Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fable 2: First Impressions

I recently managed to re-acquire the Xbox 360, giving me the opportunity to try out Fable 2 between classwork.

Thus far I have yet to perceive any narrative choice systems at play whatsoever--and I don't mean that in the sense that they're subtle, I mean that in the sense that I feel like no matter what I do it won't make a difference to either me or the world around me. I feel detached and uninvolved with this game and its story even though it practically waves the element of player-choice in my face--and I'm even aware of a major decision-arc having passed by.

The first part of the game involves the player as a homeless orphan living in the gutter with his sister. It's got a Dickensian aesthetic. To make a long story short you have to do five quick jobs to earn a few pieces of gold, and each one has a good or evil equivalent. Depending on whether you did the good or evil version most of the time, after a ten-year flash-forward you'll re-visit the town and find that it's either flourished or languished, with your five mundane errands apparently having meant all the difference. It's laughably implausible and patronizing. The choices have little to no context, and there's very clear "right" answers to each of them.

Policeman: "Hey kid. Find me these five missing warrants and I'll give you a reward."
Me: "Okay!"
Bad Guy: "Hey kid! Give me those warrants or I'll make you regret it!"
Me: "Convincing offer, but I've got a guy offering me gold over here."
Bad Guy: "I'll give you gold too!"
Me: "Aren't you the guy who keeps trying to rape my older (still underaged) sister?"
Bad Guy: "Yeah, but what of that?"
Me: *is already handing the policeman the warrants*

This is roughly the most interesting and most heavily weighted choice of the bunch summed up, and it's clear to see why it's so weak. The rewards are equivocal, so I can't evaluate it from a practical standpoint, and from a narrative standpoint one of the characters is bland and has no context and the other has an extremely negative context. Even if I don't care much for my sister, he threatened to hurt me, so I'd rather the policeman arrested him. The only reason I'd ever want to deal with him (I don't even KNOW his name, he's so forgettable) is if I were just curious about what happens if I give him the warrants instead.

Even so, can't the policeman get new warrants anyway? It seems to me the court's approval of these criminals' arrest is a bit more important than the piece of paperwork. How is it that my failure to peel these flat, pressed pieces of wood pulp from the gutter and hand them to him results in the entire city becoming a crime-ridden heap?

Many of these choices fail to carry weight due to logical holes and presentational problems like these. The actions themselves, in this instance, anyway, are so mundane as to be meaningless, and the characters aren't remarkable or interesting in any way. What's more, I'm playing Fable 2--the sequel to the game with the "Hero's Guild." I know that I'm going to essentially be a Dickensian superman as soon as the prologue ends, I know from the back of the box that I'll be fighting 15-foot tall earth troll things, so petty threats aren't a very good deterrent coming out of the average street-thug with one of the generic re-usable street thug models. I also know I'm not going to get to pick what the reward gets used for; I'm specifically raising the 5 gold to get the music box that I have to get for the story to move on; so I'm denied a decision that actually matters to me and completely disinterested in how I get the gold, whether or not I'll ever get more, or where I'll get it from. I'm forming no attachments to either this neighborhood or any of the characters in it because I know that after these five errands I'm not going to be coming back here--the narrative that's evolving will just be cut off at the knees.

Here's my proposed alternative: instead of playing the crook up as a stupid child molester who can't make a deal to save his life, let's play him up as an actually likeable, charming kind of criminal, like Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed. Make him like an uncle to the little street urchins, give him a name that I can remember, and a unique appearance. Make him seem generous even though he's keeping most of his profits to himself. Make him look like a clear threat to the law, a lord of the streets. Have him talk pleasantly with me the first time I meet him as I wander into town instead of talking about how he wants to rape my sister. Make my sister like him, too.

Now, let's meet the policeman, find out about his thing with the warrants for his gang... and maybe witness a murder from the crook. Spare no blood for the little children, you're not sparing it in the rest of this game. The evidence that he's not a good guy has to be really clear after I'm conditioned to like and sympathize with him so that the policeman has a clear argument for why he should be locked up--even if he has no quarrel with me.

Now I've got an interesting choice. Give the warrants to the policeman and put a man who I like behind bars, or give them to the crook and let him roam free to continue spreading corruption around town. Positive versus Positive instead of Positive versus Negative, and now there's a discernible consequence that will have personal, far-reaching consequences on my character's world. When that crook gets out of jail ten years later to reclaim his gang, he'll remember me--but the town will be in a better place, maybe even not be a slum anymore. Or, when he becomes king of this town, he'll remember me too--but the town will be in worse shape than it was before. I don't need to re-play the game to understand it or appreciate the magnitude of those changes--and that's good. A discernible choice that carries clear magnitude is a lot better than a series of cryptic, mundane choices. Working in the context of characters I know I'll be seeing more of carries a lot more magnitude than ones I know I won't see or interact with ever again.

I'll write more on what I think of Fable 2 later. Next time we tackle mission structure and exploration.

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