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Passion play

Dream date gone wrong


If designers seduce us to play their games, I am Peter Molyneux's dream date. The Fable game Molyneux says he wants to make is the very Fable game I want to play. I enjoyed Fable II, warts and all, and I'm happy to be propositioned by its sequel. 

In Fable III, Peter Molyneux wants us to feel loved. It's not the first time he's come knocking. Three years ago Molyneux expressed his hopes for Fable II this way:

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]

In Fable II, that exploration resulted in the introduction of a loyal dog that accompanied the hero throughout the game - a sentimental ploy Molyneux believes was successful:

The dog was there to give people something to care about. In so many games there’s nothing to care about or be emotionally involved with. So, we played the cheapest trick on you – a cute dog, with sad puppy eyes – and you know what, it really worked.[2]

In Fable III, Molyneux wants to go farther. He has hired "the greatest cast [of actors] that any computer game has ever had [3]," and he has given players the ability to touch, hug, and kiss other characters in the game. These enhancements, he believes, will enhance our emotional connection to story and world of Albion:

We really want to tell a meaningful and deep story in Fable 3, so we have an amazing cast of actors – John Cleese, Stephen Fry – and some other huge names...and that helps take us one step closer to this emotional story. It’s not just the craft and the pace that’s important, it’s giving people tangible things you can touch.... It’s the ability to have your character reach out at any time and touch things. You can shake people’s hands, you can hug them, too.[4]

I love Peter Molyneux. He dreams big dreams. He's spent more than 25 years creating games - nearly always as Lead Designer - that provoke us to reflect on our humanity. In recent years he's become a tireless utopian prognosticator, promising a future for games that leaps over limits of technology and imagination. Study Molyneux's rhetoric, and you'll discover he's fond of words like 'innovation,' 'possible,' 'future,' and 'potential.' We need dreamers like Peter Molyneux.

Why, then, after more than a dozen hours in Molyneux's latest version of Albion, do I feel no love? Why, after eagerly investing myself as fully as I can in Fable III's story, do I emerge with so little empathic connection to its characters? Why, on this arranged date between two people presumably made for each other, am I headed home at 8:30 and dreading the awkward kiss goodnight? What went wrong?

I believe Molyneux and team at Lionhead dreamed the wrong dream. They saw Fable III as an opportunity to answer the question: "What happens after the hero wins?" but they neglected to pave an interesting or well-constructed road to that victory. If, at the halfway point of the game, the player has yet to develop a connection to the story, it's unlikely to emerge thereafter, isn't it? 

HeroJourney Molyneux takes for granted that Fable III, and video games generally, are effective delivery devices for the "Hero's Journey" famously described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."  

According to Molyneux, "Video games are always told by means of the hero’s journey. A big baddy does something really bad, you’re the hero, and you work all game long to beat him... When you beat him, the story ends."[5] Molyneux sees that familiar end as a beginning in Fable III

The problem is that most games adhere to the monomyth's story arc, but do little more than mimic its outline. Few games address the hero's need for atonement or depict his descent as anything more perilous than bigger monsters in scarier environments. The cost of final victory is a pair of sore thumbs. 

Fable III wants to turn that victory into the pivot point of an ensuing narrative. Given the threadbare nature of most hero-defeats-evil game plots, it's a laudable idea. But I can't help wondering what the clever blokes at Lionhead might have produced if, rather than reacting to the ubiquity of the hero's journey in games, Fable III had re-examined the journey itself. Instead of assuming we've got the hero story licked, what if Molyneux had questioned the validity or modern relevance of Campbell's ethnocentric myth?

Molyneux sees Fable III as an "emotion engine," and he hopes to create an experience that speaks to the player's heart. Offering the player opportunities to build and nurture relationships over time is a worthy goal, but the game's method of doing so (choosing from 'expressions' offered by the game like dancing, whistling and belching) are hopelessly immature. The designers seem know we want adult interactions, but the system they've built to produce them feels like it was designed to make children giggle.

Minor spoilers ahead. 

Playing the first half of Fable III is like thumbing through the Sparks Notes version of a book we were supposed to have read, but didn't. We meet a gallery of eccentric characters who deliver well-written dialogue with an assortment of colorful UK dialects. Sadly, none of these characters bear on the story memorably. They're lively and often funny, but mostly forgettable because their presence in the game rarely drives the story forward or diverts it in meaningful ways. Consequently, the game is full of talented voices enlivening characters that function mostly as window dressing.

We're assigned a series of familiar tasks and missions that ultimately lead to a showdown with the game's apparent villain Logan, about whom we know almost nothing, except that he's bad and getting badder. Instead of battling Logan, the game opts to give the player power over his fate.

Fable games inevitably drive the player toward such "big decision" moments, but Fable III fails to lay the groundwork necessary to produce it convincingly. Logan is the very model of a modern major villain, which is to say he's irredeemably evil. That is, until he's defeated. Then we discover via three brief dialogue exchanges that he had reasons for being so nasty...and so maybe his life should be spared. 

Eleventh-hour backstory 'explains' the villain and adds 'complexity' to our decision. It's a cheap dilemma. Our decision to kill or spare Logan doesn't feel like like a momentous turning point requiring moral contemplation. It's a game-y binary hinge meant to set the player on a merciful or vengeful path.

Fable III is less interested in fueling deliberation than in presenting a slate of moral choices. It assumes our decisions will attach us to its story, but it fails to provoke reflection on those choices. Consequently, answering Fable III's question "Who will you become?" feels less like role-playing and more like ordering dinner from a menu.

And so, by the time we've reached our hero's coronation, it all feels terribly mechanical. We've dispatched the tedious hero's journey business. Now we're given a to-do list of tasks to accomplish: 1) pass judgement on murderous brother; 2) set tax policy; etc.. We're finally ready for the juicy content Fable III was built to deliver. 

But what if it's too late? What if the hero's journey to this point has meant nothing to us? Will buying property and running businesses; finding a spouse and raising kids; running a kingdom with war looming on the horizon - will all that Fable-y stuff reel me back in? 

We'll see. I'm willing to give Mr. Molyneux the benefit of the doubt, and I've never minded a few broken promises. I just need a reason to care.