Monday, November 15, 2010

low stakes

As promised, more on Fable 3 – this time tracking closer to Mr Wasteland and Brainy Gamer’s conversations.


Assuming we’re all gamers here – we’ve all faced moral “dilemmas” in games. In Dragon Age, we can sell elves into slavery for profit! In Mass Effect, we can choose to save dangerous space aliens at our own risk! In Mass Effect 2, we can choose to save dangerous space aliens at our own risk!

Those decisions are barely more complicated than choosing if you should save up money for your future or stab your parents to get your inheritance now. Instead of true dilemmas where you have to negotiate a delicate moral balance between following your principles or making sacrifices to fight another day, you’re more often left with the choice between:

(1) Do something that breaks social taboos or violates common sense for immediate benefit, with a murky chance of repercussions that won’t end your game outright

(2) Do something good for no immediate benefit, with a slightly higher chance you’ll be rewarded in other ways (Exp, alignment points, etc. ).


(1) Do something hilariously evil for no purpose for minor gain and with no negative impact whatsoever

(2) Do something moderately-to-hilariously ambiguous-to-benevolent in order to avoid option (1).

And it’s always weighty. It’s always, fate-of-the-world-is-in-your-hands, do-these-civilians-live-or-die.

Fable 3 threw me for a loop by giving me chickens.

At the end of the Chicken Chaser quest, you get a lengthy and hilarious debate between a farmer and his wife about the fate of the runaway chickens (“They could have destroyed the town! Possibly the world!”), ending with the farmer pleading: “You’ve lived among them. You’ve seen their ways. You decide what to do”.

Your options are:

(1) Kill the chickens.

(2) Save the chickens.

Also, this entire time, you’re wearing a chicken suit. Completely absurd. Over-the-top ridiculous.

And I was stuck.

Let the chickens live cooped up, occasionally breaking out and threatening the civilian populace (Well… probably threatening them. They did cluck out a marching song as I led them back, and that’s clear militarism) – or kill the chickens and let the villagers have some peace of mind?

After all, killing chickens isn’t really “evil”. It doesn’t bump up against my moral boundaries. In fact, I do it all the time. I had chicken fingers this week, as well as chicken breast, and chicken stock, and even some eggs!  And this early in the game, I wasn’t committed to a particular ideology. So I stared at the screen and thought about how to choose between mercy-killing and stuffing chickens into captivity.


Fable 3 handed me a choice that was inconsequential, but completely critical to how I would play the rest of the game. It ended up being the point at which I chose the alignment I would keep for the rest of the game. If it were elves in those cages, it would have been a completely different situation – the moral choice would have been stark and quickly decidable . Low-stakes, absurdist humor was able to get my attention, and create an ambiguous moral situation in a way heavy “evil enemy is amassing on the horizon” setups couldn’t. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

high stakes

I want to talk about some of the successes and failures of Fable 3, both from an interface design perspective and a game design perspective. Since this post got long enough, right now I’ll focus on the interface choices and next time I’ll look at the game itself. Before that can happen, we need to establish a few baselines.


Let’s say you’re in Microsoft’s position. You’re facing severe competition from the Wii. Even the Playstation3 has some degree of motion control. What’s to be done?

You can’t just mimic the Wii. First, you’ll never catch up to the wild success of Wii Sports. Second, you can’t fragment the controller tech you already spent years training developers and users on, by introducing a whole new schema. Finally, mimicry is already Sony’s game with the Move. You have to differentiate yourself, you have to take it to the next level. Motion control? Fuck that, body control. Regardless of how it works out, whether the technology has merit - it’s objectively the only business decision you can justify.

Now imagine you’re trying to redesign the RPG,  a genre famous for its menus upon menus. EA tried it with Mass Effect 2– removing the loot for which the genre is known, streamlining the entire process down to a few skill points and rarely-changing weapons loadouts. ME2’s fatal flaw, though, was trading poorly-organized information for virtually no information (just try and tell me how you were supposed  to realize one weapon was ‘better’ than another in the loadout screen).


I think that if your mission is to redesign the RPG, something Molyneux has long held as a goal, you don’t have a lot of choices but to try something big, and bold, and something that will more likely than not fail. It’s not “innovation” if it’s not a risk!

I think Corvus is largely correct that Fable 3’s design decisions were influenced by the up-and-coming Kinect (The press-and-hold-ring gesture is a dead giveaway when you compare it to the hold-your-hand-ring on the Kinect Hub).  The other part of this puzzle is the “natural UI” movement (Bill Braxton of Microsoft Research describes it in practice here – it’s something more easily explained in video than text, by definition). Kinect is, of course, one part of this movement. Fable 3 is also attempting to be part of this movement above and beyond some rumored Kinect integration.

Of course, there are plenty of criticisms to make w/r/t the design choices. Again, Corvus is correct that menus are largely remapped to 3d space. I don’t think this is an incorrect decision – the speed with which you can get to the sanctuary screen, and the d-pad shortcuts prevent this from being an undue burden. Seeing your wardrobe choices organized on mannequins is certainly better than seeing “Left Auroran Men’s Glove, Right Auroran Men’s Glove, Auroran Men’s Pants (Red)” on a menu screen (I haven’t played Fable 2 – I have no idea how it handled this situation).  The singular flaw in implementation is limiting how much shit you can see and interact with at a time.

“Natural UI” doesn’t mean “literally the same motions you would make in real life”, it means “using a metaphor the user is familiar with to make things more convenient”. A wardrobe for clothes is perfect! A weapons rack is perfect! Limiting your entire interaction with a weapons rack to “look at each weapon one-by-one”? Not only is it a pain in the ass, but it ignores the entire purpose of going to the weapons rack – to compare things you own side-by-side. To quickly see what progress you’re making on your upgrades. To check out new items at a glance and look at all the cool shit you own at once. That’s a lot of information you need to see, which the interface isn’t providing for. For all that screen space available, you can’t see two or three-level displays stacked on top of each other? You can’t compare two weapons side by side? Regardless of high aspirations, that’s poor design.