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Why Game Companies Need to Hire Real Writers — Seriously

I finished the main adventure in Fable II.  Oh, lordy, what a mess. 

 A WARNING:  THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS POST.

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So I’ve ranted about how the Very Bad Man (hereinafter referred to as VBM) kills your sister and shoots you in the opening 20 minutes of the game because you’ve got Hero blood, or something.  This was supposed to make me care, but since I’d only known this animated person for 20 minutes I really didn’t.

Then ten years pass, and you are a young hero, and creepy gypsy foster mom sends you and your faithful dog off to adventure and recruit a few more heroes.  This is a game with a silent main character as in Dragon Age: Origins, but unlike Dragon Age there isn’t a dialogue wheel.  There is this stupid expression wheel.  Some of the expressions include fart and belch, pelvic thrust, etc.  Keepin’ it classy Fable II.

There’s canned and repeated comments by local people, and as you adventure along people start to randomly love you, designated by a red heart over their head.  At this point you can find out what they like, use the expression wheel, dump a ring on them and get married.  There is no sense of relationship in this at all.  There is this awkward way to have sex with your spouse and eventually you have kids who have identical canned dialogue.

There are a million side quests, and once you’ve cleaned out a nest of bandits they don’t stay gone.  If you want to up your stats you just keep going back to the same part of the road, and kill the bandits, or the Hobbes or the wolf-critters again and again.

The main quest is a little unclear.  Apparently the VBM from the opening sequence is building Sauron’s Tower, and once it’s fully functional something bad will happen.  I gathered that when it was built before it made like an atom bomb and killed everybody.  So why, exactly, does VBM want to do this again?  No clue.

So, you’re supposed to recruit these other heroes to help you defeat VBM.  One of them you get while adventuring around Albion, but the second one you have to take from Sauron’s Tower otherwise known as The Spire.  So you go there, and then the game tells me you are trapped for ten years.  WTF?  The only way you get out is because the Hero you went to rescue is finally able to remove your shock collar, (so in a sense he really rescues you), and then you shoot and stab some guards, and run home to Albion and your family.

More adventuring then you have to get the third Hero who really is a bastard.  (Voiced by Stephen Fry he is one of the more interesting and less cardboard characters.)  Once you actively recruit the final Hero you are on a direct path to the final (cough) thrilling conclusion.

What is missing throughout this entire process is any sense of urgency or growing threat.  All the Mass Effect games have this sense of impending doom.  Same with Dragon Age.  This game — nothing.  Considering you’ve started a family years are passing (including that ten year hiatus in The Spire), you’re busy buying houses and shops and rescuing slaves or taking the evil path and being a slaver, and tending bar and blacksmithing, or taking the evil path and stealing rather than working to make money.  Basically there is no tension in this game.

Last night I went ahead and recruited the final Hero, and then the game was on rails, and nothing could be changed.  Creepy foster mom gathered us all together for a ceremony that’s supposed to provide me with the ultimate weapon.  Instead the VBM shows up and kidnaps the other Heroes (why the Hell did I get them if they never did anything???), he shoots my dog, and tells me he’s killed my wife and kids to wipe out the Hero blood and then he shoots me _again_.

So now my family is dead except I don’t care because there were only canned interactions and an expression wheel so I never had any real connection to them.  And what a missed opportunity.  If they had had a real writer involved the main character would have learned that VBM and his goons were heading toward your family, and you have to try and get there to prevent their murder.  I don’t mind if you fail, but at least give me some excitement and tension.  Involve me in the action.  Don’t have them die off stage, and have the villain give me this news in a throw away line.

Next thing is a dream sequence where you are a kid again with your annoying sister, then you hear music, and you go find this music box that figured in the opening section, and then you are transported to The Spire to face the VBM.

I had spent a lot of time opening Demon Doors so I could get the very best weapons in the game.  I figured the final assault on The Spire would be hellacious.  I was thinking it would be like that final fight in DA, or fighting Saren in ME1, moving through the Collector station in ME2.  In all of those my heart was pounding, and it was really hard.

In Fable II — not so much.  I’m in The Spire.  I walk in where VBM is sucking the life force and power out of the other (useless) Heroes, and I get prompted by the game to hold A and use the music box.  It plays music, and VBM loses his hold on the other Heroes and then I shoot him.  I win.

Then creepy foster mom shows up and tells me (in an ominous tone) that The Spire is _hers_, but she offers me one wish.  To bring back to life all the people who died building Sauron’s Tower, to bring back my dog and my family, or to get a million gold pieces.  Since I had no emotional investment in the family, and since it’s so easy to marry some random person in this game I went with the noble choice.  (I also always end up with a paragon Shepard in ME.)   I’m told I’m the biggest damn hero ever, and the credits rolled.

I finished this game because a few years ago I was hired to write a game.  Alas the game got cancelled, but I became intrigued, and I’m hoping to get the chance again.  So comparing good and bad games is a bit of homework, in addition to the fact I like playing video games.  The one thing that is clear to me is that powerful story with a strong narrative spine is essential.  An understanding of dramatic tension, and how to build suspense is critical.  Character interactions add to the enjoyment.  And that is the key to getting more women to play these games, trust me.  What doesn’t work is a completely open ended game where you just wander around getting gold and hitting bad guys.  Structure is a good thing.  It adds to our enjoyment of a story by involving us more deeply in the action.

So now I’m done.

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