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.

Comments

- 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.

I remember watching Karla play and you should have seen her reaction when he kicked her dog. It went from "another encounter" to something very personal very quickly. This is going to be one of those seminal moments in the lives of gamers, I think. It'll stick.

Great writeup!

Between Fable 2 and Fallout 3, I think I am set for many weeks to come on fantastic RPG goodness!

The first game never really caught me, and I'm one of those people who has a hard time regarding the pixels on my screen as anything more than pixels on my screen. That said, I've been impressed by the impact that Fable 2 seems to have had on people. I'm not sure if it's a great game or not, but it does sound like an interesting experience. I think that I'll at least rent it and check it out for myself.

I think this write-up is what finally gonna make me go and buy this game.

Cool write-up. I have to say though that i never connected with my dog. I see him as a tool to get more stuff rather than having any emotional attachment to him. Personally i was much more affected by my time in the Spire than by any other portion of the game so far though i best not say too much because of spoilers

I’ve been waiting for Fable 2 basically since that day, sometime in March of early 2007.

I actually really liked Fable and was waiting for Fable 2 from the time i finished that. But the time that Peter really got me was his presentation of The Room. There was just something about Peter's presentation that got me. I think he's got a great imaginative personality - it's really infectious.

You should get a kickback! I never played the first one and hadn't planned on this... but your writeup here just clicked with me, and now it's on my list. (My Xmas list, because I really am swamped now, but it's totally on the radar.)

Great article!

Regarding that encounter, I believe I said aloud, "Hooboy. Nobody hurts Trigger," and then shot him until he died. Normally, I don't talk to my games unless I'm very angry with it (God of War, I'm looking at you), and then its just profanity.

Even in encounters now, I tend to groin shot the antlered bandits.

I accepted an Assassination contract in Bloodstone without too much thought - after all, I was almost completely Evil. I was to take out a housewife in Bowerstone, at night with no one watching. I found her home without too much trouble, even bought it so I'd have easy access that night.

At night I enter to find her standing beside her daughter, and she starts begging for her life. I hesitated. The daughter would be a witness ... but it was more than that. I left the house and walked around. Did I really want to do this? I went back to the home ... there she was again, child out of sight. Begging again, please don't kill her. I was getting frustrated .. I whipped out my sword and sliced her dead with one stroke - and turned around and there was her daughter on the stairwell. Damn it! I didn't want to kill this lady, and now the contract wasn't even valid because there was a witness!

I returned to Bloodstone. It would end tonight. I found the Assassin who gave the contract, aimed carefully at his head, and pulled the trigger repeatedly. He would pay for what he'd made me do.

Unfortunately, that was where it broke down, the game wouldn't let me kill the quest-giving NPC. Oh well, it was great until then. I actually felt real empathy for that houswife NPC.

My only regret is that I didn't write this piece. Thankfully, Mr. Z says what I wanted to say better than I would have said it. Fable is really becoming an emotional experience for me, in a totally weird emo way which I'm just embracing. I've been very caught up in the "goodness" of my character. I had a quest line I essentially couldn't complete without a few acts of petty theft, and it BUGGED me.

And there have been some interactions with my kid (in game) that really broke my heart.

AcidCat wrote:

Unfortunately, that was where it broke down, the game wouldn't let me kill the quest-giving NPC. Oh well, it was great until then. I actually felt real empathy for that houswife NPC.

Did you turn off safety?

Wonderful story. There are a lot like it in the game, on both sides.

What's fun about it is that while the framework is familiar, the overall feel the game world presents is one much richer and deeper than normal. It also (possibly) forces you as a player to think about how you want to play it, in order to get the most out of it. We did a big post on that here. It won't be remembered as one of the greatest "video games" ever (whatever that means nowadays), but it will be remembered as one of the first and best examples of what games can be.

rabbit wrote:

Did you turn off safety?

Yeah, you can shoot him, you'll get evil points, but he won't die. Same thing happened when I tried to kill a different quest NPC.

- 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.

In my instance of that encounter, my wife was sitting on the couch with me working on a laptop, however she was watching the whole thing sidelong. Here's how it went after the battle:

Wife: Can you heal Kevin (the dog)?
Me: I think I have an item for that.
Wife: You have to heal him.
Me: I will. I'm going to get the key and free the prisoners first.
Wife: What? No.
Me: The key is in that hut and the prisoners are right there. It won't take me twenty seconds.
Wife: Look at him. His paw is drawn up and he's whimpering. You need to heal him first.
Me: Hey, who's playing this game?
Wife: HEAL THE f*ckING DOG!

The dog in Fable is sheer genius. I'm certain I've spent more time playing fetch and interacting with the dog than I have actually playing the game.

And yeah, when that guy kicked my dog it suddenly became personal.

tanstaafl wrote:

And yeah, when that guy kicked my dog it suddenly became personal.

Wait until you get to Bloodstone, the lowlifes there in town are always kicking your dog.

I imagine it would be very, very hard to stay Good in that town. Townsfolk who have kicked my dog find themselves very shortly missing their head. After I Extort them for whatever cash they have onhand first, of course.

Man, you guys almost-- almost-- make me wish I had a 360 just for this game.

Even if I wanted one, it would be a hard sell to my wife. She won't have an Xbox in the house, 360 or otherwise. It's the only household ban she's asked for, and since it was mutual in the first place I obviously didn't bother to try and talk her out of it.

This game almost has me wanting to, though.

This was my first foray into the Fable gestalt. (On 360, if that makes a diff.)

I have really enjoyed what I have played so far; it's very easy to play. Nothing is incredibly taxing or complex in terms of playing; inventory control is easy (though the interface could be much faster and better), but you aren't fiddling with your inventory too often. You acquire stuff, you can sell it, you don't run out of space or hit a weight limit.

You can explore areas, but your exploration is limited to prescribed paths for the most part (hedges, tall fences, etc) such that while you can escape the main quest focus, you never feel completely aimless or likely to travel off to useless or uninteresting areas.

The hardcore RPG player in me misses a more standard dialogue approach, but the system here is quick, largely intuitive, simple and it works.

I guess for me, I see Fable as RPG lite, in so far as it pertains to the usual overhead that comes with the games, while maintaining a breadth of options, avenues, and moral pathways to navigate.

However, as much as it has been very easy to slide into and play for 20 minutes here or an hour there, the juggernaut that is Fallout 3 has and will be absorbing whatever play time I have. I am more compelled to play the latter for any number of reasons, BUT I am very looking forward to picking this back up and resuming the story when and where I can.

Fable 2 has sucked me in with its emotion, ease of play, art design, combat, and humor. It is not perfect, but I do feel emotionally invested in my character and my wicked awesome dog. I assure you, quick death will follow anyone who hurts my dog! I have not enjoyed an RPG this much since playing Jade Empire on the old Xbox. I never played the first Fable and I am not a big RPG fan, so I was reluctant to pick this game up. I am so glad I did.

I am also playing Fallout 3 right now and I find it really hard to tear myself away from Fable to play Fallout. Fallout just feels like a glorified text adventure compared to Fable 2. I really hope that Fable 2 starts a trend that moves the industry away from the old school RPG conventions in video games. It is still traditional at heart, but the game design is so well done that I focus mainly on the story and the environment instead of finding my way and micromanagement. I'm looking at you Fallout!

Crouton wrote:

Wife: Can you heal Kevin (the dog)?
Me: I think I have an item for that.
Wife: You have to heal him.
Me: I will. I'm going to get the key and free the prisoners first.
Wife: What? No.
Me: The key is in that hut and the prisoners are right there. It won't take me twenty seconds.
Wife: Look at him. His paw is drawn up and he's whimpering. You need to heal him first.
Me: Hey, who's playing this game?
Wife: HEAL THE f*ckING DOG!

That's nearly an instant replay of my first Fable II session last night.

(I guess the dog always gets hurt at that section)

The original Fable garnered interesting emotional responses from me. I wanted to play the game as a "good" character, and I have a compulsion to finish all of the quests, but these two things conflicted for me. One of the quests is to either a.) escort a prisoner to his execution (good side), or b.) rescue the prisoner from his execution (bad side). I originally chose to escort the prisoner because it was the "good" path, but when I finished it I found that I wasn't comfortable with having facilitated an execution when I am in real-life very strongly opposed to the death penalty. So I reloaded my game and replayed the quest to rescue the prisoner, but that single act apparently outweighed having been the best guy in the world up to that point so every citizen I encountered fled in terror from me. It bothered me, so I reloaded the game again and skipped the quest entirely.

I've never had a reaction like that to a game. Normally, I kill, maim, and steal from any characters that I need to without compunction. But the consequences being tangible in the game world with NPCs tipped a scale in my head. If the new Fable can replicate that feeling, and from the sound of this it might, then I really look forward to playing it.

EDIT: Although if the dog yelps loudly when he's hurt, I might not play the game. My dogs were so upset by the sound of the wolves being injured in Oblivion that I started muting my stereo system whenever I encountered one.

Certis wrote:
- 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.

I remember watching Karla play and you should have seen her reaction when he kicked her dog. It went from "another encounter" to something very personal very quickly. This is going to be one of those seminal moments in the lives of gamers, I think. It'll stick.

I'm playing through again to see the evil stuff and when I got to that part I cringed, knowing what was coming.

My review: This game is keeping me from playing Fallout 3 and LittleBigPlanet.

I've always had a soft spot for Molyneux and I appreciate seeing how with each and every game his attempts to expand and define his vision to match what is really inside his head inch closer to the goal.

He is a visionary... but like all humans, he is making way toward his goals through a gradual process of refinement.

I finally played the game to the end on evil. What great experience, I am going to try my best to go back and play it through again and see how it pans out with a middle of the road type character.

I think your writeup was great, but for the sake of argument I'm going to add some dissenting comments here.

I agree that the game offers the potential for a lot of really cool emotional connections with the dog and NPC's - but some of the implementation really takes away from this for me.

For example, if I'm trying to woo a cute waitress at the bar, why is it that the entire bar decides to crowd around? Why are people who I'm not paying any attention to falling in love with me by virtue of being in my "emote radius?" This isn't creating emotional gameplay because I have absolutely zero emotional connection to the hordes of people around me, and it cheapens the relationship with the person I actually AM focused on.

Also, they should have had a much cleverer system of actually gaining someone's affections with interesting emotes. As it stands, I can just press the right button on the D-pad over and over again and make everyone fall in love with me. The whole "holding down the button longer" minigame is totally useless. I know there is a bit of this in the game (ie, some people are humorless and won't appreciate farts) but the fact that you can press the "Thumbs up" button over and over again to make people love you is a bit ridiculous IMO. The game should have forced a little more variety.

Some of the emotes are also kind of ridiculous. The fact that you can cheat on your wife right in front of her and then fart or arm pump repeatedly to make it all better is also a disservice to the emotional connection you've developed - there should be more serious ways of dealing with things like this.

All this to say that while I think they did a great job of capturing aspects of emotional gameplay that other games haven't, I can't help but think of all the things that they could have done better. This isn't taking anything away from the game - I still think its a phenomenal, innovative game that I will play repeatedly - I just want to add a different perspective to the piles of praise that's being heaped on the game here.

Whilst there were many emotionally engaging sections of the game as already mentioned - Thag kicking the dog and the Tattered Spire sequence.

I had serious emotional baggage by the end of the game being forced to pick between 2 of the choices. I spent 15mins agonising over the options.

Considering I was playing a Good/Pure character the decision became obvious from a pure roleplaying perspective but the cost was actually a personal one. I did not want to choose the way I did and knew that I could never have done so in reality.

The only other time I have ever been so conflicted in a game was during the final assault at the citadel and the fleet choice in Mass Effect. (Wow that was hard to keep spoiler free!)

@Dysplastic

Whilst I agree about the AoE flirting being a little silly, a work around is to get the intended recipient of your smooth moves to follow you somewhere quiet/isolated.

Hopefully I kept this realtively spoiler free... If not delete, delete!

p.s. Great write up!

Last night my eldest daughter Liz became non-responsive to any expressions or other interaction. Aside from the idling animation, she doesn't move, she doesn't talk, and she won't follow me anywhere. If she's impressed by my farting or joyed about getting her favorite food (mutton cutlets), there are no floating hearts to indicate her appreciation. Perhaps this is because my second child, Bert, has grown out of infancy and now holds all the attention, and this silent treatment is a protest designed to teach me a lesson. But really, I'm sure it's just some stupid bug. I just can't bear to think that a mental illness has left her in this vegetative state.

I've heard the guys mention game rental many times, but I didn't know the details. I'd like to buy this game. So...

Could I rent this game? From who?

If not, please tell me about game rentals in general. Thanks.

It's the start of the change.

I didn't read all the posts above, sorry, so maybe what I'm saying is repetition.

Up until ~five years ago games were nihilistic, the godlike player against the teeming hordes of whatever.

Now we're seeing capable female protagonists who aren't just reskinned male ones, proper emotive content in games. It's the slide from childrens toys to proper interactive entertainment.

There's still something nerdy about playing, making or liking video games - but show me a game of noughts and crosses or a brain dead soap opera and I'll make the same choice every time.

Video games are still very juevenile both in the emotions they evoke and their timeline from birth. It'll be very interesting to see what we do with the concept in the next twenty years.

mastrude:

Blockbuster is your friend! I live in the middle of nowhere, and even the local video store here rents *some* games. If you live in a reasonably populated area, chances are, someone is renting games locally. Otherwise, gamefly.com.