Hoosier miracle
Video Games and Human Values Initiative

People drive me crazy


"Hell is other people." --Jean-Paul Sartre

As RPGs go, Fallout 3 and Fable II are remarkable achievements. While they differ significantly in the worlds they present, the role-playing experiences they provide, and the genres they blend, they both offer rich, satisfying experiences to the player. Tonally, they exist at near-opposite ends of the RPG spectrum, and I find myself motivated to play one or the other based purely on my mood. Sometimes gray desolation is the last place I want to go; other times, I just can't handle more twee.

Labels are always tricky, but I would classify Fable II as an adventure-RPG, while Fallout 3 feels more like a shooter-RPG. If you play both, it's likely you will prefer one over the other, as it seems these two games were designed to appeal to different sets of gamers.

Fable II is...well, a fable - a sly, fantastical tale told in a fanciful authorial Molyneux-voice with color and depth delivered via player choice. Fallout 3, on the other hand, is a gritty meditation on crafty survival in a world-in-shambles where we have become our own worst enemy. Choices impact experience here too, but in ways that lead to far less conclusive outcomes.

You might say Fable II aims for your heart, while Fallout 3 aims for your head. That's a bit too tidy, but I think it's somewhere in the neighborhood of accurate.

Both games, however, share one pernicious problem that I had hoped they would overcome. All is well as I explore these worlds and determine my own courses of action. But the moment I must deal with another human being, the wheels on both games begin to wobble. Simply put, the weakest parts of these games are the stilted and awkward ways they present interactions between my avatar and the other characters in the games. In the case of Fable II, it's primarily an issue of mechanics; in Fallout 3, it's mostly about aesthetics.

Fable II is about the relationships you establish between your character and all the men, women, and children you encounter in the game. You woo, seduce, marry, divorce, trade, impress, insult - and all sorts of other interactions - with characters in every town, village, and highway. These exchanges are pivotal to the experience of Fable II because they determine what people think of you. Your status and behavior in the world affects the well-being of others and the conditions they live in. Given all this, why is my primary means of interaction with other humans a menu wheel with a set of canned expressions?

Basically, I can be rude, scary, social, fun, or flirty. I can fart, belch, and blow kisses. I can whistle, dance, and flex my muscles. In other words, I can do pretty much anything I want...except actually interact with other people. Standing in the center of a town cracking farts and showing off my trophies in an endless series of timed button presses will make me the most impressive, powerful, and sexually desirable man on the face of the earth to the crowd of swooning townspeople gathered around me. This may be somebody's idea of role-playing wish-fulfillment, but not mine. Fable II is a brilliant and even subversive RPG, but this, it seems to me, is a significant and unfortunate flaw.

Fallout 3 has no such problems. It offers me a seemingly endless series of interactions with a wide range of NPCs. Branching conversations, quests and story lines take me from one character to the next, and I feel genuinely motivated to encounter these people and get to know them. And that's where things break down for me.

The people of Fallout 3 are stiffs. They're like robots meandering from one place to the next with an illusion of purpose. Engaging one is like hitting his PLAY button. He stops and looks at you, the "camera" centers him in the frame in the exact same way every time, and his animatronic rubber-faced self begins emoting. The voice acting is markedly improved (with more variety, thank goodness) from Oblivion, but the facial animations remain primitive and mask-like. Rarely do the person I'm looking at and the voice I'm hearing seem to belong together.

Add to this the conundrum of text. I need text to respond to the characters, but I don't need text while I'm hearing them speak. Playing Bethesda games at their default settings often feels like I've inadvertently turned on subtitling in a movie that's already in English. So I turn it off. But when I do, I'm stuck watching  lifeless faces with mummified bodies delivering lively (sometimes a bit forced-lively) speech. Ironically, I prefer the subtitles. They distract me from the disconnect.

Am I nitpicking? I don't think so, especially when both games rely on frequent exchanges with other characters to carry so much of their role-playing and narrative loads. If the social mechanic in a game about social interactions is weak, as it is in Fable II, this is a problem. If first-person encounters are a primary means of delivering quests and storytelling (in highly realistic visual environments), Fallout 3's stilted character models and animations are a problem.

So I obviously hate these two games, right? Wrong. I love them both, and I look forward to explaining why in my forthcoming reviews of each over at PopMatters. None of the issues I've raised are showstoppers by any means, but they do suggest that neither game quite delivers on every promise, nor do they completely overcome the problems of their predecessors (the original Fable and Oblivion). You should, nevertheless, play these games, and I suggest playing them slowly. Just don't let their people drive you crazy. ;-)