Peter Molyneux on Fable III
What is Fable III? We know it's the third game in Lionhead's popular adventure franchise. We know it's got videogame visionary Peter Molyneux powering its development. We know it once again unfolds across the fictitious kingdom of Albion. And we know it's built around the idea of providing players with a better sense of gameplay freedom. But, beyond being in the dark regarding the second half of Fable III's narrative, what we don't know is whether Lionhead's latest creation is a sandbox third-person action adventure or a more traditional RPG.
After spending a little time with Molyneux during a roundtable presentation at Gamescom 2010, we've come to see Fable III as neither RPG nor third-person action adventure - at least not in the strictest of terms. Specifically, while the game has contributing elements plucked from both popular genres, Molyneux's ambition to give players a palette of gameplay attributes with which to paint their own individual experience has seemingly left Fable III without a definite identity. But that's not a bad thing.
If the roundtable had a 'big reveal' it centred on the game's apparent lack of a conventional RPG experience system and how Lionhead has strived to fill the void left behind whilst also treading carefully to appease established Fable fans and attract those who've never before wandered the sprawling realm of Albion.
"Firstly, about the story, this is all about you becoming King and ruling a kingdom," opened a strangely restrained Molyneux. "And to make that powerful and impactful and meaningful, the first act of the game is all about you starting out with no one that believes in you and gradually getting people to follow you."
"Followers are very important," he added regarding a new system that dictates when the player can launch their in-game revolution. "Gradually people will follow you and you'll have more people that believe in you. And when you've got enough followers you'll be able to take on this evil tyrant King who's doing these unspeakably terrible things to the beautiful world of Albion."
"You take him out, kill the bad guy, and then become King yourself," the Lionhead boss explained above the din coming from the nearby Halo: Reach demo booth. "And then you decide what sort of kingdom Albion is going to be. Are you going to be an even worse tyrant, are you going to try to be a better person. All the promises you have made on the journey to becoming King - just like those that politicians make on the journey to becoming Prime Ministers or chancellors or whatever - how many of those promises are you going to keep?"
Molyneux then teased us by hinting at a "big drama" that will be unveiled to the player after they've assumed Albion's throne. Although unwilling to be pressed into revealing any concrete narrative information, we were left only with Molyneux's cast iron belief that it's "a very interesting story to tell."
The in-game demo accompanying the roundtable opened in a lush and green environment, typical to Albion's established design but noticeably richer in terms of fidelity and detail. Described by Molyneux as a "classic Fable quest," we find the hero beneath the imposing walls of a renegade outpost, sent there on an infiltration mission to kill the renegade leader secreted within. But, rather than being just a standard assassination quest, the person responsible for assigning the mission is willing to gift the player with 100,000 followers upon completion. However, with the camp's gates firmly closed and seemingly no clear way in, Molyneux then announced that "we need a disguise," and promptly introduced the first of three innovations: The Sanctuary.
"The trouble with RPGs and action adventure games is what happens when you press the Start button," he described. "Suddenly the whole world goes to sleep, some abstract 2D thing comes up [on screen], and you're left being sucked out of the world."
In order to counter that sensation of being sent into some kind of disconnected limbo state, Lionhead has created the in-game and interactive Sanctuary and tied it to the control pad's Start button.
Resembling opulent private chambers certainly worthy of royalty - and watched over by a stiff-collared personal butler (John Cleese) - The Sanctuary is available from early in the game and serves as a multi-purpose portal enabling the player to quickly change clothes, select weapons, access the world map, and more. Clearly taking the place of the tactical pause screen so often utilised in standard RPG titles, The Sanctuary is accessible from any point within the game and at any time, even during the heat of combat.
Duly clad in an appropriate renegade disguise with which to sneak unnoticed through the camp's gates, Molyneux quickly shunted us on to the second of the roundtable's promised innovations before heading back to the game, shifting focus to the wealth of melee, ranged and magical weapons lining the walls of The Sanctuary's armoury.
"We had this moment during the weapons meeting where we were trying to think of 200 new weapons for Fable III, and we were just bored," he began. "And that's when we realised, "actually the best person to make the weapons for Fable III is the person playing the game." So we thought about players crafting their own weapons, we liked that idea. And what we realised is, the way you craft the weapons should be a reflection of how you fight."
"For example, every sword stroke you take, your weapon will slowly change to reflect what sort of fighter you are. So your weapon will develop along with you and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of combinations. The hilt can change, the blade can change, the curvature can change, the length can change, all based upon the way you use the controller."
Molyneux then went into some detail regarding how button combinations, the frequency of button presses and how long combat buttons are held all contribute to how each unique weapon is sculpted. For example, quick slashes prompted by repeatedly tapping the melee button will garner a manoeuvrable and lightweight blade, while long and heavy presses will result in a more powerful but cumbersome sword.
The same rules of influence also govern the evolution of ranged weapons, which take on different ballistic attributes based on how the player wields them in combat. While obvious aesthetic changes to melee weapons clearly denote in-game effects, the use of ranged weaponry delivers increased rates of fire, focused fire, and projectile volleys that spread across wide areas.
He also explained that players are not limited in their creative opportunities when it comes to filling out The Sanctuary's expansive armoury. Specifically, once a player is either happy with a weapon's evolution (or perhaps just fancies a change) they can shelve it and start all over again with a new weapon - thus entering into a crafting cycle that will eventually lead to a stored plethora of deadly armaments fit for almost any in-game situation.
"I love the fact that this morphing applies to swords, and hammers, and guns, and rifles and magic gauntlets," enthused Molyneux. "Your combat is as unique as you are. You can develop your combat and the game will develop around that. That's more about role playing for me than anything else."
At this point we asked Molyneux whether the evolving weapons system also affects the appearance and abilities of the player's faithful dog, which makes a welcome return in Fable III and could also be labelled as a weapon given the supporting role of man's best friend during combat.
"We had a big problem with the dog," he explained. "We really considered giving him super powers: a super bark, super hearing, super smell, and super attacks. Then we realised: 'What the hell are were doing? He's just a dog." And he's still just a dog [in Fable III]."
The third innovation to be showcased during the roundtable - and something that Lionhead had not revealed prior to Gamescom - was how Fable III will deal with that most integral of RPG elements, levelling up. Gauged upon what we saw from here onwards, if Molyneux can deliver then the promise of complete gameplay freedom will be fulfilled and Fable III might be heading for unequivocal success.
"Firstly, we all love levelling up in games. You know, role-playing games, levelling up, that's what it's all about for me, man. But here's the reality of the situation - let's be honest - who are we kidding? We're not levelling up," offered Molyneux, working up a head of steam for the first time in the session.
"You go up a level and, guess what, it's about combat, because the enemies you fight they go up a level too. So you actually stay the same level the whole time. The second thing about levelling up is that it never feeds into the story. You've got this levelling up system over here and the story over there, the two don't ever mix. The third thing about levelling up is you've got no sense of where you're going - level 20 or level 30, there's no meaning to it."
Jumping up before the demo screen, Molyneux proudly revealed The Journey to Rule, an in-game set of locked gates interspersed along a winding path that leads up to a grand castle. An interactive representation of progress that reinvents the levelling up system, each gate along The Journey to Rule is accessed by amassing followers and, when the final gate is reached, the player is ready to launch their revolution against the tyrannical King.
Adding another intriguing layer of levelling to the path, each section of The Journey to Rule contains a selection of locked treasure chests, which the player can open by cashing in their game-world currency. Chests along the left side of the path are filled with gameplay features related to the world, exploration, and narrative, while those on the right side offer up a host of combat elements - any and all of which can be integrated into the experience to, quite literally, help the player choose their own adventure.
"We had this impossible task when coming to design Fable III," Molyneux explained. "Some people loved the combat in Fable II, other people hated it. Some people loved the simulation and the trivia of wandering around the world and exploring it, other people hated it. We were conflicted by this, and that's when we realised, it's your hero, your weapons, your world, why don't we make it your game? Why don't we allow you to choose what Fable III is?"
"So, in each one of these chests, as you go through the levels, is a game feature. [For example, one contains] the friend expression pack, if you buy that you can earn followers by making friends with people. There are other chests [that allow the player] to get married, have children, buy houses, run businesses, and do jobs."
"I love the idea that it's you that decides what Fable is, not me. It's you that decides what your weapon is, not me. It's you that decides what your kingdom is, not me. And that freedom, but paced out through this level-based system, really works."
Asked when we'll see Kinect motion control tied to Fable III, Molyneux did his utmost to dance around the question while working hard to profess his love for Microsoft's dual-camera technology and also Lionhead's newest game.
"I love Kinect. And this is me as a designer, forget that I'm employed by Microsoft, but I do sincerely truly love Kinect. It's a very, very different world. It feels like when the mouse was invented for the PC. You know, there was before the mouse, there was after the mouse. I love Kinect. I love Fable III."
"But, guess what, when you invent something as new and different as Kinect, [integration is] going to take longer than six months. That's your answer. We could have done some trivial gimmicky thing for Fable III, but I think if we're going to do something with Kinect and Fable it should be brilliant. It should be as good as it can be."
When pressed as to whether we're going to see Kinect functionality integrated into Fable III some time after the game's retail release, Molyneux would only cannily reiterate: "I love Kinect. I love Fable III."
Molyneux's diplomatic vagueness aside, we left the roundtable with high hopes for Fable III. While we're suitably enthralled by The Sanctuary, the uniquely evolving weapons, and the 'choose your own adventure' levelling system, there are plenty of other plus points that suggest Lionhead's latest could well be its best. Character models have been refined, and animation - particularly during combat - is significantly more fluid, weighty, and realistic. The world of Albion also looks noticeably enriched while exuding a slightly darker quality than in previous Fable offerings.
There's still plenty of time left before Fable III hits retail (October 26) but the build we saw at Gamescom seemed impressively stable and, to be honest, it was difficult not to fall beneath its fantasy spell. By his own admission, Lionhead's boss has been holding back somewhat during the creation of Fable III, working hard not to make promises the game can't ultimately deliver - something he fell foul of with both Fable and Fable II. That said, Molyneux's enthusiasm and belief, although clearly more contained this time around, is still amazingly affecting when in his company. Maybe, just maybe, Fable III will be the all-encompassing adventure he's been striving to create for the last seven years. We've got our fingers crossed for him.