Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Musings from the Mouth - "How Fable Can Help Skyrim"

Alright, so, I was fishing through threads on the Escapist when one of them pointed me to a news article concerning Skyrim which, if you’ve been paying anything resembling attention to my blog, I’m quite excited for.  So I was “vaguely” interested when I glimpsed on the forums a thread titled “Skyrim to have fable 3 like features”, which linked me to this article.  And as I journeyed down in my browser to view the comments on both the thread and those attached to the article, I became just a bit discouraged. It seems there’s almost universal contempt for features such as friendships with NPCs, both platonic and romantic and I’m completely confused as to why.

While I’ve always held the Elder Scrolls series up highly (Morrowind is still the game I consider to be one of the best, if not the best ever made) and I’ve praised it for its amazing storytelling and fantastic lore backing a hack n’ slash adventure, it’s always seemed to be lacking in any actual role playing that claims to be a part of its makeup.  This would seek to change that by adding in elements that have been in the Fable series.

Now, to be fair, Fable seems to be going out of its way to make the player socialize (particularly the third one, with The Road to Rule upgrade system that forced the player to unlock certain expressions as they proceeded further down the road, rather than taking Fable II’s system, which had a set amount of expressions given to the player and others unlocked by books) with the NPCs in the world of Albion, but it hasn’t exactly been a compulsory thing. I’ve always thought that a game that made you do complete arbitrary nonsense would find a hard time getting past being a design document, much less being published into a full game (except, apparently, Fable 3).

In Skyrim, as in the Fable series, the player will be able to wed NPCs and have them move into your home, and so on, which I honestly think would give depth to the wide world of the Elder Scrolls series.  And certainly, we can’t really say that the NPCs in the Fable games have much depth, but I’m sure Bethesda could do a lot to improve this.  And here’s where the complaining confuses me.  This feature (which honestly if done well could raise the immersion), seems to be also completely optional.  Lead designer for Skyrim, Bruce Nesmith, puts it in the quote from the article as “You make friends with people by doing things for them. Friends in the game will treat you differently. Some of them will even agree to go with you into dungeons and on adventures. You can even get married. If you own a house, your spouse will move in with you.”

Now, taken what we know of Fable and the fact that copypasted people and the same voice actors over and over again do not a believable experience make (see also Oblivion), this mechanic could be used for good if Bethesda has been able to avoid that and give the NPCs more variety, make them seem more like people and less like strings of ones and zeroes that happen to be there for terrible monster “X” to start picking them off like leftover porkchops from the fridge.  

NPCs with some depth, of course, seem to not be Bethesda’s strong suite after what happened with Oblivion.  This was done a little better with Fallout 3 and New Vegas, but only with companions and plot important NPCs.  I’m sure there’s only so much you can do with current generation technology, Bethesda, but do it! Don’t settle for six or seven voice actors all struggling to sound different and having the same conversations with one another! You guys can do amazing things when you really knuckle down and work at it!

But that brings me to the real problem that I’ve had trouble segueing into.  People seem to be not only upset about Skyrim taking some cues from Fable, but just seem to have a great disdain for Fable in general, and it seems completely unwarranted.  Sure, Peter Molyneux tends to making outlandish promises and overhype the games that Lionhead Studios produces like certain Canadian lesbian singers are overhyped by their fangirls.  Sure, the games are irritatingly linear for a series that claims to let the player “go anywhere, do anything”.  Sure, it’s Xbox exclusive and thus has fanboys that would defend it and defend Peter Molyneux if he went around committing acts of terrorism in broad daylight.  But is it really deserving of all the scorn it gets?

The Fable series has brightly shining moments and bits and pieces of it are not at all intolerable and worthy of the collective hatred of the gaming community.  The storyline of the main quest is passable and the combat mechanics can get a little irritating at times, and the gameplay is at least somewhat varied and challenging.  It’s by no means perfect but then there’s no such thing as a perfect game, if there were, we’d all be playing that and this wouldn’t be an issue.  If the Fable series were a pie, it wouldn’t be the most visually appealing before being cut, but once you’d set yourself down and got a slice, you’d find it’s quite delicious if only for a little while before you moved onto a slightly tastier pie.

And it’s the good bits of the Fable pie that could and should be added to Skyrim, if only to be given a little of Bethesda’s Morrowind special sauce.  It seems strange to me that I found and still find the text screens of Morrowind more immersive than the fully voiced narrations of Oblivion or the interacting with NPCs in the Fable games.  

My solution to this is simple, get all the best parts of each of these components and put them together.  There, problem solved.  Considering the voiced character is a given, and now Bethesda’s adding in elements that are similar to that of Fable’s real life simulation style, they need to do their best to do what Morrowind was able to do with text alone – give depth to the various NPCs and thus to the entire game world as a whole.

Also, again, it’s not like interacting with NPCs is mandatory outside of questing. Look up a few paragraphs at the quote from Mr. Nesmith.  “You can”, not “you must”.  Bethesda wouldn’t force the player to do anything they didn’t wish to in an Elder Scrolls game; it’s against the system they’ve set up.  The world is anything but linear and the player can just wander the landscapes for hours facing random encounters and picking up loot.  And, of course, when you want to behave, the game has all the quests waiting for you to do at your leisure – the perfect kind of sandbox.

But bringing RPG elements from a series that does it a little better into an RPG Hack N’ Slash, that’s just going too far, it would seem, even though it would improve the game tenfold if done appropriately.  No, no, no, Fable is a cancerous plague to be avoided.  How dare they even think of taking anything from that!