Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Communication and Interaction in Fable 2

It has been far too long since I have last written a blog entry here. I have finally sat down to revive this blog with a post about a game that has been out for a couple of years: Lionhead Studio's Fable 2. I finally got around to playing it for the first time over the last week, and it was actually a fair bit better than I was expecting based on some reviews I have read about it. Unfortunately, one of the key selling points of the game, the ability to interact with the common characters throughout the world to earn their love or their fear, just fell flat. In practice, the lack of any real communication and the ability to only interact with faceless NPCs devoid of characterization makes it feel like the whole game world, including the player's own character, feel empty and lifeless. Fable 2 doesn't create the feeling that there are actual relationships between characters.

The fundamental problem with Fable 2's interaction is that it is impossible to actually talk to people; all you can do is use emotes called Expressions to get vague ideas across. Every NPC in the game-world seems to have their own base impression of the hero based on a combination of his renown (a value built up by doing quests), his alignment, and his appearance. From there, it is possible to further manipulate the impressions of the NPCs by taking various action, primarily Expressions, around them. For example you can pose heroically to impress people. NPCs will then occasionally make voice-acted comments as the hero walks by based on their personality traits and current impressions of the hero. However, at no point in this process do the NPCs and the hero actually interact in any significant way. It just feels like the player and the game-world are just talking at each other rather than engaging in anything substantial. It isn't even possible to tell which specific man or woman is actually doing the talking when they are in a crowd.

The biggest reason this interaction feels so hollow is because the people filling the game world really are hollow and lifeless. They are nothing more than names pasted onto three to six character personality traits, a handful of likes and dislikes, a generic character model, and a generic voice. I wouldn't be surprised if most of them where cranked out by a random NPC generator program. Furthermore, all of those statistics are devoted to determining how the NPC reacts to the hero performing any given Expression. All these NPCs are capable of is wandering around and reacting to Expressions. At the same time, none of them really stand out at all. They have no interesting personalities, they all look the same, and, worst of all, they are all equally frivolous in their emotions. Just by having my hero put on some nice clothes, half a city fell in love with my hero. Why should the player even care what the NPCs think of the hero when the NPCs are nothing more than generic background characters?

There are several honestly interesting characters in the game who are part of the story and the games various quests, such as Barnum, Hannah, and Garth. Unfortunately, these few interesting characters are completely segregated from any interaction. They generally have no reactions to the hero performing Expressions nearby, and they can't even be killed (one quest giver still offered me a job after I shot him in the head a couple dozen times). You can't even lock onto them to check their stats like you can with every other character in the game. It is really frustration that the only characters in the game that I actually care about don't really care much about my character.

The whole problem is compounded by the limitations of the Expressions. The Expressions are grouped based on how they influence people, and these groups include Flirty, Scary, Rude, and Fun. Pretty much all of the Expressions represent conscious performances put on by the hero to influence people's emotions and impressions. What is missing are Expressions that actually express the hero's own emotions. For example, it is possible to point and laugh at people to piss them off or humiliate them, but there is no crying emote to express sadness. This actually comes up in the handful of cutscenes where the player is asked to use Expressions to interact with story characters, such as when the player is attending the funeral of a slain monk. Without the ability to actually express the hero's own emotions, it is nearly impossible to engage in anything resembling a conversation. While the game does offer up Expressions for the player to use in such situations, trying to figure out the meaning of any given Expression in the scene's context is often very difficult. As such, the player's own character feels just as hollow and lifeless as the NPCs filling the world.

In the end, I never really bothered interacting with the NPCs of Fable 2 much during my go through. The game didn't give me much real motivation to do so. The NPCs and Expressions just felt too much like a mechanical puzzle to be cracked than anything with actual emotional payoff. In order to succeed with this kind of thing, you need to breathe life into the NPCs and treat them like actual characters, not just set-pieces.

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