Friday, June 10, 2011

Fable: The Journey at E3, Peter Molyneux's Legacy and Controversy as a Designer.

Wrapping up a week of E3 coverage, I've got one final article about video games, and then it is back to normal with gaming articles popping up now and again instead of every single day. Microsoft had the most tepid of showings of the big three console manufacturers, mostly pitching Kinect-based titles and sequels. Like clockwork, Peter Molyneux of Lionhead Studios trotted out in order to announce... a sequel, that uses Kinect for the Xbox 360. Now, it is easy to hate on Molyneux, and a lot of geeks are at the moment. Since Black and White, and throughout the development of the Fable franchise, he's caught a bad rap for exaggerating features and engaging in wild hyperbole about upcoming games, to the disappointment of fans when the titles hit shelves. The games are good, just not the revolutionary titles created through his overhyping. Let's not forget, however, that the man has been one of the most influential designers in video gaming, and was a titan in the industry before he became a target for nerds to vent their rage upon.

We were promised a world where every decision mattered. What we got was... kicking chickens.

Okay, before I get into trying to restore the image of one of the more vilified game designers through careful application of a history lesson, I'd be remiss in not talking about the elephant in the living room. The Fable franchise is a series of okay action-RPGs with elements like property and business ownership, marriage and family, and choices based on “good” or “evil” actions. I followed the development of the original game, bought into the hype and bought Fable for Xbox on launch day. Hoo boy, was I disappointed. So many features on the cutting room floor. Subplots set up and never paid off in the story. All these things you could do outside of completing quests, but never any real reason given to want to do them. I briefly played the two sequels, saw an improved (but still flawed) story, prettier graphics and some of the same problems. Most of what distinguishes the game from any other action-RPG is superfluous content that doesn't feel like it belongs there. Will Fable: The Journey be any different, or is it more of the same, with Kinect support as the newest gimmick?

Whew, that's out of the way. I want to believe in Fable: The Journey, but I fear that I know better. The reason so many geeks hate on Molyneux is tied to Fable. Black and White (which I liked, personally) had features missing or changed, but it was good enough that all would have been forgiven, until gamers felt betrayed and cheated by Fable, then the minor issues with Black and White were looked back on with a less favorable set of eyes. Unfortunately, the memories of gamers with regard to this single designer don't extend back far enough, and recent games have meant that his earlier triumphs are all but forgotten. I am, of course, speaking about his time with Bullfrog Studios.

Theme Park, one of the most imitated games from Bullfrog, Molyneux was Project Lead.

A short list of the best of Peter Molyneux's time at Bullfrog:

  • Populous (1989): One of the very first, and still probably the best of all the “God-sim” games, players guide a civilization to build, develop and worship while expanding their culture and reproducing in order to conquer an enemy civilization. The terrain was deformable, and many godlike powers including miracles and plagues were at the player's disposal.
  • Syndicate (1993): A top-down isometric strategy game set in a corporate dystopia with cyberpunk elements. Control of cybernetic agents acting as assassins, recruiters (through drugs and mind control) and defenders of the corporate Syndicate with a detailed story, Syndicate influenced the design of many Real Time Strategy games that followed it.
  • Theme Park (1994): The original “Tycoon”-style business simulator game, imitated countless times using different businesses as the focus (or the same, in the case of Rollercoaster Tycoon), Theme Park put the player in the hands of a combination designer/owner of an Amusement Park, managing rides, concession stands, park employees and tickets/promotions to build and profit by keeping guests happy and spending money.
  • Magic Carpet (1994): Technically ahead of its time at release, Magic Carpet was a 3D first-person action/RPG with an Arabian Nights flavor. Players controlled a wizard who could fly around a landscape fighting monsters, accumulating power to learn stronger magics and fight rival magic users with spells. Unique for the time were the real-time terrain-changing/destroying effects possible with the magics, and the deformable/destructible terrain lent toward the beefy system requirements that held the game back as a commercial hit.
  • Dungeon Keeper (1997): Another simulation game in a style later imitated by others, Dungeon Keeper took traditional roleplaying video games featuring heroes invading dungeons to slay creatures and collect treasure, and turned the genre on its ear. Players control the evil “Dungeon Keeper”, training monsters, digging rooms, setting traps and piling up treasure to lure adventurers to their doom.
Dungeon Keeper was hilarious, you had to keep monsters happy, trained, equipped and fed.

I'd love to see some of the boundless creativity and innovation from Molyneux's early career return to modern gaming, and I do think that the focus on where some of the Lionhead titles have fallen short of expectations have set him up for criticism. The tech demo for Microsoft's Kinect, “Milo” which so many people hoped would be a full game shows that the potential is still there, the studio just needs to execute on traditional strengths. I'd welcome a return to the simulation genre, pushing new technologies and new ideas. I liked some of the things about Fable, but I think I, like so many others, are hoping so much for the next Syndicate or Theme Park, that it is easy to forget about those early great games and ask “What have you done for me lately?” in our disappointment.

The games get prettier, sure... but can they recapture what made Peter Molyneux a great designer? 

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Monty said...

Sold out to Microsoft...that's what, I'm afraid...

Alpha said...

I think he ran out of fucks to give.

RedHeadRob said...

Eh, its a reason to get the kinect, more than anything else I've seen at any rate.

Zombie Ad said...

He'll surprise us once again eventually, once the technology leapfrogs and they get it 'right'

Moobeat said...

I remember the first batch of hollow promises he made

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