I am really getting sick of open-morality games1.
These games have a problem. It's not that they lack a wide enough range of moral decisions: I really do believe that my Fallout 3 character is a shining beacon of humanity's hope in the wretched landscape of the USA's post-apocalyptic capitol. And I realize that he could just as well have been an absolute bastard, even offending the sensibilities of the other horrible people in that world. So, okay: let's say that the game industry has figured out how to give the player some choice in how their character develops. The problem is that they haven't figured out how to construct an engaging story from those decisions. Not once have I felt any twitch of meaningful emotion or insight while playing any open-world game that focuses on allowing the player to make wide-ranging moral decisions. Okay, so most games don't give me any such reactions, but I think open-morality games actually destroy tiny bits of my brain that are responsible for emotion and insight. Maybe I'm being too harsh.
I want to talk about Fable 2 today. I picked up Fable 2 a couple of weeks ago, honestly expecting to not like it very much. I'd played through most of the first Fable game, and found its story pathetic but its gameplay fairly entertaining. After playing it, I ranted to my friends that the morality of the world was shallow: The leader of the Hero's Guild, after turning me from a village boy into a full-fledged adventurer, gave a speech indicating that whether I would be good or evil was entirely my own decision. In this world, I could create suffering or ease it. Sure, that's true, it is my decision, but you know, I would expect some encouragement in the good direction at this point (later plot events notwithstanding). When major characters don't even care whether you're good or evil, it sure does lessen the importance of that decision. So, morality in Fable is just another part of the toy.
Other than that, I thought the game was somewhat fun.
I've also been antagonistic to Peter Molyneux. He has some strong opinions about how stories in games should work, and after having played Fable and seeing how weak of a story it had, I basically condemned him as an unfortunately popular eccentric.
I've changed my mind. Fable 2 is good. I like Fable 2 a lot. And maybe I don't think Peter Molyneux is quite as crazy as I did.
Don't get me wrong: I still think open-morality is a dead-end road for narrative in games. Frankly, I think that people like Mr. Elrod who are apparently deeply emotionally affected by this game need to read some books and get a more robust personal philosophy. If a player can construct a unique, unauthored narrative out of the simple mechanics and quests of this or other open-world games, then he could probably do the same with a string tied to a stick. We all have our weaknesses, Mr. Elrod. I watch sappy anime. But I don't imbue it with an imaginary quality of depth, even if it sometimes makes me cry.
So why do I like Fable 2? Let me explain. It's incomplete to call Fable 2 an open-morality game. In addition to being an open-morality game, it is a parody of open morality.
I realized this as I was having my character join the Temple of Shadows -- the evil brotherhood of monks who receive benefits from an unnamed evil force by sacrificing innocent villagers. I should have realized it earlier (arguably even back when I played the first Fable game). But this is what made it clear to me that this game was parodying moral decisions. You see, the Dark Monk (or whatever he is) who decides whether you can join the Temple of Shadows gives you a simple task: eat five baby chicks. Including the feathers, bones, and beaks. While they're alive. He mentions that back in his day, they only had to kick a blind beggar's walking stick out from under him, but nowadays they've got more strict entry requirements. As you eat the chicks, one by one, he makes comments indicating his disgust at your actions, at one point crying "You really have no scruples, do you!?"
This scene had me cracking up. It was well-written black humor2, and the subject matter was so over the top that I could have no serious emotional reaction (other than amusement) to my character taking the "evil path" by joining this temple.
Another example of this kind of thing is the Assassin's Guild. The guild will offer you jobs for killing particular (seemingly random) NPCs somewhere in the world. Each contract has the reason for the hit: reasons like the character having bad breath, or the guild needing to maintain its monthly quota.
This is not a dramatic player-generated narrative, people.
And I like Fable 2 more than Oblivion. Sure, when I took that first step out of the dungeon at the beginning of Oblivion I was excited to see the wide-open world awaiting my exploration. But when I actually found things in that big open world, the badly written and unengaging stories really detracted from the experience. I still go back to the game from time to time and enjoy a bit of a romp around the world, but who was really that excited about completing the main story? And what alternatives do we have? Farmer Brown wants you to go into a cave and kill a giant crab. Epic. Fable 2 has its moments of badly written story, but they make up a way smaller portion of the game. That is, less than all of it. Fable 2 has good comedy surrounding a bad story. Oblivion just has the bad story.
I still think Peter Molyneux is probably a bit crazy, but I can respect what he's done a lot more now. I think I conflated his seriousness about story with seriousness of story. It turns out, he is just deadly bloody serious about comedy3.
1: I would say 'to coin a phrase' here, but I can't be bothered to google it up to make sure nobody else has said it yet. Anyway, it's clear that we're going to need more words than just "open-world" to explain the things happening in game development these days. Open-geography, open-morality, open-plot: these are all fairly different, and there are games to which these terms apply independently. Exercise for the reader: categorize Far Cry 2, Oblivion, Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto, Deus Ex, and any Final Fantasy game.
2: Mr. Gijsbers, I understand that interactive dark comedy is difficult for you, and so I recommend you do not play Fable 2 to avoid wildly misinterpreting it.
3: Actually, I don't want to pretend like I'm getting at the True Intended Meaning behind this game. Mr. Molyneux might actually think that his game is a touching piece dealing head-on with hard moral problems, but if he did, he has failed. Oh, look! A stick and string!