How young is too young for video games?
Time to put away childish things? Nope.

Please don't toy with my emotions

[Thanks to N'Gai Croal for linking to this piece on his Newsweek column Level Up]

"The most important thing in acting is honesty. If you can fake that, you've got it made." --George Burns


I've been looking at the latest "Inside Lionhead" video diaries released by Lionhead Studios tracking the progress of Fable 2 development. These are also available for download on Xbox Live Marketplace. According to the company:

These diaries are created by our community manager Sam Van Tilburgh and aren’t overly produced marketing videos. This is the real thing: honest, pure and simple.

I'm not sure how Molyneux and company define 'honest, pure and simple,' but those aren't exactly the words that leapt to mind as I watched these documentary-style infomercials. Lubricious and self-promoting are more accurate descriptors, but that's not to say they aren't also interesting and entertaining. 

Clearly the real purpose of these videos is to generate hype for Fable 2 slated for release later this year. Lionhead (owned by Microsoft) has a product to sell, and they want us to know about it. Fair enough. My concern is that these videos--and the way they are being pitched--suggest that Lionhead is bent on continuing down a road it has traveled for many years now - a road with lots of traffic and pretty scenery, but leading nowhere. On this road, pre-scripted events and limited pathways are disguised as freedom; multiple-choice NPC interactions are disguised as romance; and disfiguring your avatar with scars is disguised as morality.

Molyneux says Fable 2 will be different because it focuses on real emotion. He has been talking about emotion in video games since last year's Game Developers Conference, and when Molyneux talks about emotion, he's not just talking about old RPG standbys like fear, excitement, and suspense.  He says Fable 2 will also make you feel loved.

This is my bold claim - I need you to experience something in Fable that you as gamers have never experienced before...Everybody is talking about emotion, story, engagement and narrative. We have tried to approach it in a different way. We are going to explore love.[1]

At GDC he unveiled the groundbreaking design element that he claims will set Fable 2 apart from all other games: a dog. According to Molyneux, the dog will be the delivery device for the love. If you begin to enjoy your dog - if you show him even the least affection in the game, then, says Molyneux, "we're going to mess with your mind."[2]

I think Molyneux is barking up the wrong tree (sorry, I couldn't help myself). He and his programmers are working overtime on a game engine that will attempt to produce a feeling of love stemming from in-game actions and choices by the player triggering a complex set of algorithms. As senior programmer Jonathan Shaw states in video diary 1:

Because we deal with love every day in our lives, and it's something we recognize and are very intimate with, if it's faked on screen it can be very jarring, obviously it's wrong, so it's very difficult to get that right. As we get more processing power, the AI will indeed get more sophisticated, and we'll be able to track a lot more variables and we'll be able to do a lot more with it. So a lot of the ambitions we had for Fable 1 which we weren't quite able to put in we are bringing back into Fable 2.

So in order to produce a genuine emotional response from the player, Molyneux and his team are trying to figure out a way to fake it so well that it will seem real.

I have a better idea. Why not tell a good story? Why not raise the emotional stakes by allowing the player to actually assume a role, rather than tag around a pre-scripted character with limited autonomy?

The great secret illustrated by games like Planescape: Torment and Chrono Trigger is that players don't really want to play characters; they want to behave more like actors. They want to assume the role of a complex and motivated character, but once inside that character they will continue to see the world through their own eyes. This empathic symbiotic relationship between actor and character is essential--it's what makes Branaugh's Hamlet radically different from Olivier's, even though they speak the same lines--and it's what makes a proper RPG tick.

Molyneux believes this experience can be delivered by a virtual dog.

One other segment of the video diaries is telling. Creative Director Dene Carter observes:

If you look at the history of other visual media--cinema, for example--the addition of love and emotive content has been a really big deal. If you look at Charlie Chaplin, he introduced emotion into a film called The Kid, and suddenly cinema was elevated to a new form of art.

D.W. Griffith might have a bit to say about Carter's grasp of film history, but that aside, it's interesting how Carter characterizes Chaplin's work on The Kid as if it were a kind of chemistry lab experiment. Add a dash of emotion to the slapstick and voila, Art!

What Chaplin really understood was that a filmmaker can convey great emotion--in the case of The Kid one might describe it as sentimentality--through an engaging story with compelling characters delivered by convincing actors. Genuine emotion can't simply be injected into a film. It emerges as the result of other dramatic elements. In other  words, like laughter, empathy must be earned.

Maybe Fable 2 will prove me wrong, but I don't think a dog will be enough.