Fable 3 and the slow, painful death of interesting gameplay

A few weeks ago I fired up Fable 3 for the first time. It came with the XBOX 360 my wife and I got for our wedding.* I’d not had any real desire to seek out a Fable game in the past, but since this one came for free I thought I’d give it a shot. I thought I might even give playing a game as an evil character a go. Fable, so I though, was all about good vs. evil and forging your own path.

Well, I might have discovered that I don’t really do evil characters all that well. Maybe. Truth be told, I got nowhere trying to answer that question. Fable 3, for all its self-proclaimed (assumed?) non-linearity and its posturing as a single-player steampunk Second Life, gives you only the most minuscule hints of power over your character’s fate. And then, like a crazy clown wielding a wet and slightly rancid fish, it hits you in the face with its linearity over and over again and begs you to like it. You choose your mission (if it’s not chosen for you) then you follow a line to your goal. You literally follow a line. It glows and you follow it, desperately hoping the corner of your eye distracts you towards some enthrallingly-growing grass or some paint you can watch dry.

Perhaps, despite not really expecting anything from this game, I was expecting too much. I understand that games aren’t just made for gamers these days, and that a growing industry can’t alienate its newest devotees. But I really feel like Fable 3 missed all possible targets. This is not a childrens’ game — it’s rated MA15+ in Australia for “strong sexual references and violence”. But you can’t view its goofiness and cartoon ambiance as a wholly aesthetic choice when the delivery lacks any maturity. The themes of civil unrest and the power over life and death are jarring in their disparity to the child-like initial game activities (getting dressed to go outside, shaking people’s hands, making friends); the disparity is so inelegant that it couldn’t be part of the conceit. This game feels clumsy, almost rude, as it asks you to make decisions over people’s lives before it’s finished introducing itself. Even more so as you realise the first few hours of gameplay are a drawn-out, potentially never-ending tutorial. You’re left feeling infantile and inept, following a stupid gold line, wearing a chicken suit and shouldering an unavoidable blood guilt.

A game for children with adult themes, or a game for adults with a child-like heart? Neither, just a game that failed. Is this the way the game industry is going? Is it going to become the game tutorial industry, churning out games which end at the precise moment you learn how to play them? Will challenging gameplay be dropped in favour of the boring-but-easy in the hope that numb time fillers net more revenue than games which are actually games? If so, count me out. I’ll go study something interesting like why “minim” is spelled with two i’s or why Bach wasn’t born in Venezuela. Speaking of which, Fable 3‘s music sucks. It has some orchestral panache but it’s excessively dramatic outside of fight scenes or main plot branches, crippling its narrative ability and making you wish it wasn’t there.

The one good thing I found about this game was that you can win fights using only magic at an early stage. Oh, and it has a bit of an all-star voice cast, with cool people like John Cleese, Zoë Wanamaker, Stephen Fry and Simon Pegg (I didn’t hear the last two but Wikipedia knows all)… though that kind of reminds me, yet again, of how cool people sometimes lend their awesome talents to truly unworthy creations.

(Ponderings on the theme of “pointing things out with music” will return once I’ve forgotten Fable 3 enough to want to play games again. Getting this off my chest should have helped.)

*Thanks all!