Let's say Hitler was walking down the street one evening, alive and well and a hundred and twenty or so. It just so happens that this street is in the bad part of town, so it comes to no surprise when some socially maladjusted punk comes up, stabs him to death and steals his Social Security check. Was that a moral or immoral act? Most people would agree that killing Hitler is a good thing. But the person who killed him wasn't aware of who he was, and killed him out of greed, which most people would agree is an immoral act. So was the act moral or immoral? Can an act be moral or immoral in and of itself, or must the circumstances around it always be considered? And what if the thug needed the money to save the life of an adorable puppy?
These are the kinds of questions that come up any time the question of absolute versus relative morality is raised, and Fable's resolute failure to address any of them is the best evidence that mainstream videogames just aren't ready to deal with the big issues. After three years in the making, Fable offers a perfect example of a game whose eyes were too big for its stomach.
For all its advertising about a virtual world governed by cause and effect, Fable is really just a terribly unambitious hack and slash game in a bad marriage with a personality simulator. The hack and slash works fairly well-everything else, not so much.
As usual, I'll start with the good. The combat system is light and fun. It's easy to learn and control, with just two attack buttons and one defend button. The monsters and the strategies required to defeat them are varied enough that the fighting doesn't ever feel repetitive.
The flip side of this simplified fighting mechanic is that all of the monsters in the game have to be easy to defeat by a guy wielding a sword. As a result, all of the monsters are much easier to defeat from a distance. This creates de facto difficulty levels. The game is hard when playing as a warrior, easy when playing as an archer/thief, and a living joke when playing as magician. The term "living joke" may sound like I'm being a little harsh, but through the careful use of just four spells, I was able to play through the entire game as a magician without being hurt once by an enemy. Even the final boss who had been so difficult as a warrior took just over a minute to kill with the other two "classes."
Fully exploring the game's stated claim of "never being the same game twice," I played through it three times: once as Pilgrim, the Nation's Nicest Knight©; once as Arrowdodger, the World's Greatest Pie Thief© (he snuck into people's houses, searching for delicious pies); and then as Runemaster, the Nefariously Shirtless Sorcerer©. I was disappointed to discover that the game (other than the vast differences in challenge level) played exactly the same. Same twenty-odd core missions, same ten or so side missions, same exact plot. No matter how good or evil I was, the plot of the game remained inexorably written in stone, as did the reactions of all of the characters to me. I was actually shocked by the almost complete lack of simple branching conversation dependant on whether I was loved or feared by the world at large.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that the game's most vaunted feature, the living, changing world populated by reactive non-player characters (NPCs) is so woefully underdeveloped, and surprisingly shallow. There just wasn't enough to do—sure, in one game, everyone liked me, and in another everyone hated me, but the game wasn't affected in any substantive way. 90 percent of the people in every town are ciphers who just speak in canned voiceover clips, of which there aren't nearly enough to keep most of the characters from sounding exactly alike. It's the "real dialogue" version of the Sims' indistinct blather, and it doesn't do any better a job of making the villagers seem like real people than the odd sounds in that game did.
I can spend as much time as I like developing relationships with the various characters, but there's never any real payoff. Even the relationship-specific section of the game is surprisingly limited. While it's possible to get people to fall in love with the main character, it only seems possible to marry one actual character in the entire game. For some reason wooing her is set up as a standard video game quest, with items to find and people to beat up. So the flirting and marrying skills that I learned in the game can't even be used in the one sub-quest where they would fit. That's just bad game design.
The game's graphics aren't anything special for this generation. They're attractive enough, and the water and magic effects stand out among the rest as particularly eye-catching. Also nice are the filter effects, giving everything a soft glow, especially the muted light that emanates from the white clothes of the truly righteous. However, the graphics aren't good enough to justify the amount of stuttering and framerate issues the game suffered from whenever I entered a complex environment or faced numerous and varied enemies.
Actually, there are enough bugs in the game to suggest that a really unfinished product was rushed onto the market. Just a few hours into the game I found myself trapped inside a footstool I tried to run past while fighting some bandits. There's also one area down by the beach the resolutely refused to load each time I ran past it, requiring me to stand still in the middle of a blotchy nowhere until the game got around to queuing up the beach and wall textures. Add this to the frequent loading times (5-10 seconds to load each area, and the areas can generally be run through in less than thirty seconds) and Fable feels surprisingly unrefined.
One of the game's more interesting and innovative features is the attempt to be more "realistic" by getting rid of character classes. Instead of having specific career courses or leveling up, the game uses age as its way of keeping players from becoming too good at everything without obvious restrictive class guidelines. Sadly, despite the innovative experience structure this creates, with skill-specific experience given every time an enemy is struck with a sword, arrow, or magic, experience that can only be used for advancing that particular skill (for some reason though, it only works in combat situations—using the thieving and lock picking skills that come with improved guile don't generate any Skill experience), but this lack of a specific class structure is also one of the game's biggest handicaps. Since there aren't wizard missions, or warrior mission, or thief missions, every mission has to be beatable by every specialization. As a result, all the missions have to be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, which creates the huge balance issues I mentioned earlier when playing as a archer or magician. It was a valiant attempt to avoid the restrictions of the genre, but because the designers weren't willing to create alternate class guilds or branching skill-specific missions, all of the missions end up feeling incredibly generic, a malady that the game's plot suffers from as well. I don't want to spoil it too much, but suffice it to say that it's tough to care about what happens to a main character who's a complete cipher, and the game doesn't make much effort to involve the player with a scintillating plot or memorable dialogue.
An even bigger problem, ironically, is the game's comparative lack of size. The country of Albion (the game's setting, which bares a stunning resemblance to medieval England and Ireland) is a very small place. There aren't very many individual areas to go to, and the vast majority of them are tiny when compared to the rooms that make up the average 3D Zelda. The far bigger mistake though, is the lack of any dungeons or castles of any kind.
Let me just repeat that: The game Fable features no castles or dungeons of any kind. The closest it comes is the "Hobbe Cave," a completely linear series of caves a mere six rooms big, two of which are optional. Perhaps someone could offer some theory that this incredibly wrongheaded move was an attempt to make the game more realistic. That theoretical argument is maybe the stupidest thing I've ever imagined hearing. There's a reason that 60-70 percent of all videogames feature castles, and it's not a lack of imagination on the part of designers. It's because it works. Because infiltrating the outer areas of a castle, finding keys and battling monsters until the hero has reached the inner sanctum and killed the dragon/wizard/evil king that lived there is a great way to structure a story, and as a result, a great way to structure a game. Besides that, you can't throw a rock in England without hitting a castle, and back in medieval times, there were ten times as many castles as there are now. I mean, castles and dungeons full of traps and treasures are actually the most realistic part of fantasy games.
That's right. I was deeply, personally offended by the lack of castles.
And I haven't even touched on the game's biggest problem: Just how ill conceived the whole morality system is. The game keeps track of how good or bad the main character is based on a system of points. Here's an example of how it works:
Stealing a single apple? Minus 8 alignment points. Killing an innocent trader: 10 points. This means that stealing an apple is four fifths as bad as killing someone who makes their living travelling from village to village. Killing a villager though, subtracts 14 points. Huh. Does that mean that the travelling trader was somehow more deserving of death? And why is stealing an apple considered four times worse than punching someone in the face (2 points)? The bigger problem is that the system of morality points breaks morality down into math. If I, desperate for gold, were to murder four traders, I would be forty morality points down, but then I went on to murder eight bandits, hoping to steal still more gold from their carcasses, I would gain eighty morality points, and be, according to the game, a good person, despite the fact that all of the people were killed for the same immoral reason.
If the game decided all murder was bad, or all murder was morally neutral, I could have accepted that. The way the game is designed actually makes it almost impossible to play the game as an "evil" person. Why is this? Because no matter how evil I became, no matter where I went monsters kept attacking me, forcing me to defend myself. No matter how much petty theft I committed the scales were always balanced out by slaughtering the onslaught of bandits or werewolves or undead that met me in each new area. The only way to become truly evil (or "earn my horns" as it were) was to walk into a sleepy village in the middle of the night and kick down all the doors, systematically slaughtering every single person that lived there. It was long, dirty work, but by the end I was officially a bad person, and, as an interesting and unexpected benefit, all of the town's buildings were up for sale. Isn't evil supposed to be "the easy way" of doing things? Don't people break the law because it's a shortcut? The game makes it so difficult to be evil that it's less of a choice and more of a challenge.
Here's another example of the morality system falling apart: I'm in the woods, escorting two traders through some dangerous territory, and we come across a third trader who has been attacked by werewolves. He asks for protection. The other traders believe that he will soon become a werewolf, and don't want to let him join the group. If I allow him to come along and protect him, that's considered a good deed. If I don't bring him along, though, leaving him to fend for himself (and face certain death in the woods), it's considered a bad deed. As a character, I decided the risk he posed to my charges as a potential werewolf outweighed possibility of helping someone in need. Is that actually evil, or is it just sensible? Had he turned into a werewolf and killed the other traders, would my "good deed" of bringing him along still be a good deed, or should I be punished for the fact that I recklessly risked the lives that had been placed in my hands?
It's refreshing to see a game raise these kinds of moral questions. Which is what makes it so utterly disappointing that the game is in no way deep enough to address the complex issues it raises.
I searched long and hard for a single example of everything wrong with the game's system of morality and renown, and I found it in the "naming" system. Because the incidental non-characters always refer to the main character vocally by name, it would be impossible for players to name him themselves. The game gets around this by offering other titles that can be bought from a herald, who will then spread the word around the country so everyone knows what to call the main character from now on. While that's just as unrealistic as castles are aren't, it's indicative of everything that's wrong with the game's virtual world: the player has too much control over the NPCs. They're far too easy to manipulate through simple actions, and they'll go from hating me to loving me with nothing more than a change of clothes.
Now, imagine how interesting it would be if the NPCs came up with these titles on their own. If the game decided, based on how good or bad a person the player chose to be, what the NPCs would call him. Players could struggle to access the rarer names, like Piemaster and Avatar by doing specific acts and keeping their reputations high enough, and the changes of name that greeted players each time the reached a village would tip them off to just how the NPCs felt about the main character, and act as a constant reminder that his actions were being observed and judged by the people around them. It wouldn't have been that hard to implement (after all, Metal Gear Solid did it), and it would have gone a heck of a long way to establish Albion as a living, breathing world that actually respond to the player's actions.
For a game as ambitious and so long in production as this one to be so clearly unbalanced is more than a little troubling. Its problems are so obvious and myriad that it almost feels as if it had never been play tested at all. It's nice to see designers attempting to reshape genres and revitalize gaming. The vast majority of experiments are failures though, and it's just too bad that no one realized just how big a failure this one was so it could have been killed, or at least fixed before being released to the public.