Various playing

Recent playing:

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.

8 thoughts on “Various playing”

  1. From a purely logical perspective, you certainly make a valid point about the rather formalistic and shallow criteria used to seperate the good from the bad (and the bad from the merely ugly) in Fable 2. Still, in the context of the game’s colorful storybook presentation and generally humorous and whimsical nature the whole argument comes off as just a tad bit tone-deaf. Fable 2 may require the player to make some important gameplay-related choices with moral implications, but it’s also obviously meant to be understood as a fairytale; and not in the sense of Grimm-style folklore but more like an occasionally raunchy and violent yet thematically consistent Disney pastische. Moral ambiguity, shades of gray and all the rest are appropriate elements even in sanitized high fantasy fluff like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but Fable 2 is a bit unusual among games in the genre in that it adheres so strictly to the commercialized fairytale formula (even while simultaneously making fun of it along the way, in its own decidedly British manner). I play a lot of RPGs and appreciated the game’s departure from the tediously grave faux medievalism which plagues the genre, and to call for some additional, substantive content to flesh out the game’s resoundingly hollow moral categories seems to miss the point slightly given the theme Lionhead is trying to develop in this particular game.

    That said, on a more general level I completely agree that most open world RPGs would be a lot more interesting if they allowed for a degree of moral complexity far beyond the rigid Good/Bad dichotomy which still dominates the genre.

    1. (Spoilers):

      At the moments of greatest narrative focus, the game *does* seem like it’s going to get into exactly these topics. In the passage involving Hannah, her awakening to the possibility of violence seems to acknowledge some more nuanced thinking about the nature of virtue; in the long act involving your stint as a spire guard, it’s hinted several times that too rigorous a determination to protect the weak in the short term might compromise the entire mission. (In practice it doesn’t really, as far as I could tell, but the possibility appears.) Note also that during the spire/guard plot, we see Lucien addressing his followers/slaves, and the speech he gives them is very much intended to inspire loyalty not just as a matter of personal survival but because he encourages them to believe there is some higher goal to be achieved.

      All this seems to me to invite more nuanced thinking about the expedience = bad / self-sacrifice and principle = good elements of the basic gameplay. I found them the most interesting moments of the story.

      The TOBY mission reinforced this at the level of gameplay. Needing a bunch of renown points to impress Reaver, I went along with the instruction to steal the Holy Mutton of whatever it was from the tattooist, but in the process I made him angry. I tried to make restitution by giving him a lot of money, but he was still violent, and kept following me around town shooting at me, until in exasperation I killed him. That counted as an evil action, but it hardly made a dent in my massive collection of Good points at that stage; whereas I earned a lot of renown from the mission as a whole and made significant progress on the story goals. So I found myself thinking: was it evil of my character to have been deceived, or just stupid? Once she’d been deceived, given that there didn’t seem to be another way to stop the tattooist shooting at her, was she justified in killing him in self defense? Etc.

      Add to this that Theresa’s own motives are occasionally obscure, that the morally mixed Garth is the strongest and the most interesting of the companion heroes, and that Reaver was obviously going to wind up fighting on our side, and I thought we might be being set up for some sort of twist that called into question the good and evil labels previously established.

      That possibility falls away in the last portion of the game. Much though I enjoy Stephen Fry’s voicing, I found the later stages of recruiting the Reaver comparatively dull and his behavior disappointingly predictable.

      Likewise, the final showdown with Lucien. There are some hints that you might resemble Lucien in some ways — early loss in your life, growing power, and eventually perhaps a willingness to trample others in order to achieve your goals… but there’s just no real payoff from all this. Instead we get the cheap melodrama of the dog and the lost family members, which I could see coming a mile off. (I confess when I had a child I had such a strong premonition of its expendability that I changed its name to “Baby 1”.)

      So I agree that much of the *end* comes off as more like a Disney cartoon, but there is a bunch of stuff in the main arc that seems like it’s going somewhere else.

      I’m not sure I would call the story overall whimsical. I certainly enjoyed the humor of the game, but humor is not incompatible with a serious or nuanced moral message — just the opposite, actually. A really painful story usually needs some lighter moments to make the serious ones work.

  2. Hmmm, I’ll be interested to read more thoughts on Fable 2. I haven’t played it, but I did play 1, and I recall that there was certain equipment that was only usable if you were particularly good or evil, so that also created a mechanical motivation to choose an extreme as well as the story-based motivation. There are other games that use a similar 1 dimensional alignment system–KOTOR and Jade Empire spring to mind–and I always found it a little annoying. It was clearly more interesting (and usually objectively, mechanically, better) to go to one extreme rather than be moderate, plus having only 2 meaningful endpoints on the graph seemed absurd. I suppose I can see why they do it, though, as adding a third point (say, Selfishness) increases the number of alignments from 3 (good, neutral, evil) to 6 (good/unselfish, good/selfish, selfish, unselfish, evil/unselfish, evil/selfish) which I imagine would vastly increase the potential complexity of plot branches and dialog or whatever else you want that sort of thing to effect. And, strangely, it might annoy players. If there are different endings for being evil or good, players can fairly easily play through twice to see them both. But unless the game is really highly significantly different depending on your behavior and moral alignment, who wants to play through the same game 6 or more times to see the different endings?

  3. I only played the first few sections of Fable 2, and kind of lost interest…nuances would be interesting. KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Black & White, all tend to be rather…well, black and white.

    On the other hand, I agree too much choice could annoy players. Part of the painfully obvious polarized morality is knowing what the results will be. I tend to choose evil in most of these games because I like lighting bolts/death rays/perdition’s flames to fly out of my hands, and I know those Evil skill trees will never let me down.

    Choosing to help the old lady across the street, while perhaps closer to my everyday persona, usually gets me stuck in the snoozefest of curing the wounds of more exciting characters, and all manner of “wind beneath my wings”-type abilities.

    1. Well, but — speaking of knowing what the results will be — that isn’t what happens if you play “good” in Fable 2. There are still plenty of serious abilities and you’re by no means stuck offering support to your companions all the time.

  4. Yeah, all RPGs that purport to offer the choice in how your character turns out are completely missing the point. The options presented to the player are generally of the following form:

    1) Will you save children in the burning orphanage?


    2) Will you watch them burn and eat any of the survivors?

    1. True in most cases, but The Witcher certainly rises above this. One of its central questions is whether you will:

      1. Help the rebels, who have perfectly good reasons for being dissastisfied with the social order, even though their method is terrorism and they take the lives of many innocents in their quest for justice.

      2. Help those who are in charge, who are perfectly right in believing they are protecting innocent people against terrorists, even though at the same time they are strengthening a highly unjust society.

      3. Do nothing, even though it is clear that even more people will die that way.

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