Gregory Weir’s How To Raise a Dragon. It’s cute, but I find it in every way less moving than Majesty of Colors. Partly that’s because in Majesty of Colors I always had a clear sense of what my actions were going to achieve, whereas I was repeatedly surprised in HTRaD — sometimes I accidentally went someplace I didn’t want to go or killed a spare human by mistake. I suppose if I replayed the game over and over I’d get a clear sense of what all the options meant and be able to approach it with some sense of agency, but it didn’t strike me as sufficiently rewarding in content to be worth that kind of time.
Trial version of Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter. If you’re curious what Textfyre has done, it’s worth checking out. Notice the cool map (flip to the back of the book).
My impression so far is that I am indeed not the target audience: the story signals strongly about the secret revelations to come, which I suspect is for the benefit of young readers. On the other hand, it is recognizably Mike Gentry writing: solid prose, and if it’s not as dark as Anchorhead or Little Blue Men, there are still entertainingly observed bits, especially in the behavior of the characters.
Fable II, as suggested on the Must Play list instead of the original Fable. Played this through to the end, though because of its breadth I’m sure there are vast tracts of the game that I didn’t see on a single playthrough. In general, I liked it pretty well: the combat was well designed, I never got too lost, and (most important, from my point of view) there were very few points where I felt I was being asked to do tedious grinding in order to get the next bit of story. I did get a little bored performing jobs for money, but fortunately there are other ways to earn income that turn up pretty quickly, so the jobs were not a big part of my play experience. The grinding and sense of wasting time is what usually makes me give up on an RPG, so in that respect I count Fable II as a big winner.
As storytelling, it was an interesting experiment: the design attempts to combine an open sandbox world (in which you can take on any ethical allegiance, marry anyone, set up various types of career, etc.) with a fairly linear main arc made up of several big quests. The end ties what you’ve done in the sandbox into the main story. It doesn’t quite work, but I think I can see what they were trying for. The problem is that the sandbox story always feels (at least to me) like it’s not nearly as important or real as the main arc, and because it’s so generic, any sandbox elements that get drawn into the main narrative are handled in the most cliche and melodramatic way imaginable. I’ll come back to this later because it deserves a full-length article.
One thing that did leap out at me, though: much has been made of the Fable series allowing the player to choose a good path and an evil path. I’ve seen the reviewers talking about the design choices here, but not that many talking about the actual content of the moral system, and to be honest, that bothered me a little.
Specifically: in several places Fable II appears to equate “good” with self-sacrificing, empathetic, principled action and “evil” with selfish, unsympathetic, and unprincipled action. The most “good” person you meet has strong non-violence principles (at least at first), while the most “bad” person is wholly and pragmatically out for himself. The gameplay consistently demonstrates that principles can be a bit of an encumbrance, but it still seems to frame them as desirable.
There’s a separate scale for corruption vs. purity, which might have added some nuance but in practice didn’t make a lot of sense to me. (You can get corruption points by eating meat or drinking alcohol, for instance; but this kind of lifestyle choice has almost no bearing on the main story or most of the gameplay.)
So in terms of aspects that affect the story meaningfully, the good/evil axis seems more to the point, and it seems very often to be handled in this one particular way.
This bothered me a bit, because it leaves out the whole question of judgment. Plenty of people believe strongly in a value or principle that turns out to be misguided; in the most extreme case this gives us terrorists. Moreover, principle and willingness to self-sacrifice aren’t necessarily the same thing. At several points the game seemed to come close to recognizing the complications. It hinted, for instance, that there were times when one might need to let someone suffer — contrary to one’s usual principles — in the short term, in order to accomplish one’s goals in the long run. But ultimately the simplicity of the good/evil axis hampered the game’s exploration of these issues because it provided a strong pressure on the player to choose an interesting extreme rather than the dull middle road, and (I suspect) a pressure on the designers not to punish “good” behavior too much.
As an exploration of morality, or even as a tool to allow the player to express his own belief structure, I think Fable would have been much more interesting had it not gone with “good” and “evil” but with more nuanced characteristics: principled vs. pragmatic, say, or self-preserving vs. self-sacrificing. And I would have left the lifestyle stuff out of it completely: the ability to make your character more corrupt and fatter by eating a meat pie, or purer by drinking water instead of beer, felt like a tedious public service announcement — one that had almost nothing to do with what the story of Fable II was about.
Finally, my review copy of the full version of Sims 3 has arrived. I’ve only played a couple of hours, and it’s clearly the sort of thing that takes a while to get rolling, but I do notice there’s a lot more complexity in the communication between characters than there was in the original Sims, and it seems to lead more directions than in the mobile version. So we’ll see how that goes.