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.

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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.

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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.

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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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