Tell me a story
November 29, 2008
I recently assigned Fable II a score of "10" in my review over at PopMatters. Since it was posted, I've received an unusually strong response here and via email, most of it negative. The reactions have mostly focused on two main issues: 1) Fable II is full of flaws, nowhere near perfect, and thus undeserving of a "perfect score." 2) Fable II is a closed narrative experience. The player cannot impact the main story, and all the side quests have been completely scripted by the designers.
In my view, each of these arguments relies on problematic presumptions.
If a game reviewer is working with a 10-point scale, he or she must be willing to use the entire scale. Some reviewers hold onto the number 10 as if they were protecting it from being sullied. Only the rarest of rare games are deemed worthy of the highest of high scores. Readers fairly translate such a policy to mean "10" is a "perfect score," reserved for perfect or near-perfect games, and they similarly translate a "5" to signify an utter failure because reviewers so rarely assign numbers at the bottom of the scale.
Essentially, the game review game is played with three numbers: 7, 8, and 9. Most high-profile games fall into this restricted range. I think I understand why this is so, and I've fallen prey to it myself. I suppose it's unlikely to change. But none of this makes it a defensible practice. At the risk of leaping into a cauldron of boiling water, I would be inclined to assign a derivative cliché-ridden game like Tales of Vesperia a "3." Such a score, however, would put me far outside the critical mean for this game, and my assessment would be seen as an aberration. Even if a game like Tales disappoints, it is still seen as a solid, reasonably well-made game. We reserve the "3" scores for games like My Aquarium, which, ironically, does what it does better than Tales, in my view.
I gave Fable II a "10" because my experience with it was so tremendously positive. I realize it's not a perfect game, and I've even criticized it here and in my review for the ways it falls short. But I see no disconnect between a game's flaws and a game's brilliance. For me, they're all wrapped up together. I'm delighted when games like Bioshock and GTA IV rack up scores of "10" from all over the review space, especially when reviewers write passionately about their experiences playing these games. Both games fail to fully deliver on their aspirations, but it's their aspirations that make them so interesting in the first place. They make good on enough of those aspirations to be worthy of such high scores.
Which brings me to my second point: aspiration. I find myself growing increasingly concerned that in our rush to embrace open-world, emergent narrative games like Fallout 3 (which I greatly admire), we have deemed creative authorship, linear narrative, and artist-driven storytelling as less praiseworthy, less ambitious, or less valid game design choices. I'm troubled by the notion that a game like Fable II receives demerits for its failure to be more like Fallout 3. Why should my ability to alter the narrative be seen as a de facto game design necessity? Is there no room left for tales well-told? Is it suddenly no longer possible for me to be fully engaged by an author who isn't me?
I realize interactivity lies at the heart of what video games do best - and I'm the guy that wrote enthusiastically about the emerging "narrative manifesto" issued by many of the best designers in the industry. I'm no less excited now than I was then, but it never occured to me that some people would see this as a zero-sum game. I never thought these advances would be seen as invalidating traditional (whatever that means) narrative games.
Fable II succeeds because of clever writing that permeates the player's experience - triggered scenes, incidental dialogue, interstitial loading screens, books and diaries - all demonstrate a flair for witty, frequently self-aware, and occasionally moving writing seldom found in video games. Fetishistic demon doors, insult-spewing gargoyles, bickering summoners, and dozens of similar discoverable moments greet the player who is willing to explore and devote time to enjoying them.
If you decide, for example, to return the Stone of Myr'Bregothil (the game contains numerous riffs on hard to pronounce Tolkien-esque chestnuts) back to the hollow men, you will be treated to a rendition of the Hollow Dance of Ur'Cyrandorandor. You won't see it; you will only hear the decrepit skeletons lavishly preparing it as you leave their cavern. It's hilarious and a terrific example of Fable II's wry take on RPG fantasy worlds...and itself.
Despite the fact that you cannot alter the main narrative, the game otherwise affords the player a terrific amount of freedom, and using this freedom nearly always results in interesting or surprising outcomes. Should you choose to sacrifice your wife, for example, at the Temple of Shadows, a giddy evil monk named Alastair will greet you with "Your very own spouse! I bow to your superior evilness. Of course, you might have saved that one for the Rite of Unhallowed Wickedness, but bravo all the same." The voice acting here and elsewhere in the game elevates the dialogue well beyond what we typically hear in video games.
I was particularly taken by the hulk-like monk Hannah. Her transformation after the death of her father moved me, as did her rejection of the code she had previously chosen to live by. Her nervous chatter suggests something fearful brewing beneath her swagger and bravado. Her forceful challenge at the end of the game - should you choose to preserve your family - came as quite a surprise to me. I felt judged and fairly so. She was disappointed in me, and that felt painful. Hannah is a sidekick character. She isn't fully fleshed-out, and she disappears for a significant portion of the story. But I personally found her among the most intriguing women I've come across in a video game, and I was grateful for her gentle but sardonic presence.
I could go on, but I fear I've extended this post too long as it is. I welcome your thoughts on Fable II or any of the issues I've raised here. I realize I've lingered on this game longer than usual, but I think it's been worth doing. I'll be moving onto other games next week, and I have another podcast coming very soon. As always, thanks for reading and, especially, for the conversation