on Feb 3, 2009
Game Reviews, Nerd Culture
I mentioned in my original post on Fable 2 that the plot is insultingly simplistic, ham-fisted, and perfunctory. It’s my only gripe with what is otherwise a stellar game. I do not count the hours I spent with Fable 2 as time squandered, but I do resent the main story and its self-indulgent idiocies. The main plot of a game is a pretty big thing to screw up, and the failure here is all-encompassing. The plot fails thematically, it fails logically, it fails dramatically, and – most importantly – it fails to be entertaining. It’s a dreadful chore to endure the key moments in the story of Fable 2, and I was always relieved when I was released from the iron grip of the narrative and allowed to go back to having fun.
|The art style falls near the World of Warcraft end of the spectrum, with lots of exaggerated, chunky buildings.|
Spoilers begin now…
Thematically, most of Fable 2 exists somewhere between Shrek and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Sometimes there is a dash of dark humor. Sometimes things are mildly edgy or risqué. But for the most part this is a world of whimsy and storybook fantasy with a dash of adult humor. (This is a game with a very cartoonish, child-like view of morality. You earn purity points for eating veggies, corruption points for eating meat, and evil points for killing harmless woodland creatures.)
|Muah ha ha ha! Hate me because I am an evil dick who shoots children! Note that here Lucian is supposedly shooting a little seven year old kid (you) who comes up to his waist, but he’s aiming at eye level. Maybe he went and got a box for you to stand on.|
This is a huge collection of serious, ugly deeds. These darker elements – all of which befell the good guys – often felt incongruous. It was like having the torture scene from Reservoir Dogs inserted into The Incredibles. A story about a villain who murders everyone you have ever befriended or loved does not fit in what is otherwise a world played for laughs.
Then the endgame: You get to hit the bad guy once, and then he falls and (we assume) dies off-screen. Disney villains get more comeuppance than the antagonist in Fable 2. (And Reaver, who shot Barnum and stole your youth, gets to walk away without ever having to answer for his crimes. He’s just as evil and callous as Lucian, he’s simply evil on a smaller and less ambitious scale. He saunters off with a chuckle.)
As I played, I could picture the writer churning this mess out at his computer. How can I make the player really hate my villain? I am an artless hack, so I can’t hope to accomplish this by drawing the player into the world and the plight of its inhabitants. I guess I’ll just have to annoy the hell out of them at every turn. That should do it! Lacking the skill to make a truly compelling adversary, he just buries you in layers of injustice. In the end, I ended up hating the writer, not Lucian. I felt like the game was hitting me with a brick and forcing me to hit back with a pillow.
|My two best friends: My dog, and my perfectly chiseled physique.|
Likewise, the trip to the evil Spire puts you into situations where you must do evil or be tortured and endure a massive XP drain. All told, the total XP loss for cleaving to the path of righteousness is about two hours of leveling. This game sold itself on “player choices”, but choosing between playing as an evil jerk or having a huge portion of your hard-won progress pissed away isn’t exactly the kind of nuanced “choice” gamers are clamoring for.
The person who devised this tale wanted the player character to endure a preposterous level of frustration. Not even gruesome, gritty games like Kayne & Lynch or Max Payne try to heap this much suffering onto the head of the protagonist. To do so in such a gentle-looking world – and then to deny the player anything that might resemble revenge at the end – is to convey pure contempt for the audience on the part of the writer.
But most of all, I resented the way the story I hated tried to prop itself up at the expense of the gameplay I loved. A story and gameplay should be in harmony. In a bad game, they stand apart. In Fable 2, they cannibalize each other.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.