The Feeling of Fable
“Sequels are tricky things, aren’t they?” Molyneux intones from offcamera. “I love playing around with new ideas and innovation, that’s why we set up Lionhead.” The camera shakily pulls back from a close-in shot of a generic hero character facing out into a generic fantasy universe to reveal the well-known British games designer. He’s staring out at room of games journalists, looking very thoughtful and kind of batty. I know this because I was there, in the room for this presentation at GDC 2007, videotaped for posterity by the folks at Gamespot. I also know because I’ve watched the video of this event a handful of times since then, trying to fully understand what he’s trying to say as he talks about emotion, love, and the soullessness of gaming.
It wasn’t until I was about half an hour into actually playing Fable 2 that I fully understood what he was talking about. I looked down into a pair of brown puppy eyes, digital eyes, and smirked. Then, curious, I threw a ball out into a green grassy field, just to see what it would look like. And sure enough, he ran into the field, grabbed the ball, and ran back. He drops the ball, and looks up … and there’s this expression on his face, expectancy. And love. Visible, palpable emotion. I smiled. He’d gotten me.
I’ve been waiting for Fable 2 basically since that day, sometime in March of early 2007. I’ve seen dozens of presentations about videogames over the years, but that one has stuck in my mind as few have. Rarely have I been compelled to go back to rewatch a presentation over again, especially given I was there in the first place. But Molyneux’s pitch on the third floor of a downtown hotel across the street from the Moscone center was defining. He casts aside the importance of drama and story, saying categorically that people who laud those as central to a game are “wrong”. What’s important, he argues, is the emotion games instill in the player.
Fable 2 is the ultimate expression of that emotional argument, a world where how you feel as a player is of utmost importance to everyone in the gameworld. From the dog - whose loving eyes are on you for almost every hour you’re in Albion - to the average citizen, it’s all about how you feel. In fact, Fable 2 is forever going to be linked in my mind with feeling. It has fantastic combat, and a great story, and great treasures and collectibles … just like every other fantasy game. What Fable 2 truly offers, what it actually delivers, is the experience of loving and caring for a digital character and having those characters respond in turn.
The most interesting thing about this gameplay choice is how much it scales. If you think about combat, your first big battle is momentous but every one after that becomes less and less important for you as a player. You might remember a boss battle, but the average mook fight isn’t that notable. Emotional gameplay, though, creates memorable and lasting moments throughout the game. The context-sensitive interplay between what you do as gamer, the digital actors around you, and what you are experiencing in real life as a player creates memories every time you engage with the world.
Here ‘s a scrapbook of emotional moments I’ve had in Fable 2:
- The first time I created a real sense of devotion in another character, I made them fall hard. This tiny gay shopkeeper that I’d started off just wooing to get a better price on a sword ended up following me all the way out of the games of Bowerstone as he professed his feelings. My last view of him before I set off on an adventure was his diminutive form waiting patiently by the open gates. I’m not sure I’ve seen him since, since I never bothered to learn his name.
- Most enemy NPCs don’t tick me off, despite whatever evil villainy they’ve done in a gameworld’s context. The first time my dog got hurt, though, created a grudge. It was just a mook, a bullyblade with a set of antlers strapped to his back. My response frankly surprised me, as I snapped off my attack on one of his fellow brigands to end him. I charged up a blast of lightning that not only blew him off his feet but sent his corpse flying out of sight behind some trees. After giving my dog (Horace) a healing treat, I spent a few minutes playing ball with him to make it up.
- The tone of emotion, perhaps based solely on how I act in certain areas, is completely different depending on the digital actors nearby. Different areas thereby gain distinct overtones and resonances, based all on emotion. The Fairfax Gardens area of Bowerstone is thick with nobles and fops, and the parties there are legendary. It’s easy to draw a crowd, and they’re always so appreciative. The smaller crowds that gather in the marketplace have an air of desperation, and there are far more pathetic requests for marriage and comments on my (relative) wealth.
There are a couple of moments in the game that go for more heavyhanded, less organic emotional manipulation. What’s amazing is that I found myself unexpectedly pliant in those circumstances, moreso than I think I would have been without this emotional tapestry woven through the rest of the game. I won’t go into details to avoid spoiling anything, but it’s kind of amazing how much Fable 2 sets you up for these moments. Lionhead’s designers obviously and intuitively understood the cold, dead eyes of a gamer when he regards an NPC.
Years from now people will reference the game’s simple but engaging combat, the sense of ownership over the world the game imparts, and Fable 2’s surprisingly rich story. What the game will be remembered for, though, is how Molyneux made us care. How he took a pair of empathic puppy eyes and spun that out into a world of NPCs with souls. How he convinced gamers that the worlds they inhabit can not only be fun, scary, or exciting … but caring, loving, and emotional as well.