I’ve been going on (for some time now) about how games talk to us about themselves, rather than inviting us into their world. Or how they seem to have more confidence when they’re talking about being games rather than just being them. As this rant has now achieved the kind of bloat you’d find in a world designed by Bethesda, it seems suitable to move into the proudly pompous fantasy genre, and to talk about some more specific examples of how games let you down by misunderstanding what being a game means.
First, let’s have some self-conscious ‘iconoclasm’ from the most taciturn man in videogames, Peter Molyneux; a man who we should applaud for never letting the tedious reality of a thing get in the way of what he says about it. Fable 3 is currently looming at us with an overfamiliar Molyneuxian recipe: take too many promises you can't meet; overly season with poor implementation and disappointment; finally overcook everything to an unpalatable slab by searing - to the core - with missing the point. What a good opportunity to examine Fable 3's potential by savouring the aftertaste its big brother left us.
Fable 2 wanted to be different so badly you could almost hear it trying to crawl into bed with you while asking to be tickled. It indicated this right from the off, famously, by declaring war on one of our many illogical game traditions: treasure left lying around in crates and barrels.
As soon as we see a crate, most gamers think ‘hidden reward hooray!’ But on smashing one open at the opening of this game, greedily and predictably hunkering after coins or trinkets, Fable 2 answers us back with a smile, and mocks both games in general and us in particular. Do you really think, it says, that anyone’s going to leave stuff lying around in these things? Pfft! Come on, this is an Xbox 360. We’re, like, so much more new millennium than that these days...
It was a good joke being made by the game at the expense of a daft, if understandable, tradition. It said, look, you don’t have to worry about that old formula anymore. Crates and boxes are just stuff. The real world has them, so our world has them, too. But relax. Enjoy the game, not the furniture. OK? Be liberated from the dreadful tyranny of looking for stuff in a thing. Look for other stuff in other things instead. OK? OK.
Not only is it a nice conceit but, unusually for Lionhead, it was also one that wasn't spoiled pre-release by Mr Molyneux bleating on remorselessly about how clever and new everything would be. Before it inevitably, of course, wasn’t.
And here’s why it wasn’t. Because while Fable had the ability - as well as the right - to mock convention, try putting this mockery in context to see where the real joke lies. Fable might mock the haphazard seeding of crates with treasure, but it certainly didn’t challenge the convention of leaving treasure chests lying around willy-nilly, which is at least as ridiculous as crates filled with stuff. More so, if the treasure chests glisten as you approach to draw your attention to them being abandoned in plain sight.
Fable’s also happy to have job sidequests that are exercises in mashing buttons in return for a cash reward, which was dull in 1986; upgrading to HD may make the dull shinier, but it doesn’t help the content shine. That the game throws money at you and then dispenses with a meaningful final battle equally doesn’t make it an iconoclastic dismantler of hoary game clichés. It makes it dull, unchallenging, and unfocussed. Fable 2 also literally leaves a trail of breadcrumbs so you can always find your way from one artificial objective to the next, like you were ET, and Lionhead were Elliot dispensing M&Ms to entrap you in its bedroom. Coincidentally, it made me want to press the Home button so I could go there and play something else.
Worst of all, your good and evil deeds - and your deaths if you are daft and bored enough to let them happen to you in a game that offers precisely no challenge - are written upon the skin of your character in a way that Peter really wanted you to care about. Because how you look, right, represents choice, yeah, and, like makes it personal. Your body is, you know, a quest log. It's like you are your story. Right?
Wrong! It’s as superficial as responding to the release of a hostage by giving them a badge saying ‘I’m Brave’ and then throwing yourself a party for being insightful. It’s all superfice, a nothing polished to a pointless shine; these ‘innovative design choices’ are no more than a polygon count mistaken for something you’re inexplicably supposed to feel reflects your individuality. And it’s so smug that my copy of Fable 2 curdled milk from at least ten yards just by smiling.
If you doubt the smugness, then we need to go back to the crates. Most typical of Fable 2’s attitude was that it couldn’t wait to get that crate joke in, could it? To tell you that this world was different, rather than letting you find out for yourself over time? Like the game trusted either you or itself? Here we go, it says, dispatching the baby of subtlety along with the bathwater of hope. Crates have changed! Did you get the telegraphed meta-joke? Good for you.
Tellingly, then, Fable 2’s most impressively implemented innovation isn’t something new so much as an omission presented through humour. More, it’s an omission framed by the game pointing desperately to its supposed innovation because it can’t bear the thought that you might miss how clever it is. There’s rules in games, and we don’t play by them, Fable 2 says. PS, this is one of our rules, by the way, so make sure you follow it. You still have to play by our rules, you know. Oh, and you might laugh at the joke, but this mechanic is no more optional than the thing that we’re liberating you from was.
Great. Thank you for trusting me with your self-contained world. Thank you for giving me change.
That the joke set a knowing and familiar tone, then, and liberated one small element of your exploration is superficially true. That it was anywhere near as clever as it thought it was is palpably false. And that the humour indicated a confident new start was also demonstrably not true. Lionhead are either too enamoured with the idea that their game offers something genuinely new to notice that the content is lacking, or that they’re just hiding convention behind an old joke about conventions.
It also overlooks something fairly important about its medium and its audience. The reason gamers root around in crates is the same reason that we unquestioningly accepted coins floating in space, or hidden packages in Vice City. These things makes sense in the context of the worlds, because our brains are pattern finding machines, programmed to look for signs of rewards and to tell us, like a pigeon pecking at a pleasure button, to keep going back for more. This gaming language evolved successfully because it makes sense to the caveman part of our brain – the one that’s probably also responsible for drug addiction and obesity, but let’s not dwell on that. Replacing one arbitrary signifier of reward with another isn’t change – it just looks slightly different. It’s right to shake up the convention when it’s gotten tired, but you can’t rewire the entire way that reward motivates play.
Sadly, all Fable 2 (and Fable 3 to come, I expect) promises us is more of the same: convoluted gameplay mechanics that don’t innovate so much as compromise; humour instead of substance; a design that seems to think it’s different even though its content isn’t. This kind of design simply repackages conventions in less engaging ways hoping that newness will carry it through - rather than subverting these conventions to produce a better experience. It’s too busy being knowing about other games to notice that it doesn’t really know its own shortcomings.
And how does that make a better game for us?