Monday 27 October 2008

Fable 2, Storytelling and Simulation Fever

I am confused about Fable 2. Actually, I take that back; I’m in equal measures annoyed and entertained by Fable 2.

Don’t get me wrong, I like it, just not in the way I like, say, Halo or Oblivion. A few things about the game irked me, right from the get-go and I had a really hard time figuring out exactly why. I think partly it’s to do with it’s own indecision about what narrative voice it wants to use, or better put, whether it wants to use one at all. When you start or continue a game of Fable 2, a voiceover narrator says “And so our story begins…” My own initial reaction was something along the lines of, ‘Okay so I’m to treat this game like I’m being told a story, I can do that’. That lasted for about as long as the introductory cut-scene, for after that it completely diverts from that aim. The narrator literally becomes a character in the story, which I felt really ruined that sense of being told a story. The narrator is no longer talking to me, but to my character now. What the heck?

The second thing that I think is a bit of an unnecessary ‘throwback’ in Fable 2 is the world itself. Game locations feel disconnected from one another and it takes multiple hours to walk from Bowerstone Lake to the city of Bowerstone. This is alright I suppose, but makes me wonder what happened to my hero in the intervening time. Surely he can’t just walk for 16 hours and have nothing at all happen worth seeing or doing – he’s a flipping hero for goodness sake, at the very least trouble is supposed to find him! In the rest of the world, I can barely go two seconds without something happening and I refuse to believe there are sections of the world of Albion where nothing happens. Alternatively, if it does, why don’t I know about it? No bandit attacks? No random balverines? Why doesn’t everybody just move to these obviously much safer places in the world and just never leave!

Further confusing the sense of a consistent world is the fact that some locations that would appear to be separated by the barest minimum distance (‘old town bowerstone’ being a one hour walk from ‘market bowerstone’ despite the fact that it’s the same city) insist on including some measure of the passage of time between them. This gripe is somewhat answered by the fact that time passes so ridiculously quickly in the game (I have no idea why somebody thought 5 minutes to the day was a sensible time ratio), but that in itself also rather annoys me. What is the point of making the day pass so quickly, especially when one can at any point choose to skip anywhere between 6 hours and 7 days at a time anyway?

I guess a lot of this seems like just rather sloppy design to me. The easy answer for both these problems seems to me to be the inclusion of some form of overland map (think any Black Isle D&D game ever) to show the players travel and include the possibility for random encounters. Yes, I do see the irony in me telling a game designer how to improve their game, but sometimes an outside perspective is just what the doctor ordered.

As you can probably tell (and longtime readers will probably have picked up long ago) consistency within a game’s simulation logic (if that’s an appropriate name for it) is one of my desires for all games, and a big deal for me. Ian Bogost coined the term “simulation fever” for a player’s subjective responses to ‘the omissions and inclusions of a…system.’[1] He also says that ‘objective simulation is a myth because games cannot help but carry the baggage of ideology.’[2] So I guess what I’m articulating here is my own brand of simulation fever, which Fable 2 causes in me.

However, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a fickle creature and I’ll like whatever I like thankyouverymuch. I know that in my time I’ve probably overlooked things that would be glaring deal-breakers for others in games and other media, so c'est la vie. If someone has a way of viewing these problems I have with Fable 2 I’d love to hear them – they might help me enjoy the game more, after all.

[1] Ian Bogost, Unit Operations, p.132

[2] Ibid., p.135


Anonymous said...

While I can't answer your disconnected areas problem (it irks me as well; I figure it's a way of winding the clock, but eh), I think you're underestimating the role of the narrator. The fact that she's a character and omniscient narrator makes perfect sense to me; she's the classic figure from the fairytale that simultaneously exists within the boundaries of the story and also tells it. I believe we are meant to infer that the gameplay period is a separate period to that of the storytelling, like all fables, really. Just like Robin Williams at the start of Aladdin.

Everything can be likened to a Disney film sooner or later.

I think that eventually, I'm going to have to write up a 'the case for Fable II' post...

Ben Abraham said...

Woah, talk about blow your mind paradigm shift. The Disney analogy is spot on. I think I get it.

That said, I'm not sure I actually *like* it, maybe just understand it better now. =P Maybe if I was more convinced by the narrator/guild woman that she was worth paying attention to, I might like it better.

I totally omitted an aspect of this post that I originally wanted to mention, which was basically about how everyone has certain aesthetics they like more than others. I think for some reason, Fable's is not one of my favorites... if I figure out why, I'm sure it'll become a post in itself.

Anonymous said...

That particular character's role as narrator is quite telling. I can only assume they'll reveal why before the game is over. If you played the first game, you've likely got a good idea in the first place.

However, I agree that the disconnected regions is one of the dissociative elements of the game. I can walk a mile in 15 minutes. That my hero takes longer to walk walk these distances bugs me a bit. I've chalked it up to technical limitations and a part of the time based sale/job mechanic. There are other things that bug me more.

Denis Farr said...

Frame stories are quite popular in fables and faery tales. Considering many were an oral tradition that were later set down in pen, it doesn't seem surprising that this would occur as well. As Daniel noted, Disney did this rather successfully a few times.

Now you have me thinking of the narrative of frame stories in terms of the gaming experience. Hmmm.

For a mind-blowing experience with such (once you have time), I would recommend Mark Z. Danielewski's novel The House of Leaves. On the most basic level, there is a story being told of a strange hallway that appears in a house that leads to a metaphysical space, which is told from the perspective of someone critiquing and writing an academic paper on the film made of this phenomenon, which is being read by the narrator (who is going mad). Excellent stuff what you can do with the proper framework.

Ben Abraham said...

I'm not entirely convinced that, if it is indeed meant to be a "frame story", that it works particularly well for me. (I've never heard the term 'frame story' before, I'm assuming it means what I think it does)

I'll have to report back when I've played it some more.

Erik said...

It's possible that I missed something important, but I didn't notice the far side of the "frame." I wouldn't be surprised if that was added in a "Lost Chapters" way.