By Their Farts Ye Shall Know Them

It turns out that Dead Space wasn’t able to hold my interest very long, after I saw a friend at work playing Fable 2. The game was completely off my radar, because I could never get into the original Fable; I was disappointed in the unfulfilled potential of Black & White; and I was unfairly biased against this game because it’s such a heavily-marketed, big-budget, big team title.

Plus, Fable 2 seemingly breaks all of the “rules” about videogames I’ve been going on about for months. I say that player choice isn’t the end-all of game design; choice is this game’s entire reason for being. I complain that games do too much hand-holding and don’t give the player a chance to think; this game spells out your quest objectives and gives you a glowing trail leading directly to the place you’re supposed to go. I say that if a story’s included in a game, it should be of highest importance; this game has a fine but not particularly groundbreaking overarching story. I say that story events should arise as a direct result of the player’s actions; the events in this game are pre-determined, and will play out the same way whether your character is a saint or a demon.

Which is all just further proof that what works for one type of game doesn’t work for another, and the whole “all games must be like this” mentality is best left to pointless internet arguments. Because I really, really love Fable 2. It’s easily the best game I’ve played all year, and the most enjoyable experience I’ve had playing a game in the past few years. While I can appreciate the storytelling of BioShock, and the cleverness of Portal, the imagination of World of Goo, the art direction of Team Fortress 2, and the sheer production value of the Half Life 2 series, where Fable 2 wins is that it’s just plain fun. It’s like a lightweight version of The Sims combined with a middleweight RPG; it’s a good thing that it doesn’t include a city-building or farming component, or it would’ve taken me hostage completely.

For everything that I like about the game, there’s at least one thing that bugs me, but ultimately they don’t matter because the entire experience is so enjoyable. For examples, here’s

Twelve Things I Love About Fable 2

  1. Childhood. When I worked at Electronic Arts, they made a big deal about “the first five minutes” of every game. What’s the player’s first impression, what compels them to keep playing. It could come across as off-putting, valuing surface over substance, and emphasizing the lede over the feel of the entire game. But it also makes a lot of sense. One of the reasons I could never get into the original Fable was that the story was so cliched. That was the point of it, of course — giving the player complete control over a timelessly generic fantasy story — but it never quite rose above the cliche. Fable 2‘s story is still relatively simple, but it does a much better job of setting it up and introducing story events that will have more significance later on. (Midway into the story, you can randomly come across a diary in the world, and reading it is actually heartbreaking).
  2. Tanks. That’s the name of my dog, which I was allowed to type in once I bought a collar and put it on him (the one you get for free was too ghetto). And they did just a fantastic job of making him act like a dog. He runs out ahead of you and barks when he finds treasure, and he jumps on top of enemies you’ve knocked on the ground — you can find training books to make him better at treasure-hunting and combat. When he finds something buried, he digs furiously at the spot in the ground until you dig it up. When he finds a treasure chest, he barks and then runs up and points at it. When you go into a building, he curls up in front of the door and waits for you. When you’re entertaining a crowd of people, he jumps on his hind legs and joins in. When you run too close to a lake or pond, he’ll jump in and splash around for a little bit. When you go into a dark cave, he whimpers and cowers until you encourage him.
  3. Attachment. Tanks is also responsible for the first real moment of panic I’ve gotten from a videogame in recent memory. I was in the middle of a long battle with a bunch of werewolves (see below), and I noticed I couldn’t see or hear him anymore. After it was all clear, I ran everywhere trying to find him, convinced that he’d gotten killed in the fight and I hadn’t noticed, really cursing myself for not paying attention and cursing the game for letting that happen. I went forward, resigned that I’d lost him, and then found him in the next room, pointing at a treasure chest.
  4. I got widowed. I said that the story wasn’t groundbreaking, and the reason that works is because the designers realized the story isn’t the point; your attachment to your character is. For another example, there was a scripted side quest where I had to seduce a woman from the village, and then ended up marrying her and having a child. The human characters are so shallow, and marriage/childbirth is so abstracted, that the whole thing felt very simple and game-like. But much later, I took a different randomly-generated side quest to kill some monsters that were ravaging a farmhouse. As I got closer to the destination, I started to realize it had randomly chosen my farmhouse. When I got there, the monsters had killed my character’s wife, and the child had gotten taken into whatever kind of protective services exists in this fantasy world. It was an oddly compelling moment; this “family” that’d just been flipping bits in a list had suddenly gained a new significance. Emergent drama, I guess, the kind that I never saw in The Sims.
  5. Unconventional Morality. Speaking of marriage, my character is a bisexual bigamist with a husband in one city and a wife (remarried) and child in the other. And the game still thinks he’s virtuous and pure enough that his hair is turning blond and he’s getting a little bit of a halo around him. Seeing as how even in the ridiculous fantasy world of The Sims, they insisted on a distinction between “marriage” for heterosexual couples and “civil unions” for same-sex ones, it’s nice to see a game so matter-of-factly say that it doesn’t matter whom you love as long as you’re good to them.
  6. Julia Sawalha. She voices one of the main NPC characters in the game, and she does a great job. The writing throughout the game is better than average, but it would end up being mediocre if it didn’t have the conviction of the whole team behind it. They don’t treat it as acting for a videogame, but really try to make it come alive, and it shows. Her character in particular would be pretty forgettable if there weren’t a sense that there’s a real person behind it.
  7. Reading. Just about every role-playing game has books and item descriptions that you can find and read. And just about every videogame player skips all this text to get back to the action. But I actually enjoy reading the stuff in Fable 2: every house has a story behind it, books and diaries explain the history of the world and motivation of the villain, and every single item you can carry has a description. And it’s all well-written and genuinely clever, with a mature British sense of humor that doesn’t try to wail you over the head with each joke.
  8. Pervasive Goofiness. Speaking of the sense of humor, that carries through the entire game, and it’s masterfully balanced. This is a game where you convince people to marry you by farting and whistling, after all, but it doesn’t descend into pure slapstick (even when you fail the fart expression and crap your pants). Characters acknowledge the goofiness, mentioning that they all sound the same, or that they have a cliched life story, but it doesn’t descend into pure self-aware fourth-wall-breaking. Instead, you just get a sense that the people making this game know what they’re doing. They’re not striving for pure realism, they’re going for the overall experience. So the abstractions are simple and goofy, but the game acknowledges they’re goofy and then moves on. Plus, it transitions effortlessly from goofy to genuinely tense and creepy, and back. The whole thing just seems mature, not in the juvenile “hey you can shoot prostitutes” mentality that passes for “maturity” in videogames, but genuinely mature: confident enough to be silly without wallowing in it.
  9. Eating tofu makes you pure. That’s one of the goofy abstractions. If you eat pies, your character gets fat. Eating celery makes him thin again. Most places that offer food sell live baby chicks that you can eat; this increases your “evil.” Fable 2 has multiple “sliders” for your character, instead of just good vs. evil there’s also pure vs. corrupt. This is a great way to split it up, and it gives you all kinds of things to play around with, like the obese, raunchy saint, or the vegetarian villain. All these are reflected in your character’s appearance, not just getting fatter or thinner, but moving towards a glowing Aryan as you get “good” and I’m presuming horned and demonic as you get “evil.”
  10. You can’t die. Death in videogames has always been a problem, and it’s never been completely solved: every attempt to make the player’s actions in a game have consequence either becomes unfair and frustrating, or so watered-down as to have no consequence. In Fable 2, your character never dies in battle, but instantly resurrects. The important difference is that each resurrection leaves him with a permanent scar, a visible record of how many times in the game you screwed up. I believe this worked the same way in the original Fable, but in any case it’s ingenious. Again, it shows that the game just has the right focus: this is a role-playing game, so the player’s character is what’s most important. By that logic, having a permanent scar on your character is the ultimate consequence. Everything that the player does is building up that character, not some list of stat numbers or pre-scripted story moments.
  11. Pre-scripted story moments. The game does these really well, too. Earlier I mentioned a battle with a bunch of werewolves; that entire section of the game was just masterfully paced. Everything up to that point had been fairly directionless free roaming and finding side quests, but at this point they needed to funnel the player towards a story event. So the game does exactly that: starts you with a bit of open-ended exploration, gradually and almost imperceptibly getting more and more focused towards a single destination, and then introducing a section that is almost completely linear. They do it with clever level design touches, like a path that gets narrower and enemies that spawn more frequently; some terrifically tense music; and a few pre-scripted events that happen at just the right time. It was done so well that I didn’t even notice that I’d “lost control” of the game until after it was over. There’s another fairly long sequence later that’s well done, even though it has a much more obvious purpose as a good/evil check. Overall, Fable 2 has moments that I think are as well-paced and dramatic as some of the best of Half-Life 2, but without that feeling like you’re in a long linear canyon.
  12. Brutal styles. The battle system is every bit as satisfying as the one in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, in that it seemed designed entirely to make you look like a bad-ass with a minimum of effort. Fable 2 lets you swap easily between melee, ranged, and magical combat, and you never have to deal with stuff that game designers care about but players don’t: ammo and mana. It’s always bugged me that movies and TV shows have magic characters casting these powerful spells left and right, and that videogames always manage to reduce this to tedious inventory or potion management. Switching between spells is still an enormous drag, but it’s satisfying to be able to just lob a bunch of fireballs at a pack of bad guys. My favorite aspect of the whole battle system is that when you get a critical hit, it transitions to a slow-motion and a cinematic camera angle, making you feel like you just did something more impressive than mash on a button.

It can come across as condescending and a little dismissive to describe a videogame as “charming,” (I know this from experience), but that’s the best word I can think to describe Fable 2 overall. It’s clear that a ton of work went into making the game, so there’s no condescension implied, and the best thing about it all is that it’s all so focused on that end experience. The visuals are so pretty that I keep being reminded of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, but this game is just so much more fun to run around in, while also doing its dark and gothic moments even better than the “more serious” game.

And speaking of Oblivion, I also got my pre-order of Bethesda’s Fallout 3 this week, and took a short break from Fable 2 to check it out. It’s even more focused on giving the player the ability to shape his character and his story however he wants. And I just kept thinking how the experience I wanted was to enjoy myself, so I quickly went back to Fable 2. I think when this guy’s done, I’m going to play through again as evil. Or maybe just corrupt.