhyping a game that was by all standards innovative and playable, but not as innovative as promised by Molyneux. Building up a buzz around Fable 2 asked for a more moderate approach and in many was Fable 2 has become the game that the Fable 1 should have been from the outset.
But, let us try to critique Fable 2 in its own right. The tendency of many a game reviewer is to ‘forgive’ a game’s flaws, or rather its unrealized potential, by looking ahead and discussing “the inevitable sequel”, is a road travelled much too often.
For the most part Fable 2 is a single player action RPG (Role Playing Game). Nothing more, nothing less. The gameplay revolves around questing, exploring the world and killing a stream of somewhat generic enemies (ninja-types, Ogres, banshees, and, of course, skeletons). Set in the fantasy world of Albion, the game offers an atmospheric environment. From gloomy marshes to a vibrant harbor, and from big cities to the inevitable evil overlord’s castle (The Tattered Spire – which resembles the Lord of the Rings’ Barad-dûr in both look and the feel), Albion is inhabited by intriguing characters.
It only takes a few minutes to see the enormous level of detail in the game’s world design. Although Fable 2 is much less a sandbox game compared to, for example, Grand Theft Auto 4 or Crackdown, the game does invite the player to explore and interact with the environment and its wacky inhabitants. The many NPCs (non-player characters) which stroll around in cities and along the countryside are particularly interesting. According to a press release: “The voice recording ran concurrently in two (…) studios for over three months, amounting to nearly 370,000 words recorded – that’s 38 hours of dialogue!”. Yet, while the interactions with ‘good’ NPCs (vendors, citizens walking by, and children) are a major source of enjoyment, any meaningful way to interact with enemies (apart from pre-scripted cut-scenes), is non-existent. There’s no way to, for example, to convince an enemy you encounter to stop fighting, help you to rule the world with an iron fist (if that’s the path you wish to take) or to even call a truce of some sort.
The game’s story starts with an option to play as a male or female character. In the first few minutes the player learns that his sister is killed (or her brother) by Lucien – the evil overlord character – and thus the story is one of revenge. The end, and thus the moral, of the story is exactly how you think it will be.
The game’s morality system manifests itself in two ways. On the one hand there are the game’s emergent properties, that is, the ingame actions offered to the player on an ongoing basis. These actions are either NPC related actions, or are good or evil deeds (mostly killing and stealing). The player can interact with NPCs through some sort of “wheel of emotions” which allows for Rude, Scary, Social, Fun and Playful gestures. An example of a Playful gesture would be “Heroic Pose” (the avatar striking an heroic pose) or “Come back to my place” (inviting an NPC over for, to put it bluntly, intercourse). Note: the main character does not speak at all in the entire game. On the other hand the narrative offers some explicit moral choices during the unfolding of the main plot – structured though a line of quests. For example, halfway through the game, the player is ordered to hurt another prisoner. If the player refuses, the player character will be punished. There are however, and I will come back to this point, very few ways of telling whether or not these actions – there are more explicit narrative-driven moral choices in that particular part of the game – actually influence the outcome of the story or even the world itself (e.g. its appearance or the way NPCs react to you).
The most interesting question about Fable 2 is whether or not the game, as Gene Koo calls it, has a functioning “social physics engine”. One way to answer this question is take a look at the developers marketing and PR material. Press releases and behind closed door sessions at game shows offer an insight into the developer’s (and publisher’s) talking points and give a hint what the supposed role is of a morality system.
The game’s six marketing bullet points are, 1) the vast and open world of Albion, 2) an improved combat system (e.g. a player cannot die), 3) a dog who accompanies the player everywhere (s)he goes, 4) co-op gameplay, 5) mini-games and 6) “Choices, consequences”, explained as: ““Fable II expands upon the scope and depth of the Xbox classic (Fable 1, DBN) by adding incredible new features and creating a wider, more complex kingdom of limitless choices and consequences. Players will have the option to play as a man or woman, get married, have children, and live a life of their own design — all leading to different destinies”. The marketing perspective is relevant as it sheds light unto the publisher’s intentions with the game. Special fact sheets, which accompany pre-release copies sent out to game reviewers, are an important source for critics, and guide (and fill) many game reviews, and thus, arguably, influence gamer reception and discussion. For the “inevitable sequel,” a post-launch discussion that focuses solely on the game’s morality engine might push the developers in expanding this element of the game in a future iteration. From the looks of it, this is, as of yet, not the case. That is, the post-launch buzz of Fable 2 dealt more with the game’s combat system and its atmospheric world design, rather than the game’s innovative implementation of a (arguably rudimentary) social physics engine
On top of that, even though we (in academia) may be eager to tinker with the game’s morality system, it is entirely possible to play through Fable 2 without noticing this aspect of the game, something which is reflected in the marketing material as well. My personal take on Fable 2 is that the game is first and foremost an enjoyable RPG with a “cool” combat system which happens to offer some minor moral dilemmas along the way and one major one at the end of the game. In a way the ongoing morality system and the moral narrative choices could be ignored altogether.
Fable 2 is clearly meant (and marketed) as a mainstream action RPG and many design choices, such as the combat system, substantiate such a claim. In many ways the game’s moral dimension feels more like a feature, similar to the implementation of new shaders or an upgraded AI system. It is not that the morality system is tacked on; it is a central part of the gameplay. But, compared to the enormous amount of work that must have gone into designing the world (i.e. creating artwork, a coherent narrative and the world itself), there seems to be far less time spent on developing (minor) emergent moral choices and major moral dilemmas in the game’s overall narrative. The substantial pre-launch marketing efforts supports the ‘morality-as-a-feature’ thesis: the game’s early screenshots focused more on the combat system and world design (the game’s look and feel), rather than its social physics engine.
The moral dimension, then, is another unique selling point, but not the game’s core mechanic. It is a feature which allows for better, or more interesting, interactive storytelling, or as Molyneux explains: “[At] the end of the day I believe choice and freedom will make you remember the experience, especially if you make a choice and there is real consequence to that choice. I think that is far more engaging than just following a linear story”. Indirectly, in the Web 2.0-era, players being able to talk about their ‘unique’ experience is a valuable viral marketing tool.
Am I good or bad?
Even though the game’s press release, unsurprisingly, speaks of “limitless choices and consequences”, Fable 2 is in many ways severely limited, especially in the “choices and consequences” department. Curiously, Molyneux seems to agree: “To explain a bit better: in Fable 2 you are free to chat up whoever you want, but you can only do this with the mechanic we give you to do so this, i.e. the expression system. So I would have to describe the freedom you have in Fable 2 as ‘contained’ freedom.” This goes for the game’s morality system as well. The choices do go beyond purely good or evil, but only so much.
In a way it is somewhat difficult to be really critical of a game which at least tries to implement a reasonably fleshed out moral system. Molyneux: “[In] Fable 2 there is much more colour to those choices: purity versus corruption, cruelty versus kindness, greed versus generosity. And then we play around with those moral choices. We want people to play as themselves rather than deciding to be good or evil.” The choices made are reflected in the player’s, the dog’s appearance, the world design and the way in which NPCs react to the main character. However, and this is my main problem with the game, it is not clear which ingame actions result in any of the world’s/NPC’s reactions. For instance, when I do stand up and refuse to punish the prisoners during the before mentioned part of the game, how does that reflect on my character? Because there is a mix of major and minor moral decisions, it is not clear what the results of my actions are. My guess is that I took the game’s “good path”, because the city’s inhabitants seem to like me. But what made them like me? I don’t know. I raised prices 40 percent on all goods, I stole a lot of their stuff, I kicked a bunch of chickens all over the city square, and I married two women at the same time from the same town (one being a prostitute).
There is some feedback though, but then again it is so much harder to be good than evil. This has, I would argue, mainly to do with what I would call ‘gamer guilt’. Gamers bought a $60 game and many of them want to fully understand the game, finish it, and ‘fully get it’. This urge to, in the words of Ted Friedman “demystify” the game’s underlying rule structure and/or its social physics engine makes Fable 2 in many ways a frustrating game. To fully “get the game” and to see what other decisions are offered to the player upon taking a different (moral) route, one has to play through an additional 20/30 hour campaign to see what the results are of different (moral) choices.
There are three options for developers to address this problem without revamping a game’s social physics engine. Such a revamping might not be the desired answer to the gamer guilt problem. Many (moral) reactions are sort of implicit or “natural,” which makes playing Fable 2 all the more intriguing. The first option would be to implement a clever rewind (and redo) option to get a better idea of what actions lead to what reactions — an advanced save system if you will. The second, and from a marketing standpoint more daring, approach might be a short single player narrative, which would take 4/5 hours to complete, to allow gamers to play through the game multiple times and push gamers to experiment with different moral choices.
The third, an probably the most ambitious option, is to design semi-scripted moral choices. For example. Fable 2 allows the player to marry two wives in the same city. When you walk past your first wife with your second wife, typical explorative behavior for a gamer, there is no reaction from any of them. However, at a certain moment you get a letter from a fellow citizen in which he bribes you and threatens you to tell all about your bigamy. You then can either kill the guy, pay the bribe, or let hem tell all, resulting in divorce. This moral dilemma is highly intriguing and quite unanticipated – from the gamer’s perspective. The developers on the other hand did anticipate gamers marrying two women (also signaled by the Xbox 360 “Bigamy” achievement) and designed a clever, humorous and meaningful choice around that particular action.
Still, there is too little of such (semi)emergent events in the game. Fable 2 is another step in the right direction, but for the sequel the developers, hopefully, will match their efforts at crafting a sound narrative, accessible combat system and a atmospheric environment with an expanded and reactive social physics engine.