“The Year of …………” pt1 – Western RPG

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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”]

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  • Comments (4)
  1. Thanks for yet another great piece.

    I think that once you open the gates to such a degree of liberty, as a person in charge of designing and directing a videogame, you must be sure that the game system you present the player with is able to sustain the choices that he (or she) makes. In Fallout 3, one can clearly perceive that the game system is not designed to react properly to every choice that the player is free to make, resulting in narrative absurdity that disrupt the flow of the game. In short, the game system is not ready for the level of interaction and free will it provides to the player. That is by far more problematic than other superficial issues – say, for instance, the defective character animation and collision detection – since it is a root problem affecting the game from within.

    As for Fable 2, I think one can’t really find a major fault if you assume a condescending position from the beginning: the minute I started playing the game I realized how the general critic and public response to the first Fable episode got to Molyneux and troubled him for the last years: clearly he worked incessantly in order to correct almost every failed promise between the early “Project Ego” and the actual release. So in that sense the game tops perfection, it is an impressive reposition of the first game, now freed from most of the initial blunders. But that in itself also relates to a different problem, as the game is simply too attached to its predecessor, in a way that it does not present the player with the freshness and innovation that was expected after such a long period of time. This sort of design philosophy makes the game competent and functional, true, but also situates it very far away from the realms of novelty and bold creativity.

    Even if these are the two heavyweights that represent the Western RPG genre this year I still don’t feel inclined to accept them as quality games. Personally, from the minute I laid eyes on both games I instantly thought to myself that there could be nothing coming from them that would please me or stimulate my intellectual muscle. Still I think that congratulations are in order, you did succeed at playing both titles, which must have been an excruciating experience at times – was it not?

    • ruicraveirinha
    • January 17th, 2009

    I thoroughly comprehend, and even subscribe (on a certain level) to your criticisms towards both games. And yet, I find it hard to lose my condescending stance towards roleplaying games in general. Perhaps it is because I have grown up with the genre, I have come to dismiss (and even love) certain flaws which plague the genre, overlooking them in favor of what makes the genre unique and captivating as entertainment pieces (and maybe even something more). Just as I will never be able to understand your love for Arcade games, I deem it probable that you’ll never understand my love for RPG’s – a passion that naturally, makes me biased towards certain titles (or is it unbiased, who knows?).

    Your criticisms, while valid and even desirable, cannot be sustained while referenced inside the scope of the genre at its present state. No game has ever come up with the solution to the problem you refer in “Fallout 3” (or else I wouldn’t be writing thesis on that subject), and certainly no game has even achieved the goals of “Project Ego”… not even “Fable II” for that matter. That both games take small, maybe even shy steps, to the solution of the aforementioned issues, is already cause for celebration, as we both know a technologically superior version of “Fallout” and “Fable” would be likely to sell as much as these two titles.

    As to your reference of them being “quality games”, the fact is that it was a bad year for W-RPG’s, with less quantity and quality than I would hope for. I do agree they are not exceptional games, in the sense that they can stimulate your brain to experience something that transcends the normal scope of videogames. Both are low fours in my scale, if you ask me. And yet, I can’t help but finding them works with a strong point of view – one being a vicious satire, the other a mocking parody – which is more than I can say about a vast majority of games, both in and outside the genre in which they’re inserted. And the fact that they are, for a lover of the genre, entertaining (for reasons I have already explained) seals the deal.

    As to your final provocation. Yes, I have to admit feeling a little bored with both titles at times, especially in “Fable II”, but I am well aware that this is a consequence of my lack of patience for certain repetitive tasks – a notion with which the genre is irrevocably bound with.

    Thanks for your comment. You’re gonna love the next post, I’m sure 😉 .

  2. Arcade gaming is one of the three primordial soups in which the concept of electronic games was germinated: the other ones being analog computer systems and home consoles. The latter evolved into intricate structures with the progress of technology, now assuming different forms of modern entertainment. Arcade games, while subject to (and often a result of) the same advancement in technology, remained attached to a highly concentrated level of purity in game design and game play, one that evokes a harmonious nostalgia of the pioneering days when pretty much every game structure existing today was invented and perfected. To overlook such an important part of the videogame phenomena would be unwise, particularly to a videogame player partially forged in those dark alleys, only lit by the glowing screens on the cabinets and the flame in our hearts.

    I can’t wait for your new post, then! Keep it up!

    • Eric
    • September 17th, 2011

    Out of the first 2 fallout games, which did you enjoy the most?

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