Jan 292009

Sparrow has a clockwork husband named Hugo in Bowerstone. He looks like a man and sounds like a man, but I can press a button and see his gears and escapements, the sliders that reveal his attitudes and the routines that show me how to change them. He didn’t care for Sparrow at first, but my glance at his ticking innards told me the gifts to give, the expressions to perform, that would cause Hugo to display the red heart that meant he was ripe for marrying. Transforming him from a disinterested aristocrat into an ardent suitor was a fun, if unchallenging game, which was fine until Fable II asked me to care about him. Hugo is an uncharacter, an automaton, utterly unable to inspire emotional connection, a frustrating symbol of this game’s imperfections and uneasy tensions.

Fable II clearly wants to be a simulated world, an organic experience that affords the player a real opportunity to live an alternate life. You can go anywhere! You can do anything! But why would you? The vast majority of Fable II’s NPCs have no personality or meaningful dialogue. They can fall in love with your nameless hero (known only by his or her title) but there’s nothing there for you to fall in love with. Even if you managed that trick, the game offers no way to communicate your love back to them, despite the array of “expressions” your character can use. What are we to make of a game that allows you to screw your husband in a room full of strangers but not to hold his hand? What kind of affection are we to feel for a world that lets you slap a child but has no option to hug him?

This strange attitude towards the open world extends into the quests. The game quite effectively builds the conceit that its world is centered around the main character — he decides the fate of several communities throughout the game, as well as the fate of the world itself. Yet the game also repeatedly insists on his impotence. The tragedies and petty cruelties of the main quest cannot be altered or avoided. The sidequests also abound in futility: you can rescue villagers from slavers a thousand times, but all your killing does nothing to diminish the number of kidnappings. And each time the main character traverses the Rookridge Road, bandits will be standing at their spawn points. He may slaughter hundreds of men on this narrow stretch of highway, enough to pave the road with their skulls, but the same bandits will always be waiting in exactly the same places, as if their numbers were replenished hourly from the wombs of impossibly fecund bandit queens back at the bandit hive. The slaughter is endless, mindless, and pointless.

The fact of the matter is that in Fable II player agency is just a red herring. For all the options the world presents, the game has at its core a linear quest that the player can do very little to affect, populated by NPCs with whom he cannot meaningfully communicate. You can become anyone you want, unless you want to become that guy who helped Lucien achieve his dream. You can ignore the roads, but only within the bounds of smallish areas. Fable II promises choice but only delivers choices that don’t matter. The myth of the player’s agency is window dressing for a by-the-numbers story that would be widely castigated for its limpness had it emerged from the studios at Square-Enix or Namco. These two sides of Fable II exist in an uneasy tension, always working against each other. The free-form elements ask you to look around and explore, while the main plot orders you (sometimes quite forcefully) to keep your eyes straight ahead.

Fable II’s internal divisions extend further than this. Its simplistic combat and guiding golden trail, for instance, seemingly open the door for casual player. However, the complexity of the leveling system (in which you collect four separate kinds of experience points) and the wall of menus (you must traverse three of them in order to eat a carrot) slam that door shut instantly. It’s as if the developers at Lionhead simply couldn’t decide whether they wanted to make an open, accessible RPG-lite or a dense, impenetrable classic RPG, so they made both and stuck them together with Krazy Glue.

Moreover, there is a serious disharmony of tone. The bulk of the NPC dialogue, the absurdities of the expression system, the foul-tempered gargoyles inhabiting every corner of Albion, and many of the Fable II’s side quests build a humorous tone for the world. Fable II regularly pokes fun at classic fantasy tropes, role-playing games generally, and even itself. The main quest, however, is serious business, a lengthy and depressing contemplation of death, obsession and choice. Although artlessly contrived, its moral dilemmas effectively convey the idea that a hero must choose between his own happiness and that of others. When Fable II allows you to smooth over your misdeeds by farting in public a few times, however, it becomes clear that the main quest’s theme simply doesn’t belong the same game with the rest of this silly shit.

That’s a pity, because when Fable II plays for laughs it really works. The characters shine, the interactions make sense, and the writing sparkles in every moment of levity, and there are many. If Lionhead had gone all out and devoted themselves exclusively to making this a farce it would have smoothed over the uneasy divides between openness and linearity, accessibility and complexity. Fable II would have been better if it had merely asked you to enjoy playing with its clockwork men, rather than asking you to love them.

Fable II’s dedication to its solemn main quest and its arbitrary cruelties makes that impossible, however, just as its insistence on RPG interface tropes blocks it from becoming a casual-friendly game, and the irrelevance of its free-form interactions prevents it from feeling like the open-world RPG it pretends to be. The player can’t make the hero do anything meaningful to relate to the characters that are worth knowing, and the characters that can engage in dynamic relationships don’t come with any systems capable of supporting a genuine emotional connection. When the game reaches for that level of investment it only ends up stumbling over its absurd expression system and nonexistent haptic interactions. In trying to be too many things — funny and weighty, accessible and traditional, open and epic — Fable II only achieves division and incoherence, despite its virtues. There’s a moral in that story.

  3 Responses to “A game divided against itself”

  1. This was very, very good. I wish I had said it, in fact, because it's almost exactly how I felt – but couldn't put into words.

  2. I second Ben; this pretty much nailed exactly how I felt about the interactions in this game. I'm really glad Lionhead is trying to make us connect emotionally with the game world and NPCs, but I think they're on the wrong track at the moment.

    I hate to make yet another comparison to Fallout 3, but I guess it's the best contemporary RPG with which to do so. I didn't necessarily care about Fallout 3's characters, but they seemed a lot more like real people to me, if only because I could actually talk to them. Somewhere between these games is the sweet spot, where NPCs can actually seem almost human.

  3. Ooooh! Finally some negative reviews of Fable. I have stopped following Lionhead's games since they atom-over-hype-bombed Black & White. After the positive things I've heard about Fable2 I started to think it would be time to check if they learned anything. Thanks for confirming that they didn't. Seems like another case of the same old story.

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