Monday, January 24, 2011

Sequelitis: Fable 3

So, a while back I made a post about Fable 2, discussing how I believed the sequel has developed the original games ideas and how I think the series should move forward. Well, Fable 3 is actually out now, so let's look at what's occurred.

Image used for no reason other than that my hero looks exactly like that guy. With a sweet witch-hunter hat, of course.
Now, while this won't be a review, I should start by providing a general assessment of the game's quality, if only to contextualize the arguments herein. I enjoyed the game. I didn't feel it was overly short as, taking my time to take advantage of all of the content the game had to offer, it actually took me longer to be done with Fable 3 than Fable 2. The core storyline missions may possibly be shorter, but I got more hours of fun out of it than its predecessor. That being said, I still wrung it dry in less than a week, so I recommend it, but only as a rental or, as was my case, a borrow. I've heard a lot of people I normally agree with decry it as being absolutely horrible, but most arguments I've heard tend to be very nit-picky, focusing on a few things they hated. In a Peter Molyneux game, however, one must realize that he's going to throw a lot of stuff at the wall and, though not everything sticks, you're getting more experimentation in a title than you're gonna get in almost any other AAA title.

To start with the good, Fable 3 finally begins to do what Peter Molyneux has been promising it would from the very start. You actually do have a noticeable affect on your world that has started to move beyond the token and into something of actual consequence. Rather than the pair of binary choices presented in the previous game, there are many ways in which I may make my Albion different from yours. I may or may not have a chicken racing track, Albion lake, a brothel or an orphanage, a ruined or well kept city, an inspiring castle or black fortress, a thriving metropolis or deserted ghost kingdom, etc. In the end it just boils down to more multiple choice options, but the far higher number has begun to leave enough variables to have interesting results.

More importantly, these decisions are now tied into the actual game-play and narrative. Ones actions may now have unintended consequences. This, moving forward, should be an essential element in developing player influenced worlds. Without accidents, the world would be a much more banal place. I, for one, did not intend to become Albion's beloved and benevolent murderer king, but that's what happens when your gun accidentally goes off in a crowded market. So much the better.

Why can't I both renovate the orphanage AND build a brothel? I like babies and boobies. Is that so strange?
This being said, this mechanic still suffers from unnecessarily moralistic mechanics. There is absolutely no subjectivity to the game's decisions, to the point that you are always explicitly provided with both an objective moral assessment of the available choices and their certain results. You will never regret a mistake because, unlike the real world, everything is an absolutely known quantity.

The same issue leaks into the confusingly simplified NPC interactions, wherin you can simply tap Right Trigger to know every character's life story and you always know exactly how anyone will react to any given interaction.

In comparison, the most effective piece of game design in the oft panned Prey was a sequence early in the game involving a rather nasty machine, seen in the below video (not my own).


Basically, it's a conveyor belt of death ending in overkill via impaling. Impractical, but impressive. During this introductory sequence, the player gets off of the "conveyor belt" and is attempting to free the others, including his grandfather and lady-friend. During this process, the player does manage to stop the device. Then this happens (again, video not my own):

The player, passing through yet another alien hallway, spots a button facing the machine. Due to human curiosity and years of video game conditioning they, in all likelihood, press it. I know I did. The machine is reactivated and the player watches as his grandfather dies. You have jumped without looking, made a mortally serious mistake, and one which you have absolutely no hope of recovering from. Now, I could be wrong on some specifics here. Maybe the game does force you to press the button to continue. Maybe the game entirely ignores this wonderful moment of drama from there out. I wouldn't know. It is, however, irrelevant. All that matters is the impression that this perceived decision makes upon the player. The voice actor need not even say it. "What have I done‽"

Fable 3, to return to our subject, explicitly denies the players any chance of such revelatory moments, either for good or ill, and thus denies them a chance at emotional connection with the game.

The other issue here is that, much like the previous title, this approach limits replayability. As the player already knows what the alternative would have been, they have little motivation to spend another day of their life to see it actually play out. There is also no real variety, as the vast majority of players will, due to the game's binary morality system, choose either all of the good or evil options, meaning that of all the possible combinations, only 2 will really be seen online. This approach has limited the game's variety, when I lighter touch would have effectively multiplied the content on the disc without actually having to produce any more.

As I'd feared, Molyneux has also dabbled a little too much in novel concepts which haven't really come to much. Before release, for example, he made a huge deal out of the new hand holding mechanic, claiming that it delivered a great emotional connection to the NPCs. Not only does it not, but the mechanic doesn't even work. You constantly loose your grip on the NPCs, and a person being dragged off too jail, a buddy being led home after a long night of drinks, and a bashful first date all act exactly the same when the mechanic comes into play. The obvious goal was to capture a little of the drama of Ico, but it was a gimmicky waste of time here.
What "dragging" a criminal to prison actually looks like.
-Set to "Happy Together" by the Turtles
Overall, I'd say the game was an improvement over its predecessor but, in trying to streamline some mechanics, the dev team accidentally oversimplified some. Simplicity is a worthy goal, but not at the cost of depth. There is a balance there which, hopefully, the eventual sequel will be able to strike.

What I want to see in Fable 4:
- Moral ambiguity. Mass Effect's "Superman" vs "The Punisher" morality system not only makes more sense within the pre-set hero narrative, but is far more compelling.
- Better weigh simplicity vs depth. I found the NPC interactions and melee combat to be a bit watered down from the previous installment, but could not think of a single way in which these had improved the title.
- NPCs, beyond the supporting caste, that do not seem like mindless automatons. The constant encouragement to emotionally invest in, marry, and have children with these NPCs seems outright creepy to me at this point. In this area, the Fable series has achieved an uncanny valley, not of anatomy, but of persona. The Sims, for example, do at-least seem like simplistic caricatures of human personalities.
- Don't have the game constantly tell me to buy DLC. Hearing John Cleese shill for premium dye colors was down right pathetic.
- Don't charge for DLC, such as dye colors and varying dog breeds, which seem like fixes to glaring problems with the original release.
- Keep the interactive "menu" system. It's gotten a bit of guff due to its imperfections, but it's a solid step forward that should be embraced as a stroke of genius game design.
- Keep building on Albion as a growing place while showing us older parts we remember. Maybe even steal some Mass Effect 2 style cross-game influence. It really helps unify the series.

Games I Want to Make: Console Based "Tabletop" RPG (Part 2: Essence)

Of course, the idea as presented in the previous post does seem somewhat complex. As people in the comments have indicated, RPGs are possibly the most complex genre of game to develop, due to the demand for deep systems. If you're going to show the player your work, after all, you have to ensure that that work is thorough. Otherwise, they're just pulling back the curtain to see that Oz is an old lost guy.

So, let's take a step back. It occurs to me that it doesn't seem I've properly communicated the essence of the idea. I've also probably bogged myself down in unnecessarily clutter. Forgive me. Let's get back down to the essential and do away with confusing window dressing.

In short: This concept represents a Role Playing Game, literally. Not an "RPG" in the sense of the genre standard, of rolled dice and +X to STR. I have absolutely no desire to produce a D&D game because, for one, I don't think adapting those rules to a different context is a very effective or worthwhile goal. The benefit of a video game, over table top, is the ability to work in real time.

So, what would the game look like?

Well, from the player's perspective, an action game. Running around from a top down perspective, slashing enemies, exploring dungeons, would have much more in common with Zelda, Pixel, or Gauntlet than D&D. If the characters are choosing from "Wizard," "Warrior," etc. then there may not even be any necessity to customize your characters stats, especially not in any early prototype of such a game.

So, how the hell is that an RPG, or a "Virtual Tabletop?"

Because it is an avenue to Roleplaying. IE: A person taking on a character and interacting with the guy running the game and his fellow players on a complete subjective level.

And there, I believe, is where I have failed to communicate properly. This origin of this idea was in its simplicity. I can run a traditional roleplaying game without any accessories. No books, no dice, no character sheets, just a group of friends. They tell me who they are pretending to be, I describe a scenario, and they react. That is an RPG. Everything else is just a tool to aid in establishing that scenario.

And how would such a game do this? By not getting in the way. Such a game should be a toolset, much like Minecraft or Garry's mod in that it doesn't really represent a game in and of itself. All you need is character models, a toolset for the person running to game to create a rudimentary play-space and populate it, and a simple interaction system for the players that removes the burden of traditional RPG rules from the host.