While working my way through Fable III (Microsoft Game Studios/Lionhead Studios/ ESRB: Mature), the latest role-playing game from the mind of Peter Molyneux, I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that playing a game made by this master designer of interactive experiences is a little like watching a movie written and directed by Martin Scorsese. Both men are not only passionate about creating content within their respective mediums, but also obsessed with the process of that creation, so much so that one can’t help but see evidence of it in their work.
The most telling moment in Mr. Molyneux’s new game is an optional side quest that begins with the player’s character meeting a group of three nerdy RPG players in the town of Bowerstone, the capital of the repressed industrial-era country we spend most of the game trying to liberate. Our hero is convinced to join their game, at which point she (players can choose their hero’s gender – I chose a woman) is shrunken to minuscule proportions and becomes a character on the trio’s table.
She then experiences her own little role-playing adventure with the game’s dungeon masters hovering above the board like giants. They discuss game design techniques, arguing about when she should be allowed access to a powerful sword and how difficult it ought to be to retrieve it, what the proper balance should be between action and narrative (not to mention how deep that narrative should be – there’s a lovely gag here on “the nature of cliché”), and how much time the player should spend chatting with villagers and reading item descriptions.
It’s meant to be an in-joke for veteran gamers, but it’s obvious that arguments like these are commonplace among game makers, especially those working at Mr. Molyneux’s Lionhead Studios, which has become famous for game design innovation.
- The Goods Platform: Xbox 360 The good: Road to Rule system makes for a refreshingly unique take on levelling up. The Sanctuary -- essentially a menu given physical form in the game world -- makes a player’s inventory more tangible. Playing as a monarch in the final act is original, challenging, and gratifying. The bad: Lack of menus may be jarring for veteran RPG players. Repetitive interactions with non-player characters are all but necessary in order to grow your hero. The verdict: Peter Molyneux’s innovative new RPG throws genre convention out the window -- sometimes to its detriment but more often to its benefit -- creating one of the more memorable RPGs of 2010 in the process.
Love them or hate them, there’s no question that the studio’s Fable games are unique – and I’m not just referring to their indefatigably British atmosphere. The first two games in the series were platforms for modest but noticeable innovations, ranging from the ability to get married and have children with a same-gendered character to having our hero’s visage change based on his or her moral choices. Fable III is the series’ boldest game yet, challenging some of our fundamental notions of what an RPG is.
For starters, there are no experience points. What’s more our hero doesn’t level up. These seemingly key RPG elements have been tossed aside – Mr. Molyneux recently told me that he views the numbers associated with these mechanics as intangible and without narrative meaning – in favour of a visual path in an alternate world that the player travels between major game events. It’s called the Road to Rule. Along this trail players pass through gates that lead to a variety of chests, each one containing powerful abilities and new options for interacting with non-player characters.
You could argue that it’s simply a different way to level up, and you’d be right. And I’m not even sure it’s a better way to grow a character. But it is at the very least refreshingly different. I looked forward to each of my visits to the Road to Rule, and I enjoyed opening chests and watching my character spasm with power as she grew in strength.
Another key change is in inventory. Many RPGs involve collecting, crafting, and upgrading a seemingly never-ending stream of weapons, armour, and accessories. There are, of course, some long-tolerated problems with this process. For starters, managing inventories can be a nuisance. Also, inventory items exist in menus rather than the game world, making them seem insubstantial. Plus, the constant quest to upgrade means that no sword or pauldron is ever good enough, and that we must often part ways with our favourite items.