“The Year of …………” pt1 – Western RPG
2008 was not very rich in western roleplaying games, in fact, only two are deserving of mentioning: “Fable II”, Peter Molyneux’s much awaited sequel to one of the most controversial RPG’s of recent history, and “Fallout 3”, Bethesda’s reinvention of one of videogames’ most loved and critically acclaimed series. Both show a clear trend in recent roleplaying games – an attempt at merging the Game World Narrative paradigm (which is sustained by a heavy number of side-quests, as in MMORPGs) with choice oriented branching narratives (seen, for example, in “Knights of the Old Republic”). I admit not being a big fan of huge MMORPG-like RPG’s, because they lack dramatic punch in their spread out, fragmented story-lines, and more often than not, are the subject of much repetition, both in gameplay and storytelling mechanisms. However, the Game World Narrative, with its free, go anywhere, do anything approach, can translate notions that are harder to convey using different narrative models – namely, the sense of presence in a virtual world, i.e. the construction of that idea of being in an alternate reality, a constant, coherent environment that sucks you in, and envelops you in a higher form of narrative. As I’ve defended before, adding ‘choice’ to that paradigm is the only form of it coming to full fruition. Game Worlds should be responsive and reply to your actions, just as the real world does, not only because this makes the world feel more credible, but also because it adds to the notion of choice that is so often associated with this “sandbox” approach. Both “Fable 2” and “Fallout 3” try to merge those narrative models, and both bare achievements in their own way.
“Fable II” – Molyneux’s first “Fable” was intent on delivering a game of choice and consequence. However, at the same time it was designed, “Knights of the Republic” advanced that notion far beyond the simplistic design of the first “Fable”. However, there was an interesting thought hidden in “Fable” – the intertwining of a social mini-game, akin to “The Sims”, with standard action RPG trappings. “Fable II” takes that notion and spirals it tenfold, by designing a whole social-economic model that reacts to your choices during the game. Granted, it’s not the most elaborate of social-economic models – people basically respond by liking/fearing the player, and the economy responds with growth/recession accordingly – but basic as that might sound, it does provide a more realistic background to the game’s quests.
The other interesting notion in “Fable 2” is the idea that your moral choices, expressed in quests or through your social-economic behavior do have irreversible consequences in terms of gameplay, thus serving as a more meaningful metaphor for real-life consequences. Specifically, instances in which you’re asked to make sacrifices in order to preserve a set of moral values, such as sacrificing your loved ones or relinquishing hard-earned experience. Though far from the unrelenting consequences of “The Witcher”, it’s still a new approach to the same narrative model that I appreciated.
Another interesting aspect is that, though “Fable II” maintains the crudeness of the first “Fable’s” humor, it has a strong point of view, and a consistency to it that most games lack. “Fable”, as the name so implies, presents itself as a parody to Role Playing Games and fantasy storytelling in general. The game admits this set-up and plays with it through and through: its depiction of characters, absurdly simplistic and without any nuances; the way in which you interact with villagers, by simple expressions, is admittedly a critique to the hollow nature of social interactions; its plot, so in tune with “The Hero’s Journey”, that you’re literally referred to “The Hero”; the lore of the game, brimming with self-parody about the game world; and the charming aesthetic, which purposefully exaggerates the audio-visual ‘motifs’ typically associated with fantasy stories (excessive bloom effects for instance). Even if you do not appreciate the tone of the humor, as I do not, you have to concede to the consistency of Molyneux’s point of view.
“Fallout 3” – Much more so than Molyneux’s work, “Fallout 3” shows that Bethesda understands what it means to immerse a player in a vast game-world: the use of the first person camera, which blurs the barrier between game and player; the greater character flexibility that allows for infinite ways of playing the game, or experiencing the plot (being good or bad); a textually richer storyline (even if a less emotional one) that can be both satirical and stimulating on an intellectual level; and finally, the sheer scale of the game-world, which you can explore freely (as opposed to “Fable II” in which you’re limited to certain closed off areas), making it feel more believable and, of course, engrossing.
The lack of nuisances such as babysitting families or having to work for money like in “Fable II” (and to some extent in “GTA IV”) also help “Fallout 3” stand as more entertaining game. Though its aesthetic is more dry and unappealing than that of “Fable II”, it’s also very consistent – a vicious satire to USA and its vices, brimming with gore and excess… oh, and it has art-deco, a plus in any game’s aesthetic. Though it’s definitely a more classic experience, that upholds many of the tropes associated with old-school RPG’s, “Fallout 3” implements them with an uncompromising love, which makes it a great RPG experience for lovers of the genre.
That being said, both these games can also be seen as disappointing references inside the scope of their genre. Firstly, because neither shows a substantial leap in terms of actual game; both RPG’s are very limited in their improvements over the design models in which they’re based. Secondly, because both of them devise their game worlds using poorly expressive characters, bad dramatic writing, and a lack of aesthetic creativity through and through (remember, they’re both sequels). The fact that they’re the only games in the genre to have come out this year makes me fear that the W-RPG isn’t evolving in any (significant) way, and I do not see any promising game to be released next year (except a hypothetical “The Witcher 2”). Even so, the lack of quantity (and quality) isn’t exasperating, just bittersweet in a year that had so many videogames of sub-par quality.
[Sidenote: I haven’t played “Neverwinter Nights 2 – Storm of Zehir”]