Tina K. Russell

August 30, 2008

Lessons of Fable

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 6:02 pm

(Also posted at Edge)

A dear friend of me let me borrow Fable, for the original Xbox. This game came out in 2004, but nonetheless I feel compelled to write about it, specifically because it hits on so many important points of game design for me… for better or for worse.

First of all, the cutscenes. Good God, the cutscenes! I used to hear a lot of complaining that Nintendo does not put voice acting in its games, and Fable, a game developed by Lionhead (now a Microsoft subsidiary) and published by Microsoft, is a good example of why.

When I’m playing a game, I’m not watching a movie. I enjoy the cutscenes in Sonic games, though I often wish they were far more concise (Sonic Adventure 2 struck a good balance with its scenes’ quick, Sonic-like pace), because they serve as a break from gameplay and give each level a purpose. Sonic games are not RPGs; Sonic games do not require mountains of exposition every seven seconds. Fable seems to have been developed under a solid rule that players be unable to lift themselves from the piles of fantasy-game cliché regularly served up onto them long enough to make a difference in the story. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that your beloved peasant village is destroyed (see The Grand Console RPG Cliché List, rule 2) following the game’s tutorial, and it’s all downhill from there.

If you are lucky, you will spend only about an hour performing menial, introductory tasks and waiting through massive cutscenes complemented with a hammy narrator and an overbearing tutorial character sounding like the lovechild of Sean Connery and The Legend of Zelda‘s Navi (“Lisshen!”). This isn’t the worst part, though. The reason that the voice acting is so annoying–besides the voice acting itself, which I’ll get to in a moment–is because, unlike in a reasonable story-based game, you cannot skip to the end of a line. Oh, sure, you can do so for “incidental dialogue,” such as when a trader thanks you for completing a short mission, but the game has entirely too generous criteria for what dialogue is, uh, cidental. Sean Connavi himself will give you instructions in the game’s introductory material that make it sound as though he’s being paid by the line–lines that are not counted as incidental, lines thought of by the game as part of a full cutscene, despite the fact that he is simply standing there and saying things like,

“You may want to hit the dummy with something sharp.”

“Perhaps something with a hilt, and a blade.”

“I will give you a sword, one that can cut through the dummy.”

“But, not until after this line.”

This is an absolutely maddening introduction to the game–one that, as far as I’ve played, is a sad omen–because, unless dialogue is considered “incidental,” you cannot skip to the end of the character’s line. Let me back up a bit.

Like most videogames, subtitles for the voice acting are on by default. This falls under videogame law section 329(b), subsection 10(c), paragraph 98 2/5(g), subparagraph 47(t), that every piece of relevant information must be presented to the player as loudly and in as many ways as possible. So every one of Sean Connavi’s lines, and those of every other character, in fact, is broadcast to you visually right as he begins saying it. But, without being able to skip to the next line, you must wait for him to finish saying what you already know he’s saying. During these “cutscenes,” which any reasonable person would consider to be incidental dialogue (“You may want a ranged weapon to strike the dummy from afar!” “I think I have a bow hidden somewhere in this atrocious monologue!”), you’re helpfully informed by an icon at the bottom that you may press the “Y” button to skip the scene altogether. So, the game constantly presents you with a devil’s bargain: skip the entire scene, and potentially miss important information, or slog through every one of Sean Connavi’s dutifully enunciated truisms. It doesn’t help that a common experience for me was to withhold from pressing “Y” and watch the whole scene, only to find out, yes, the dialogue was entirely incidental. I still couldn’t skip to the end of a line, though.

This may sound silly, but the game misses an important distinction between a game and a movie. Games are in-ter-ac-tive. I want to take in the story at my own pace, on my own time. The reason that Skies of Arcadia is a beloved game to me is that it did not have the massive production values per scene of its contemporary, the cautionary tale Shenmue (which has many of Fable‘s problems even more than Fable does), and because it didn’t attempt to render every nook and cranny of the game up to Pixar standards they were able to craft an enormous, beautiful world with practically boundless gameplay. And, no voice acting meant I simply read a line and pushed a button to advance to the next one. This takes about a third of the time–that’s a generous estimate–as it does to watch the scene played out by voice actors. It’s not just a matter of efficiency (though that is important), though; just the fact that I am pressing a button to advance to the next line is critical. I’m interacting. I’m taking in the story at my own pace. Incidentally, I cannot wait for Sonic Chronicles on the DS.

Also, the game’s lengthy slog of an introduction misses another basic game lesson: gamers want to start right away. I thought this was clear, by now! (Well, to all but Capcom, who, for the PS3 version of Devil May Cry 4, stunned everyone by putting in a mandatory twenty-minute installation process at the beginning of the game. Those of us who’ve been around for a while remember that Microsoft had to allay concerns about including a hard drive with the original Xbox by affirming that they would not consider for licensing any game requiring an installation process. Being able to play right away is the difference between console and PC games; it is the console’s unique selling point, its lifeblood. Capcom shot itself in the foot, doubtlessly many times in a majestic, 40-part combo. Back to the subject.) Start in media res. Start with a boss. Put the player in the action and have him or her figure out the story from there. Do as Halo did and ingeniously work tutorial details into an exciting and disorienting opening level. Do something, for God’s sake! The old rule that if you don’t have them in the first five minutes, you’ve lost them still applies. If the player’s first experience of the game is a solid hour of hammy narration, endless exposition, and detailed instructions on sword combat dribbling agonizingly slowly from the mouth of the tutorial character, it’s hard to change that impression.

Now to the voice acting itself. Lionhead is a British studio, and its head, Peter Molyneux, has recieved an Order of the British Empire. Because of its origins, however, every single person in the game’s vast world speaks with an upper-crust British accent. This is bizarre! I thought the British were crazy about having a billion different accents that identify yourself as part of specific geographic and socio-economic groups. You’d think fantasy Brits would have even more accents, so that you may distinguish yourself as a half-Elven mystical spice trader with a parent from the slums of the palace town and another risen from the fiery depths of Mount Doom. As it turns out, everyone from your tutorial character (who throughout the game insists on giving you obvious information every five seconds, as the developers clearly did not learn anything from Zelda‘s irritating and summarily-dismissed Navi), the elite-born Guildmaster, to the lowliest bandit scum, could be an anchor for the BBC.

I cannot tell you how annoying this was. It doesn’t help that every single female bit character in the game sounds like a whiny old woman from a remote English chocolate-box village. I think they’re all played by the same person, a person who wants a crowd of football hooligans surgically removed from her lawn. Since a significant portion of the game is finding and wooing a mate, Harvest Moon style, good luck to those intending to play a heterosexual hero. (You can choose your hero’s orientation, but not gender. I should give props to Fable for including gay marriage; the debate may rage on in the real world, but videogames have made up their mind long ago.)

(I should note that I did manage to find a woman with a sexy voice in the game. That is, if you go to the Heroes’ Guild, where the game’s main story begins, female Apprentices–heroes in training–have half sexy voices, half whiny voices. Trouble is, they all wear hoods and are impossible to tell apart. I had a good time–for values of “good” equals “poetically dispiriting and soul-crushing”–first sifting through the girls to find one with a sexy voice, and then trying to find the one I wooed last time, as they wander through the Guild at random. It makes me want to splash buckets of paint on each one so that I may be able to tell. I almost settled on one woman simply because she carried an enormous, curvaceous bow. Everybody loves an archer lady, right?)

Also, the game’s selling point is that you’re supposed to be able to do anything. Tough luck, though, unless you want to kill monsters, since your choices are really limited to the artificial dichotomy of the “good” and “evil” paths. This is not only simplistic, it’s insulting. You get “good” points for killing bandits. What if the bandits weren’t even doing anything? What if you raid the bandit hideout–you’re the invader–and start killing bandits who were merely guarding their territory? Yep, that gets you “good” points. In fact, when I reached that point in the game (after an awful stealth sequence; another Zelda lesson that Fable fails to learn is that nobody likes stealth missions in games that aren’t designed for them), I spent many tries just rushing straight through that area, grabbing the needed items and letting the bandits wail on me. After that, villagers were frightened by my scarred appearance. It’s the sacrifice I pay for being halfway moral.

(However, there are places in the game where you get “good” points for doing legitimately good things, and I really enjoy having that choice in places where, in a movie or in another game, I may have to watch in horror as the hero does something “badass” but reprehensible. Edginess, incidentally, is seriously overrated.)

I decided I wanted to participate in the game’s economy. Given the chance, I upgraded my “guile” skill, making me a better trader (able to get good deals with my natural charm!). You can buy houses in the game and rent them out, becoming a real estate baron. I decided to do that, buying houses, fixing them up, and renting them out (you can also live in them, of course). However, there’s no indication what’s supposed to happen now. Will people come and ask me about them? Are people living in those houses right now? Will renting them out cause me to get money? ‘Cause, you know, I thought that was the idea. I hoped buying these houses early on would be an investment.

This speaks to a much larger pitfall in the game, that of too much realism (see Mue, Shen). I once read a wonderful article in Edge–my favorite gaming news site–speaking of how, in a super-realistic graphical adventure, gamers are often rightly annoyed when their hero, a mighty warrior, cannot simply step onto a twenty-centimeter protrusion from the ground, and instead has to jump; or, the hero cannot jump over a knee-high stone and must go around (see number 9 in the Gamer’s Manifesto, but beware of unnecessarily coarse language); or, the hero must search around for hours for a key to a wooden door in a decrepit old dungeon despite having fire spells that could make short work of it (see number 10); or, the hero must trade for hours to find a mundane item, like a straw hat, that ought to be fairly common, and the plot stubbornly will not move forward until the hat (or fishing rod, or shrubbery) is produced (see The Grand List of Console RPG Clichés, number 116, “You Always Travel in the Right Circles”). Despite the loud crowing, however, put the same gamer in a Mario game, with its bright colors and simple, abstract landscapes–and a hero who is a charming, portly plumber–and he or she will think nothing of having to jump over a slight protrusion in the ground so as long as it is a different color. In a realistic game, it’s a distraction; in a Mario game, it’s part of the game’s language. In a realistic game, it takes you out of the game’s world; in a Mario game, it’s part of the game’s world.

And so that’s what often bothers me about any game like Fable that tries utterly too hard to be realistic. No game is realistic. Every game falls back onto fairly basic absurdities. In Fable, quests are “taken” at the Guild, in the form of “Quest Cards,” and they often have you dealing with crises at hand–crises that will not appear until you take the quest. Once you take the quest, you can dawdle for as long as you want, because when you arrive in the quest’s prescribed region, you will always make it there in the (ta-da!) nick of time. Fail a quest, and you start over. Leave a quest, in fact, and it restarts, but not without first subjecting you to agonizing load times that are poorly-managed both in technical terms and in terms of user interface. Once I failed a half-hour quest because I accidentally left a cave too soon, without my client, after an agonizingly long battle and several brushes with death on both our parts. I immediately went back in, and the monsters had respawned. They killed my client, and I had to start all over.

Fable is a game that never wants to admit it’s a game, but it is. Were the game not so determined to hide its basic rules beneath layers and layers of “realism,” it might be easier to play and easier to understand. Every gamer wants to understand those basic rules, and quite frankly it shouldn’t take a trip to GameFAQs to find out. What happens when I rent out a house? Are there people living there right now? Did I place an ad in the paper? How soon will I know if this investment is profitable? Fable certainly won’t tell you. It’s frustrating because I’d like something to do–I’m a pacifist–when I get sick of monster-mashing. Fable falls into a trap, present in many such games, where it says you have freedom (Edge has had many columns on this subject) but it really only offers you “good” and “evil,” and insipid notions of each; but more than that, it’s only giving you a choice between killing one set of monsters and killing another set of monsters. (At least Shadow The Hedgehog is honest about this.) It’s an understandable limitation, given that a game cannot be everything to everyone, but one that would be easier to forgive if the game’s basic mechanics were not buried beneath layers of conceit and promises that you can “do anything.”

It’s sad because Peter Molyneux is famous as a man who makes good games that he over-hypes, to the games’ and his own detriment. It seems to be a problem here specifically, though, because Fable is exactly the kind of game, falling smack in the “uncanny valley” of realism, that you cannot do halfway, and setting unreasonable goals and meeting them halfway is Peter Molyneux’s specialty. It made me often wish I were playing a Zelda game, with their clearly established mechanics and progression. In Zelda, you break open a barrel and it has items. In Fable, you break open a barrel if it’s out in the open, unless somebody owns it or you’ll get evil points, or a fine if guards are looking. If the game lets me “choose my own path”–by containing a “good” and an “evil” way to play–it sounds like a better proposition just to play a game that specializes in one or the other. I would rather a game attempt to speak the language of games than try to emulate the real world perfectly. (The real world, after all, has already been done; GameSpot gave it a stellar 9.6.)

I have many more complaints about it. Characters are surrounded by a colored halo to tell you if they are important (green), incidental (purple), or hostile (red). Anyone who knows a damn thing about videogame design will tell you that gamers universally understand green to mean “friend” and red to mean “enemy” (just make sure your game has an option to change this for the benefit of the red-green colorblind), a perception honed to hair-trigger instinct, and any game that breaks this rule is merely killing its chances of being accessible to the experienced gamer.

When you use the standard lock-on–the left trigger, which, as is typical, resets the camera behind you if there’s nothing to lock on to–in Fable, though, every character is given a red halo. This is to indicate that you may choose to attack a heretofore friendly character, which is important in making key choices in the game. However, you often have to defend innocent bystanders from swarms of enemies, and during combat, you’ll be locking onto those enemies almost constantly. So, you can easily tell, using the standard red-green system, who’s a friend and who’s an enemy… except in the heat of battle! I’m chilled at the prospect of killing a friendly character for this reason (and never knowing, since all corpses have a purple halo).

To those who say this is realistic, I’ll answer first that this is a videogame, and the folly of ultra-realism has been apparent when Spacewar! creator (and the man credited, I think correctly, with inventing the videogame) Steve Russell decided to add a touch of realism by having your torpedo tubes sometimes clog when you press the “fire” button. (Players were driven insane and told him the game was broken, and the “feature” was scrapped.) (I believe this story is confirmed in Steven Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games, also known as The First Quarter. I can’t find my copy right now, sorry!) Remember that Advance Wars tries to give a realistic view of battle by having imperfect information (in “Fog of War” mode) about your enemies’ troops, even though a real general would not have perfect information on his or her own army either. I’ll answer second that, were I really in this hero’s shoes, I’d be able to tell the bandits (smelly and wearing rotted animal carcasses, though they still speak with upper-crust British accents) from the traders (pleasant, wearing green clothes, hiking backpacks, and sporting abominable handlebar moustaches) fairly easily, but I need some help when watching the battle on a TV. (This is an example of why the Diablo III creators refuse to give the fans the murky gray color scheme they say they want.) Third, I’ll remind you that any game rules need to be consistent. The red-green color setup is not only a hair-trigger instinct in all action gamers, but it’s reinforced in every enemy encounter in Fable with the initial outlook showing innocents in green and hostile raiders in red. (Perhaps this is reversed in the “evil” path. I don’t know.) You cannot break this rule. It’s more than a cardinal rule of gaming. It’s something so ingrained in gamers that, if you break it, you are not only breaking your own game by making players unsure of themselves and the interface (thus putting the game’s interface–what should not call attention to itself in an “ultra-realistic” game–front and center), you’re breaking everybody else‘s games by making people unsure of the scheme altogether. If I develop an instinct for how this game works, it’ll result in a second’s hesitation when playing Halo or another action game, the kind of hesitation that invites defeat.

It’s also worth noting that there is no other indicator for lock-on. There is no arrow, no reticule, no sound effect, nothing beyond the panning of the camera to indicate what just happened and where you’re aiming. This makes cycling through enemies to find the important one–say, the weak guy at the back with the powerful magic wand–a laughably painful (or a painfully laughable) experience. If this were not the case, if an arrow or reticule indicated where you’re aiming, then the red-green-purple scheme could be consistent, changing only when a friendly character becomes hostile, or a similar turn takes place. (There’s no reason for a friendly character’s halo to turn red when you haven’t hit them yet.) What’s more, characters get angry when you lock onto them! It’s like a manly boast in the Fable world. People throw up their arms and ask if you want to make somethin’ of it. Moreover, this happens most often when you pull the left trigger simply to re-center the camera! This is also a matter of instinct in action gamers by now, and it took me a while to realize what, exactly, was making the villagers so annoyed with me. It’s hard to square this with the fact that I want to play a noble and chivalrous hero. Centering the camera is seen as a hostile act, once again bringing the game mechanics to the fore in a game that tries its damndest (and fails utterly!) to hide them.

My complaints could be dismissed as overly high expectations, but these expectations are ones Molyneux brought upon himself with his boasting. More important is that the game’s lofty aims are simply ones that cannot be done halfway. It would be different if the game simply had more modest goals and met them. That would have been much better. Instead, the game had impossible goals, and fell flat in the uncanny valley attempting to achieve them.

Other complaints may be fairly dismissed if there are options to turn off some of the game’s more aggravating UI quirks. (Loading an auto-save is followed by an auto-save. Whose idea was that?) But, these options (such as the elusive “temper Molyneux’s expectations” toggle button) would be ones I have not found, and would be a failure of the game to have good defaults. (Moreover, the game has two in-game pause menus and a quick access menu, each with myriad sub-menus, sub-sub-menus, and options. Good luck getting a quick reference.)

And, perhaps it is best to note here that you cannot customize the quick-access controls (beyond the small portion represented by the right trigger combined with the D-pad), though they seem to be inspired by those found in Phantasy Star Online (which are customizable!). For instance, you are always able to perform a “good” social action by pressing right on the D-pad, and an “evil” faux pas by pressing left. These are always the most potent such actions (“Expressions”) that you have available, with no choice to change what is represented (and I’ve looked!). They are represented with icons at the lower-left corner of the screen.

At the beginning of the game, the “good” action is a hearty laugh, while the “evil” action is flatulence. The laugh is represented by a person laughing. The flatulence is represented by a pair of exerted buttocks. This is extremely unpleasant, especially for something that is constantly on the screen; and it continues well into the game, until you finally obtain the “evil laugh.” Then, you merely have an evil The Joker-like grin in that space. It’s merely creepy as hell. It’s better than the everpresent butt.

It’s not that Fable isn’t a good game, it’s that it makes so many elementary mistakes (especially for an experienced creator and studio!) that it’s difficult not to pillory. It’s not even so much that it makes mistakes; it makes massive, game-killing mistakes in every phase, from the overwrought and overly ambitious concept to the final, aggravating touches on the utterly convoluted UI that fails at tasks simple and complex. It’s the classic oversell, the game that tries to be everything and thus is not as good as what it really does. It could have been a good hack-and-slash action RPG. Hell, it could have been a good portrayal of the life of a trader or vagabond, trying to make it in a harsh fantasy-medival economy. (There are already good farm simulators, such as Harvest Moon, and home economics simulators, like Animal Crossing, so I won’t go into those here.) As it happens, the story is cliché, the game mechanics are obtuse, the interface is a mess, the characters are uninspiring, and every “innovative” gameplay detail has been done better elsewhere.

Sometimes games can’t afford to focus on the big picture; every game needs to make sure that moment-to-moment interactions are fun. Fable is an interesting achievement–and a valid proof of concept–but as someone who owns Shenmue, I am not one to give points for effort.

Molyneux, see me after class.


  1. It to like me…

    Comment by Sergey — August 31, 2008 @ 8:41 pm

  2. It to like me too, Sergey. It to like me, too.

    Comment by Tina Russell — September 6, 2008 @ 12:31 am

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