In retrospect, it should’ve been no surprise that I’d be such a sucker for Fable 2. It’s an RPG plus The Sims, which lets you spend equal time beating up on dudes and playing dress-up. All told with the tone (if not depth) of Terry Pratchett. It’s rare enough for me to finish a game these days, but I finished it and kept on playing for as long as I could. It was inevitable that I’d be picking up Fable 3 as soon as it came out.
On the surface, it does exactly what a sequel’s supposed to do: keep the core of what worked from the previous version, streamline or remove what was clunky in the previous version, give it a new story and setting, introduce a couple of new mechanics. And a lot of it works. The transition to an industrial instead of medieval setting is pretty cool, the art direction is as interesting as Fable 2 and the voice work even better, and the change to the main menu and real estate game are great in theory even if they don’t work so well in practice. The idea of having you build up to revolution and then have to rule as king was a very good one (again, in theory). And I did find myself finishing the game, and I kept on playing past the end. But I still can’t help but feel like the series has taken a wrong turn.
To get the typical game review stuff out of the way: Fable 3 is the buggiest game I’ve ever played in release. Quests would break or disappear. The trail to the next target would repeatedly fail to show up. Enemies would get trapped and unable to fight back. I’d open the door to a house and find everyone in town waiting inside, unable to get out. A spouse would ask for something to make them happy, and then get angry and divorce me when I did it (twice). Not to mention all the things that weren’t outright bugs but just kind of sloppy: enemy placement was haphazard, enemy balance was way off (go into an area and fight three clumps of super-powered bad guys all in a row), and the end game was ludicrously anti-climactic. It reduced all your decisions to money, but getting money is so easy to do that there’s absolutely no tension. The entire thing feels like a game that was released too early.
But the decision to release the game too early is one that can be fixed with a patch. The other decisions that went into Fable 3 aren’t so easy to fix.
Everything changed from Fable 2 seems like it was done to make the game easier. One of the new main interactions is that you can go to most characters, press a button to hold their hand, and then take them somewhere. Everybody loved ICO, right? Except in that case, the entire game was built around that mechanic; here it’s duct-taped on top of an existing game, almost as if they wanted to give reviewers a perfect metaphor of how dumbed-down the game has become.
In Fable 2, you had a range of possible interactions with the townspeople. Unlocking new interactions meant more ways to build your personality and reputation a particular way. Here, it just chooses a “good” one and a “bad” one from your repertoire, reducing everything to a binary choice. So when you want to convert followers to your cause (which the game forces you to do at a couple of points), you end up just going around town and dancing with strangers, or farting on their heads.
The relationship game in Fable 2 wasn’t particularly deep and not at all realistic, but at least it gave the illusion you were making choices. Here, you just approach someone and play patty-cake until they fall in love. (Patty-cake as foreplay was something I haven’t seen since Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) And it’s even worse than that — bumping someone past the individual tiers of friendship and romance requires the exact same tasks every damn time. First you have to do them a favor — so you’re the king of the nation, but you’re still sent running errands by servants — and then you have to drag them to a specific location to “take them on a date.” It’s pure tedium.
Most of the quests in Fable 2 weren’t all that complex, either. You’d follow the glowing trail to a specific location and then, occasionally, kill some guys. But the story was strong enough that it made the linearity tolerable. Welcome, even. I still can’t tell you what the villain’s master plan was, but I appreciated the fact that there was one. And I appreciated the fact that it was structured as a Hero’s journey, with twists and turns and new allies and dramatic changes in tone. The story, such as it is, in Fable 3 is a lot more comprehensible, but also completely predictable.
Fable 2 had tons of in-jokes and meta-humor, which Fable 3 makes painfully explicit. John Cleese’s commentary is pretty amusing, albeit repetitious, but apart from that, all the character is loaded into one quest. Your character gets recruited by a gang of village nerds to act out a Dungeons & Dragons-type campaign they’ve organized. Throughout, the game developers make self-deprecating comments that just make everything worse. They comment that nobody reads item text, when the item text was one of the best things in Fable 2. They point out that players don’t like having to solve puzzles, drawing attention to the fact that there is absolutely nothing in the entirety of Fable 3 which requires the player to make any sort of deduction, strategizing, or any thought whatsoever. I’m as big a fan of self-referential and self-deprecating humor as anyone, but only when there’s at least some token attempt to fix the problem you’re making fun of.
Seriously, guys, this kind of thing has to stop. Over the past year or so, I’ve been getting a little softer on my hard-line Videogames Treat us Like Idiots stance. After all, there’s two sides to the argument, right? Nobody likes to be frustrated. Games are so time-consuming as it is, why artificially drag it out for some mythical dollar-to-playtime ratio? It’s not as if solving arbitrary puzzles from some game designer is genuinely productive. Isn’t there value in pure interactive storytelling, without feeling the need to stretch it out with stupid puzzles?
After playing Fable 3, though, I realized that’s bunk. Game developers — myself included — are chasing after some imaginary mainstream audience by repeating the worst mistakes of the television industry. They’re going after the Lowest Common Denominator. That’d be bad enough if they were good at it, but they’re terrible at accurately estimating the audience’s intelligence. It’s always done in the name of looking out for the player — removing confusion, not being so obtuse, not weighing a game down with stuff that people aren’t interested in. But it’s ultimately insulting, and it’s bad for games. I’ve always been able to justify my hobby as not being a complete waste of time, but lately I spend hours on a game and then realize I’ve done nothing but spend the whole time blindly mashing buttons like a monkey.
I could always count on games like the Civilization series to put me in my place, but with Civ 5 it’s just annoying how little resistance there is. The last game that made me feel like I was having to think at all was Limbo.
So: let’s all cut it out with the dumbed-down games, folks. And stop making excuses to justify it. There’s just too much potential to keep wasting it.