Game of the year? Very likely it is.
When I was a kid, I played games like The Faery Tale Adventure and imagined how much better they would be, if you could do things like buy houses and ride horses and grow plants and… Well, if only the technology would be better. Later, there were games like the Fallout series, Ultima Underworld, Ultima Online and Dwarf Fortress which pushed bits and pieces of the grand scheme of living a fantasy life forward. Of course, The Sims series did the whole dollhouse part of it very well. Then there was Morrowind, which really, really sucked me in for a fantasy life inside my TV, but left frustratingly many things open for imagination, not really providing a framework in which I could live happily without making up a lot of stuff on my own – like I did as a kid. Now, I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. But as a gamer, I always want more. Along comes Fable II.
Fable II is obviously designed by a group of dreamers much like myself. It is full of disconnected, quirky stuff that is just plain fun to do. All of it works just well enough to keep you in the fantasy.
It would be easy to pick apart some of the details. The navigation system is really inexcusably bad, only saved by the (genius) breadcrumb trail that shows the way towards your next objective. The menu and inventory system are some of the worst offenders in recent memory, only saved by the fact that you rarely need your inventory. The game world doesn’t feel like a huge open world, the areas being quite small and often fenced off to keep you on a path.
But what it does, it does with panache. The game world may not be huge in the way of MMORPGS or Elder Scrolls, although it is actually vast, but it feels alive, unlike so many other virtual worlds. Things change. You change, changing your perspective with yourself.
The various jobs may not be more than dead simple minigames (hit A at the right moment to forge a blade, chop wood or serve ale), but they are important. The jobs only need doing at given times, and your help is always appreciated – the people you’re living with like hard workers. They are completely optional and in part because of the repetitive nature of the jobs, I actually feel like I did a good day’s work when I find that I’ve been at the forge for a whole business day. (In the game world’s accelerated time, naturally.)
The people react to you. Initially this feels overwhelming and too unrealistic to care about. Put on nice clothes and within moments, people are asking you out. Once you learn how everything affects everything else, you begin to understand that there’s a reason you’re being followed by a bunch of obnoxious people: you’re famous and likeable! It’s entirely up to you whether you want to put up with that or not. You can always scare them off if you’d like. Or dress less nicely to avoid attracting attention in the first place. But it’s great that even stuff like being a good guy actually has consequences, even if it means that as a player, you’re irritated by all of the guys following you around, blathering endlessly.
Lionhead was making noise about their newborn’s large morally gray area, instead of the binary good/evil split we’re used to in games. I don’t know about that – it seems that it’s very easy to slip into the good old world-saving, all-good, all-pure way of playing… but keep your selfish little heart open and very quickly you’ll find that you’re not that good, after all. Or at least evil-curious. The game is good in making you feel the consequences of your actions, even if it could be taken even further. Some of the brilliance is when you realize that you’ve been blaming the game for something that’s very intentionally making you feel that way, justly rewarding or punishing your actions. I’m still looking for the promised need to make sacrifices in order to do the right thing, though.
You can say that all of the social stuff (you can marry anyone and have children, and carry STDs) and the real estate business (you can buy every house and business in the game, furnishing them and affecting their value by manipulating the local economy) have nothing to do with the meat of the game, which is supposed to be the very well-written, if not very engaging storyline. I’ve played the game for some 20 hours and I’ve barely begun the main storyline. I am far too busy establishing my business and using my status as a famous guy to get what I want (nice houses and women). The ramifications of my romantic adventures ensure a steadily ongoing social crisis – I’m on my third marriage.
It’s a world you’ll lose yourself in and it’s very, very close to that perfect game I envisioned as a dreamy-eyed kid. Not to say that it is by any means perfect, but there’s a lot to love here, and my twenty years younger self is crying with joy.
(I didn’t even mention the dog! Or the monster design! Or the combat! Or the expressions! Or the condoms!)