Whiskey Monday: Fable 2’s breadcrumbs

I’m busy during the week. I play games, skim news, annoy editors, brainstorm articles, forget deadlines, make errors, correct errors and send polite emails to accounting departments asking where is my money, could I please have some money, that would be so nice…

But the weekends? The weekends are built from dark days. The Irish city I am currently living in is soggy and stony like you wouldn’t believe. The rain is everywhere; you breathe it in and out. If you put your hand to a clump of moss you can feel pulses coming from a secret heart. The land is angry. Last night I think I heard a swan demand my wallet. I kicked it in the neck and fled.

I’ve taken to sheltering in my rented room for these periods because it is safe, although this means facing the awful bitterness in my head. I intend to use this. During the bad weekends I will take something in a game that makes me furious and write about it while drinking both a little too much and not enough Jameson 12 year. Let’s start with an old one I never got around to writing about at the time. Let’s start with

FABLE 2’S BREADCRUMB TRAIL.

With every review copy of Fable 2 Peter Molyneux chose to include a cover letter explaining that this was a game designed for non-gamers, and asking if we, the press, could review it as such. Fable 2’s most prominent features that made it ‘accessible’ for the non-gamer included the removal of player death (each time the player ‘dies’ they get a new scar and the fight continues) and the inclusion of what Molyneux called a ‘breadcrumb trail’, meaning the player could toggle on and off a trail of floating gold particle effects that would lead them to where they had to go to continue whatever quest they had selected.

fable3

I detest Fable 2. I consider it something of a dick move to make the target audience of your game’s sequel all the people who didn’t buy and enjoy your first game. I hate its infantile sense of humour, and how in every demonstration he gives Molyneux demonstrates the same mindset as that breed of casual gamer who giggles like a naughty child when the game berates them for stripping naked or pointlessly murdering passive characters.

I hate the idiocy of expecting combat to remain exciting when you’re playing with infinite health, and I find insufferable arrogance in the opinion that you can achieve this if you simply scar that player’s avatar with each ‘death’ because it ignores the possibility that the player won’t give a shit about their avatar.

If games are my life then Fable 2 is my own personal pus-soaked gut wound. It embodies the rise of this hateful opinion that the way to make everybody enjoy your game is to remove everything and anything which might piss them off, and then make every single piece of content so blindingly obvious that it cannot escape their attention.

For example, your character’s dog can sniff out buried treasure. He does this some 10 or 20 hundred times throughout the game. Whenever it happens the dog will run off to a patch of dirt and start barking wildly, but just in case you couldn’t fathom this mysterious hint the word “DIG” and a picture of a fucking spade materialises over your dog. Here is the idiocy of this illustrated in bullet points:

  • Dog runs off.
  • Dog starts barking, telling you to dig.
  • The word DIG appears, telling you to dig.
  • An icon showing a spade also appears, making sure you know to dig even if you do not speak whatever language you’re playing the game in.
  • Laboriously you walk to where the game says, equip your spade and watch a digging animation that goes on for too long.
  • Oh you found some buried treasure!
  • Oh, well done!

It’s even worse when your dog finds a treasure chest. The dog barks, runs over to whatever treasure chest might otherwise have escaped your attention and then the word “TREASURE” appears over the dog. You, the player, end up looking at a dog going apeshit at a treasure chest the size of a fridge, above which floats the word “TREASURE” alongside a small white icon of a second treasure chest.

This is not the way you make your game accessible to non-gamers. This is not putting training wheels on a bicycle, this is putting the player in a baby seat mounted on the back of the bicycle while Peter Molyneux rides the bike, his asscrack poking out the top of his jeans the entire time.

fable2

But it’s the breadcrumb trail that really gets to me like fingernails on a blackboard. Of all the hateful missteps this game makes it was always the one I was most scared of spreading like [insert STD here] throughout the games industry during the inevitable cross-germination of ideas that’d come after Fable 2’s success.

Being able to complete almost any task in the game by following the trail like a fish on a hook does a very good job of incinerating immersion, wonder and a sense of achievement. You walk the line. You do not deviate from the line, because deviating from the line will only slow the rate at which you progress. Molyneux’s goal was obviously to create a game where no player, no matter how inexperienced, would ever get lost, yet he either couldn’t see or didn’t care how much less human the this makes the experience.

The breadcrumb trail rips the soul from that glorious intimidation that comes from arriving at a big city, and it flays the fear from walking into a dark forest and not knowing where the monster you were sent to kill might be hiding. You might say a real hero never gets lost (which I’d disagree with anyway), but fuck if real heroes zip from town to monster to reward to dungeon like medieval bicycle couriers.

And you know what? It’s idiotic to try and let everyone be a hero. Not everyone’s cut out for it. My mother is not cut out to be a hero, Peter Molyneux. She binge-drinks, cannot open jars and is scared by foreigners. Did it occur to you, Peter, you turd in the grass, that if you’re putting out a game where my mother can be a hero I might not find playing it quite so heroic? Leave being a hero to those of us who want it badly enough to spend £200 on a game system and £35 on your Goddamn game.

And don’t you DARE TELL ME I “Don’t have to use it!!”. Doing that is a useless platitude which does nothing but cooly demonstrate an ignorance of how games work. For example, I enjoy the difficulty of taxing action games like Devil May Cry and the new Ninja Gaidens, but if you put a button in there that instantly regenerates your health I’m going to use it. I enjoyed the lack of fast travel in Morrowind, but if it had been an option available on the map I’d have used it.

Likewise, fuck if I’m spending two minutes fumbling around for where to go in Fable 2 when the answer is a menu option away, especially when the game has been developed without half as much care for dropping hints as to where you have to go because the developers knew the breadcrumb trail would always be there.

fable1

Alright, I’m done. I’m not always such an ornery bastard, you know. Here’s my new Eurogamer article cheering on a few examples of anti-breadcrumb level design, levels which have incredible success deliberately confusing the player. Ooh, and there’s my Steambot Chronicles retrospective! It came out pretty good! Although I guess I get my teeth into Harvest Moon in the fourth paragraph so maybe it’s not such a good example.

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Comments

  1. Quinns, one day we shall meet.

    And that day you shall learn you are WRONG about Fable II.

    Or at least that you appear to have overlooked everything that is amazing about it.

    • You will have to go through me first. Fable II is ass. The HUD is ass, the map is ass, the sense of humor is ass, the developer’s constant non-optional hand-holding condescension is ass, not being able to talk is ass, the combat is ass, and the story is really, really ass.

      Quinns, if you haven’t read it, you may enjoy this guy’s serious of harsh and well-merited posts on why the themes and story of Fable II suck. It really made me think – what kind of a jerk writes this stuff? Note that this is only one of five posts on the subject:

      http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=2105

      It really hacks me off because it’s not like we have so many light-hearted fantasy games to choose from when we really, dearly want to indulge in a little escapism.

      • Mm! That Shamus Young article makes for a really good read. There’s so much here that explains my horrible anger.

        (Jesse you’re going to have to stop before you become my favourite and all the other commenters beat you up round the back of the site.)

  2. Quinns! My god! It’s like you’re the one reviewer who was playing the same Fable 2 that I was! Although the bread crumb trail was annoying for me, at least it got the game out of the way. Now the mini games, those were the real crapshoot. Seriously, I’m a hero. I’m saving the goddamn world WHICH YOUR WEAPON SHOP EXISTS IN. Why in hells name do I have to do a shitty quick time event to get money from you so I can spend the money which I just earned from you on weapons which I just made? Why I can’t I just stab said shop keeper in the face and take my weapons? Fallout 3 I miss you so.

    Oh. And the marriage mechanics. Goddamn, what was he thinking? Once, when everyone in generic port town loved me (which they INEVITABLY will if you even so much as give them a thumbs up) I tried to marry someone for the mysoginism achievement (yeah, that ones reaaally tasteful by the by), when someone walk in front of the person I wanted to marry and I got betrothed to them instead. I was fine with that until I looked at his name, which was Barry the Prostitute. Barry the freakin’ prostitute. And then my current wife wandered up and was perfectly okay with my prostitute husband. Retardedly surreal. Until I snapped and pulled out my broadsowrd to murder everyone in the town at which point Barry, who had the trait “turned on by swords” (probably), said something like “Ooooh yeah, real mean, big boy” in his slackjawed cockney accent before I stuck him. I was in hysterics for around 5 minutes. Amazing social mechanics those, huh?

    Oh yeah, just thought I’d add this in about the blacksmithing thing, how utterly hammered would you have to be to have to think about hitting a lump of iron with a hammer? “Whoa man, which one of the four swords was I supposed to be hitting?” Maybe the green meter is getting smaller because he’s about to pass out… Man, so many things I’d ask Molyneux if I could.

  3. Bloody hell. So much hatred towards a game that almost single handedly restored my faith in the future of the RPG I just find astonding. I don’t even know where to begin.

    The obvious response is “No, I guess you are right. You are not the target audience for Fable II” but that seems abit weak. You are a rather clever chap and this IS a game that tries to make huge strides foward for games as an art-form, so the game really shouldn’t be THIS negative an experiance for you. Or anyone, I guess.

    The beauty of Fable II, or at least what Fable II is aspiring to be and sometimes, just sometimes manages to pull of beautifully, is just what was written with review copies of the game. Its not a game for games. Its a game where you CAN save the world, but its not necessary. If you are the kind of person that isn’t obsessively hell-bent on FINISHING THE GAME, ie, someone who is not yet conditioned to see a game as a series of challenges that have to be overcome, a path where we must at every point exploit every bit of design to try and BEAT the game. The premise of Fable II is that when you see something in the game, a character, a house, you have an idea that maybe that could be your character’s future and not the tired old “save the world story”, its a game that lets you persue that. Its the same philosophy that is behind Morrowind, just applied to a much more narrow world and far more fully realised. The expressions system, that everything you ever do is -noticed- by NPCs is the most exciting thing I can remember in the last few years of RPGs. Its like what Half-Life 2’s NPCs alluded to but were only simulating. Its exploring an entire different avenue of what RPGs, of what a “saving the world game” could be.
    I agree that not all of this is pulled off perfectly, there are bugs and what was intended to be elegant sometimes comes off as ham-fisted or patronising, but you have to admire what Fable II was trying to be.
    And about the breadcrumbs, lets be honest here. Saving the world in a video game is NOTHING AT ALL like saving any real world. If you really actually wanted to feel like you were achiving something great, you should go out and..do it. When we are after the escapism/fantasy that this scienario in games provides we all want things to be simplified to a level where we are capable of it, albeit streached somewhat.
    This is just a game that is thinking about the limits and constaints of a different sort of gamer.
    To some their Godhands, to others their Fable IIs.

    • I could find Morrowind immersive (it’s one of my all-time favorites) but not this. I love the idea of what Fable II is trying to be, but it’s too shallow for me (among other things – see Shamus Young articles linked to above – good lord what is the deal with Reaver??? etc.). Seriously though, I’m glad you liked it. I wish I were calibrated so that I had enjoyed it more.

      Shamus, by the way, loves the mechanics, the side stories, and overall feeling of the game, and only loathes the story. Whereas I dislike the story and found the rest of the game…um…poorly designed.

      You know what IS a good ‘living world’/immersive game, in my opinion? Steambot Chronicles. Eurogamer just did a little retrospective on it this last week. If you have a PS2 and liked Fable II, or what Fable II was trying to achieve, you might look it up.

  4. Um, one bit of revisionism, you are of course right about the “Being lost” verses “breadcrumbs”. Ideally Fable II should’ve had at least one scary forest were the breadcrumbs go away. Maybe they could try some faux Ocarina of Time’s Lost Forest buisness, but in the end saving the poor gamer who has become totally lost, possibly rewarding the player who figured out how to navigate the forest on their own. Only problem being if a “gamer” knew that they’d be an escape clause if they failed too much they wouldn’t bother, any knowledge of how that system worked would kill the excitement for the savvy gamer. That said they are cynical spoiler reading wankers anyway.

  5. Adventurous Putty says:

    I’ve always been of the opinion that Fable 2 is only worth playing for the last hour or so of the main storyline. They do something interesting I’m not sure other games with the “LOL MORAL CHOICE” gimmick do, and it’s something of a chin-scratcher — in a good way.

  6. Schweinhund says:

    Yes, remember the “poor gamer”. Just like thrillers should recap the whole story all 5 fucking minutes so the “poor viewer” doesn’t get confused. After all, the consumer wants to HAVE FUN! FUN FUN! IT’S FUN TO BE TREATED LIKE A FUCKING IDIOT! HA! HA! FUN!

    God, I miss the time when gaming was only for people who could be trusted with operating DOS.

  7. You know what, Quinns? I disagree.

    I’m a gamer. I’ve been playing games for over 20 years (yikes!) in almost all genres. I complete 95% of games I start…and I enjoyed Fable 2. I did not watch a single minute of Molyneux footage or get a cover letter; and I didn’t care.

    As a busy guy, I found F2 to be a fun way to relax for an hour after work, or for three or four hour stretches on the weekend. It was not perfect (no real conversations, complete lack of armor, etc.) but it was fun.

    Yes, the mini games are slightly stupid, but they’re so completely optional I used none of them bu the smithy one after learning of their existence. I could bot even be bothered to try the gambling games.

    While there was no death, I still tried by best in combat, maybe it’s just a matter of personal choice. Is it that different than Bioshock’s vita-chambers, by the way?

    Considering my gaming habits, I found the glowing trail (and quick travel) a blessing. I can’t remember the exact spots in the forest of stuff after a week of not playing! In fact, it was very annoying to hunt stuff down on the maps that was “off the breadcrumb trail”, such as particular shops in Bowerstone, or magic doors.
    True, if it were a PC game you could have had a map to scribble stuff on, but given the medium, I found it an acceptable replacement, especially as the maps were really uninformative and running around in the forests could get me completely tuned around.
    I found the glowing trail allowed me to explore as much as I wanted and always be able to quickly return to going where I wanted.

    While the dog’s treasure pointing was a bit excessive, as you mention, I found the treasure chests such a minor interest that I’m grateful I didn’t have to run around searching for the wooden buggers. I also found that the automatic switching to the spade did not always work well.

    What I did find frustrating is that while the hero could leap off of ledges and over fences, he found other, tiny, obstacles completely impassable, such as staircase sides, wooden decks, small stones and so on.

    to end this rambling mess, a quick anecdote – My character married, twice, to same-sex partners, in two different towns. A few days after my second marriage, I was given a blackmail note demanding money or my wives would learn about each other. I found it a perfectly logical thing to happen in this fantasy GTA-meets-Sims game. It ended in blood and divorce, of course, but hey, it was fun while it lasted.

    • I’m a busy guy too. Busy with GAMES. And I say THIS:

      I do understand how, to someone with your gaming habits, Fable 2’s easy-going design might be much appreciated. But I have too much faith and love for this medium to praise a game for choosing accessibility over immersion. I play games to be tested, punished and rewarded. I play games to lose myself in them utterly, before finally returning to real life with parts of myself missing.

      I don’t play games to unwind, and fuck anybody who does! Me and my people play games to get wound up.

      • so, presumably, you relax by filling out tax forms or some such benign distraction.

        Wait until you have kids, Quinn, just you wait…

        It just occurred to me that my (current, just current) gaming habits also make me enjoy King’s Bounty more, as the edge is taken of the repetitiveness of the tactical combat when it’s done once a week.

      • ughh, i play games to unwind, but i expect to be immersed, i found the constant berating of the games “help” would take me out of the games world entirely, and i loved fable 1 this shit was disappointing, and i felt like the game thought i was a stupid ass mother fucker with the way it helped me with every little thing

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