Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fable 2 and the Expectations Game

If you point your web browser here, here, here and here you'll find a four part analysis at Shamus Young's Twenty Sided blog of why the plot of Fable 2 is complete and utter nonsense. (And you people thing I'm long winded?) It's well thought out and substantiated stuff. There's nothing in there that isn't, technically, true. And yet as much as I can't really disagree with any of the 95.327% accurate criticisms levied there, nor can I muster the outrage to... well, care. (This not a knock on Shamus Young. It's a compliment. His writing on Fable 2 got me really thinking about the story in the game and, certainly, many are going to agree with his conclusions. Hence the pimpage of said stuff here.)

Fable 2 has it's issues, no doubt, and I've been telling Bill for a week that I couldn't decide what I thought of it. At the end of the day, however, I have no choice but to acknowledge the fact that I really enjoyed it, story included. Come on, that's surely got to be a little surprising to you, coming from a guy who thinks ham-fisted plotting absolutely destroyed the potential greatness of Fallout 3.

The thing is, I guess I just don't think of Fable 2 as a deep game. The whole game -everything in it- is geared towards the simplistic. There's a lot there to do, to be sure, but no single concept in the game goes beyond kiddie pool depths. It's a fable. (Go figure.)

Once I accepted that, I guess I just wasn't expecting any different from the story. The notion that the scope and power of magic, and it's use by characters in the game, is wildly inconsistent didn't bother me. Nor did the fact that the dastardly villain of the piece is, at times, unforgivably stupid. You're a cartoon hero. He's a cartoon villain. (To be fair, motivations for the characters are largely very well defined. The villain isn't a villain just the sake of gooey evilness.)  The well-developed NPCs are just two-dimensional at the best of times and the vast majority barely make it to the first dimension (what that means I'm not entirely sure, but let's roll with it).

As a premise, that's not everyone's cup of tea. If it's not, there's no chance of you liking this game. But if you can accept that, then there's absolutely nothing wrong with the kind of simplistic story and view of the world present in Fable 2. Lionhead makes clear from the start that this is the world they're building. It doesn't create any false expectations. Yes, the game does railroad you through just about every critical plot turn in the game. But then, that's really only a problem if you don't want to go where the game is taking you. In my case, I was already on board, so I really can't say I minded so much.

Suspension of disbelief (the ability to accept the impossible as plausible) is predicated on the notion of expectations. We accept that Bruce Banner turns into a massive bulk of green meanie because of gamma radiation. We accept sound effects in space in any number of sci-fi epics. We accept these things because we're conditioned to from the outset. It's only once a world breaks its own rules that it becomes a real problem and I can't really point out a spot where Fable 2 breaks its own rules in some egregious way. (Okay, that point is debatable. For me, it didn't.)

It also did some things that I really liked.

One thing I don't think RPGs do enough of is emphasizing that being the good guy is supposed to be a tough road to hoe. In Fable 2, though, if you want to be the world's paragon of human virtue you have to be willing to pay that price. (Spoilers ahead.) In one sequence you lose experience if you want to help some people. In another you lose your heroic visage (ie - staggering good looks). In yet another you could lose the family you've cultivated over the course of the game (this actually did hit me hard because I named my in-game kids after my real ones). This is great stuff. My only complaint with it is that it doesn't go far enough. The experience penalty really doesn't set you back all that much. Nor does the penalty for ending up looking like a harpy. Finally, losing your family really has no in-game cost to your character. Nobody in the world treats you differently (not that they did when you had a family either). So, as much as I love that the Lionhead put this stuff in there from a conceptual standpoint, I get the sense that they were afraid of turning off wimpy gamers by going as far with it as they surely should have.

The other bit that I thought was great was the notion of heroism being its own reward. Saving citizens from slavers, killing monsters, etc. It all gets you known in the world and people will love you for it (too much, really), but it doesn't fill your bank account. There's no monetary reward for good deeds. I think Lionhead went a little far with this given that knocking off a band of robbers, for example, doesn't net you any gold either. Surely a guy who takes from people for a living has something worth taking? So, yeah, a bit far in the opposite direction, that, but it was a nice change of pace nonetheless.

As far as the actual story goes. No, it's not Shakespeare. But if you like having stories that draw stark lines between right and wrong, good and evil, this does that. If you like the stories that play with notions like destiny, the enemy of the enemy being your friend, unclear motives (in the case of your gypsy guide), etc. then you're going to find stuff in this game to like.

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