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.
All of these issues have been addressed in Fable III. In most RPGs pressing the pause button calls up a primary menu, but here it takes us to the Sanctuary, which is essentially a menu given physical form in the game's world and managed by our butler (voiced wonderfully by the inimitable John Cleese). Each important item we collect becomes an exhibit in this place. Our outfits are displayed on mannequins from which we can choose the pieces we wish to wear. Ditto for weapons, which are proudly displayed in the armoury.
And we need never get rid of anything. Our swords, magical gauntlets, and guns – all of which we can name – grow in strength as we use them and even change shape and style depending on how they are employed. They become prized possessions of which we can be proud.
Inevitably, some of these daring steps forward don't work quite as well as others. With the advent of the Sanctuary, menus have become all but non-existent. We can't call up a simple inventory list, view a catalogue of store items, select from a list of verbal responses when interacting with other characters, or view the sellable treasures we've collected. Even our map lies on a massive table in the Sanctuary's main chamber and is an integrated part of the game's world.
I can see the appeal. By avoiding menus whenever possible the game retains its sense of immersion. You're always in the game world, even when it is paused. But this old gamer longs for the ability to, say, quickly call up a simple 2-D map to see where I am and where I need to go to exit the current area, or to take a gander at an itemized list of my hero's current treasures to figure out whether it would be worth stopping by a pawn shop to sell them off.
And while I enjoyed the Road to Rule system of character progression, I sometimes didn't like the way I had to earn "seals" – the currency required to open up those ability-containing chests. Upon completing major and minor tasks for each stop along the road I found that the only way I could receive more seals was to interact with non-player characters, dancing, tickling, or playing pat-a-cake with them. This is fun for a few minutes, but grows highly repetitive in short order. Interacting with between 80 and 160 villagers to earn enough seals to open a single chest later in the game is positively frustrating.
Perhaps the biggest gamble Mr. Molyneux and company have made is the way in which the game continues after its seeming conclusion, which takes place just under 20 hours into the narrative. Fortunately, this one has paid off. Having overthrown the government and become monarch (hardly a spoiler, as this goal is made clear from the game's opening moments), players enter into a new phase in which they spend a year fulfilling – or neglecting – all of the promises they made to the people who helped them during their rise to power.
It's a surprisingly large and lengthy part of the game that involves some standard questing but is more focused on making political decisions. And few of these decisions are simple. I won't ruin any of them here – indeed, I found this to be the most inventive and entertaining aspect of Fable III – but I would recommend that you take the time to build up your own personal fortune prior to taking the throne, lest you be forced into some very sticky financial and ethical wickets.
Regardless of what you think of the innovations that Mr. Molyneux and his team have implemented in their new game, it's hard to fault them for trying something new. Not all of Martin Scorsese's films are masterpieces – Bringing Out the Dead is no Goodfellas – but I'm sure that if you asked the director he would be able to provide a list of lessons learned from each of his films, including his misfires.
Similarly, Fable III isn't the best game Mr. Molyneux has ever made, but it's filled with interesting experiments – some of which I haven't even mentioned, such as the ability to grab virtually any character in the game and pull him or her around with you by the hand wherever you go – that I'd be shocked not to see reappear in future games made not just by Lionhead but also other studios and game makers. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, goes the old expression, and I'd say that many of the ventures undertaken by Peter Molyneux in Fable III will lead to some significant long-term gains in the world of role-playing game design.