Chungking Espresso

You Got Sim in my Hack & Slash!

Posted in Game Analysis, Papers, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on February 24, 2009

Fable II is a game about how one’s actions determine personal growth and the growth of one’s surrounding environment (including populations, cities, and their economies). Although critics and players label the game an “action RPG,” much of the game can be better understood when looked at as a form of the “god game” that the developer, Lionhead, typically creates. Drawing from Forrester’s Urban Dynamics and Michel de Certeau’s Practices of Everyday Life, one can analyze the game as an experiment in urban control from the perspective of the pedestrian.

Fable II, Lionhead, Peter Molyneux, game economy, medieval economy, Black & White, Landlord’s Game, urban dynamics

This articles addresses the representation of urban growth and economy in Fable II. The topic is part of the larger field of simulating urban dynamics in videogames. It is of importance in this field because of its subversion of the typical simulation game role of the “Mayor/God.” Important games in this field are Sim City, The Sims, and Black & White.

Fable II – What it is, what it represents
Fable II is an action roleplaying game developed by Lionhead Studios, the creators of the “god game” Black & White and the business simulator The Movies. God games, business simulators, and city-building games (such as Sim City) are all sub-genres of the simulation game.

Thus, it seems odd that a company with a knack for simulation games would choose to develop hack-and-slash RPGs when purchased by Microsoft to bolster the exclusive titles on their XBox consoles. I’d like to show how Fable II makes much more sense when analyzed as a god game than as an RPG.

. What’s in a role?
Roleplaying games of the original, Japanese school are difficult to analyze for representational content. What they’re about are inventory and statistics management. Hack-and-slash RPGs tend to simply be casual versions of this formula. The impression one quickly gets is that these games have little to do with playing a role.

On the other hand, god games such as B&W and Populous (an earlier title by Lionhead director Peter Molyneux) do afford a healthy bit of roleplay. Instead of focusing on zoning, taxation, and public utilities – the tropes of city-planning games – god games represent urban dynamics as a product of a series of simple “moral” decisions: help the farmer find his sheep, or throw the farmer in a lake and watch him drown.

As it turns out, Fable II conforms much more to the tropes of a god game than to those of action RPGs. This is not to say that one doesn’t have to manage inventory and experience points in the game, or hack, or slash – roughly a third of one’s time spent in the game is in combat, where these mechanics are important.

Compared to the original Fable, which stands significantly more at odds with Lionhead’s experience in making god games, character development in Fable II is significantly pared down. The only items providing combat stats are weapons. One has no armor in this game, only outfits (some of which look like armor) that add stats to the calculus of how NPCs react to the player avatar.

The “boasting system” – an important part of the original Fable that allowed players to bet on their performance in upcoming quests, and thus the primary method of amassing a personal fortune – has been excised from the sequel. Instead, in Fable II players earn a small investment seed by working odd jobs (blacksmithing, woodcutting, etc.) and gambling. One then starts to buy up cheap buildings and exponentially gaining in wealth as rent payments accrue.

. Player Action -> Urban Dynamics
The other two thirds of one’s time spent in the game, where I’m arguing “the action is,” goes toward developing the avatar’s relationship to the peoples, organizations, and townships of Albion (the series’ idyllic, English fantasy world).

One should not give in to the temptation of criticizing the weak morality of the player choices afforded by this game (after all, this comes from the developer of a game explicitly named Black & White), because the game clearly emphasizes consequences over choices. Although at any given moment a player can basically tell whether they are doing something “good” or “evil” (there is a mechanic to instantly alert the player to changes in their “alignment” statistic), the pleasure is in seeing how these actions change the world later in the game.

Unlike in a traditional god game, where players receive almost immediate feedback (turn-based or in realtime) for their actions in the form of a state change in the populace, the hero of Fable II is a human who can only wait and see how the world might react to her choices. We will address the time dilation ingrained in this game below.

A Medieval Economy?
Fable II picks and chooses how to represent its economy. One would be hard-pressed to describe a historically medieval economy with the words we use today – supply and demand, laissez-faire, socialist, etc. Personal economic worth was determined by one’s class, one’s occupation, and one’s land ownership. In effect, the autocrat owned everything. The price of goods was set not by market forces but by an objective valuation of the good, the stinginess of the shopkeep, or the rates set by the autocrat.

The economic class of one’s character in Fable II can most effectively be described as that of a merchant. Although after beating the game one can purchase the now-dead king’s palace and thus be declared the Ruler of Albion, land (read: agricultural) ownership has been excised from the game. When one buys a shop, one can affect its rate of rental taxation (based on its sale value) but still has to pay for its goods; therefore, one is more a landlord than an owner-manager. Prices for particular goods maintains a static base value (ignoring the principle of scarcity), and purchasing an item from a store will deplete its stock for roughly an hour real-time. Players receive a discount (-%) based on how much the shopkeeper loves or fears them. Price mark-ups (+%) result from the shopkeeper hating the player and from the shop’s economic rating.

. Influencing the Marketplace
There are four ways that a player can influence the trade of capital in the game’s economy: theft, murder, taxation, and stocking. Economies in Fable II are localized systems (as in Forrester’s Urban Dynamics). They receive a rating (one to five stars, with five being the best) based partially on time and mostly on player action. This rating determines both the quality of goods sold by all shops inside the economy and the frequency and value of sales.

Over-taxing enough shops that one owns will lower the overall rating of an economy, while under-taxing will encourage growth. Stealing, even from a shop that one owns, will slowly decrease the rating. Murdering the owner of a shop will drastically harm the economy, and sometimes the game takes a long time to recognize a vacancy and generate a new shopkeeper. The stock of a shop with no shopkeeper cannot be accessed by the player; as an aside, a glitch in the game makes it so that marrying a shopkeeper results in their never showing up to work (thus, one might as well have killed her rather than kissed her).

Stocking is, by far, the most unique enterprise offered by the game. The game sometimes randomly executes a fire sale on a given shop, the only time NPCs can be considered to have purchased items. This is also the only time that the multiple localized economies of Albion interact with each other, because the player must trek to another city in order to purchase the items that need re-stocking. Completing stocking missions will greatly enhance the rating of an economy.

. Influencing Urban Dynamics
Unlike in a city-building game, where the growth and decay of the buildings in a city depend on how the player-as-planner zones, taxes, and maintains the domain, the state of cities and buildings in Albion depends on divergent and sometimes arbitrary player actions.

. Zones: Bowerstone and The Arena
There are two zones of Albion that drastically change based upon player choice: Old Bowerstone and Westcliff. The manners by which the player affects these two state changes differ completely.

Old Bowerstone is where the player’s character grew up. It is also the setting of the game’s tutorial and its Todorovian narrative disruption point. In terms of Forrester’s Urban Dynamics, Old Bowerstone represents a “mature” city in between the slopes of growth and decay. An officer of the law charges the young hero with the task of retrieving five lost warrants. One can choose whether to return these papers to the authorities or to turn them over to a slumlord for some easy cash. This decision determines whether Old Bowerstone will enter a state of reinvigoration or decline; it is also fairly representative of the weak moral choices a player has throughout the course of the game.

Westcliff represents a “young city” in Forrester’s dichotomy. The township consists of a few stalls, shacks, and a public house built around the site of Albion’s gladiatorial arena. One has the choice to lend 50,000 gold to an enterprise capitalist living in the city. The decision whether to lend or not will determine whether the city enters a state of growth or stagnation. Unlike the Old Bowerstone choice, this one comes down to simple pragmatics: does one trust the shifty entrepreneur to attain his goals or think he will simply abscond with your hard-earned money?

. Buildings: Light Temple and Real Estate
The development of individual buildings also shows a similar disparity of motivating action. Only one building can actually be destroyed: the Temple of Light. The market value of residences can be improved by furnishing them with higher-quality household goods, but their outward appearance will not change. That is to say, one can make the value of a dirt-floor hovel exceed that of a beautiful townhouse simply by investing more capital in the former’s furnishings. This is a more straightforward pragmatic choice than whether to lend money to enterprise capitalist in Westcliff, because there is no risk that the investment will be lost.

Influencing the fate of the Temple of Light is more nuanced. A competing religious order, the Temple of Darkness, is on the verge of attacking Oakfield and the Temple near it. The player can choose whether to aid in the defense of the village or to slaughter its populace. This event occurs right before the player’s main quest leads her temporarily away from the main continent of Albion, so she can also choose to ignore the conflict altogether. The ethic here is distinctively Weiselian – inaction aids the aggressor, and on returning from her trip the player will find the Temple of Light in ruin.

. Population: Keeping up with the Sims
When one describes Lionhead’s nostalgic, rural world of Albion as very “English,” they probably mean to say that it is a very “White” place. The population is stark white except for a gypsy camp, a few traveling Portuguese traders, and one Magical Negro (Garth, the Hero of Will). This may or may not be a substantive critique of the game (Britain itself was stark white before its imperial phase), so for now we will leave this fact simply as a description of the population.

The Sims, developed by Will Wright and his team at Maxis, stands as the most popular “god game” of all time. In that game, the player can view the feelings, needs, and desires of each Sim; one can then choose whether to fulfill or disappoint the Sim by controlling its interaction with the environment and other Sims. As we will see, Fable II features a more streamlined NPC characterization (perhaps because of the constraints of the console’s controls, which are less accurate than a mouse).

By targeting a human NPC in Fable II, one can pull up their character summary. These vary in complexity – for example, “Isobel the Aristocrat: Rich, Serious, Demanding, Straight, Cowardly, Sensitive.” At first glance the level of detail given to each character seems arbitrary, but on closer inspection one will find that NPCs of lower socio-economic class are less likely to have detailed profiles (“Abby the Housewife: Poor”). One can also see what the NPC likes (three things randomly selected from buildings, places, regions, expressions, and gifts) and the one thing it dislikes most.

Unlike in many god games (The Sims especially), the only NPC stats you can influence are how much they love/hate you, think you are funny/scary, or find you attractive/ugly. This ego-centric view of a population makes sense considering the framework of “urban control from the street” that I suggest. Players enact changes in NPC attitudes toward them through gifts, expressions, and acts of aggression or benevolence.

. Space/Time: Synecdoche and Asyndeton
Michel de Certeau describes the experience of being-in a city from the point-of-view of a pedestrian. Unlike one who takes the Archimedes’ Point view of a city as a system that one can perceive and control, one-who-walks disrupts the conception of the city as an objective whole. They do this through synecdoche and asyndeton. Paying greater amounts of attention to particular areas of a city, they balloon the importance of those areas and allow them to stand in for the whole (synecdoche). Also, they tend to leap mentally from familiar location to familiar location, leaving gaps in their mental topography of the space (asyndeton).

Unlike a traditional god game, where a city can be managed by tweaking taxation levels and constructing buildings from a birds-eye view, the player of Fable II attempts to influence her surroundings from a walker’s perspective. Certeau’s disruption of space manifests itself physically in Albion. As it turns out, this play with space and time is also where the game begins to come apart.

. Idyllic, English Albion
The cities, country-sides, and dungeons of Albion all lay roughly along a line where a vast unexplored continent meets the sea. The developers have not included an interactive map by which the player could conceptually link areas together objectively. On top of this, areas are separated by loading screens and unmapped stretches of land approximated by the distance and time of travel between the two mapped areas. This construction of space manifests Certeau’s idea of spatial asyndeton in the mind of the walker.

Fable II incorporates a mechanic that most RPGs are wont to use these days: unlimited fast travel. By “unlimited” I mean that one can use it anytime, anywhere (unless one is inside a cave). One does have to navigate the dangerous pathways between townships at least once in the game, after which they can instantly zoom between them.

Allowing unrestrained fast travel disrupts the mental map of a space – epitomizing the destructive force of the walker’s asyndeton described by Certeau. I cannot recall anything about the space in between the cities of Albion, other than that there were always bandits, balverines, and hobbes to plow through. One can sympathize with the desire on the part of the developers to include fast travel: this frees them up to construct a massive, immersive world without forcing players to trudge back and forth for hours to attain their goals.

Unfortunately, fast travel also allows laziness in world design. Albion is undoubtedly beautiful, but most areas are beautiful in only one of a two different ways (sunny or gloomy). Forrester’s Urban Dynamics helps elucidate why this happens: effective transit (for him, this meant the Interstate system that allowed higher-income populations to commute from suburban residences to workplaces in the inner city) allows a population to ignore the decay of the area surrounding the expediting route. In Fable II’s case, world design has been allowed to decay because it only has to be experienced once.

. When the player is away…
Fable II forges an unique relationship between realtime and game time. During the course of the main mission, two large tracts of time pass outside of the player’s control. Between the game’s tutorial (during which your avatar is a child) and the proper beginning of the adventure, ten years pass. During this time, Old Bowerstone either decays or flourishes based on the choice described earlier. The second time gap occurs when the player must voluntarily become a slave in order to infiltrate the Spire of the evil king. Time passes strangely in the Spire; although the player controls her avatar’s actions inside, time passes in Albion at an accelerated rate. When she returns from her quest, she will find the Temple of Light prospering or in ruin based on her actions.

Now, one second of realtime equates to one minute in game time. Calculating the game time required for fast travel takes into account how a player will travel (by foot, cart, or ship), obstructions (such as caves, tunnels, and bandit camps), and the distance between the two locations in miles. This leads to widely varying results, such as a 60 mile trip to Wraithmarsh taking 22 hours (3 mph) and a 527 mile trip to Oakfield taking 110 hours (5 mph). The player, on the other hand, experiences a short loading time (roughly 15 seconds) in the interlude. All of this contributes to multiple variations of time dilation and contraction.

Every day in game time, the avatar pays a small tithe to support the families one has accrued. Players receive rent payments for every five real minutes they spend in the game. Money also accrues while the player isn’t playing. On loading up Fable II after not playing for two weeks, I had been credited for eight play hours worth of rent (1.5 million gold… enough to buy every building in Albion two times over). This effectively breaks the game, because players will make inordinate amounts of money simply by taking a weeklong break from playing the game. One can even manipulate the console’s internal clock (accidentally or purposefully) to become instantly rich.

. A Living Game World?
Now that we have a firm understanding of the space/time, economy, and peoples of Albion, we will notice some room for improvement.

The most glaring need for change is to prevent the game from becoming too easy after a weeklong break. A quick solution would be to reverse the innovation of rent generation while the game isn’t being played; however, this feature goes a long way toward developing the impression of a persistent game world – a quality typically absent in single-player RPGs. Instead, we should look to a solution that will both fix this exploit and imbue Albion with more lifelike dynamism than it currently has.

The architecture of each township in Fable II should improve or decay based on changes in its economic rating; this would be a simply re-texturing job, but it’s not something I can prototype at this time. Rather, a more significant change to the game would arise if a level of complexity were added to the consequences of rent control in regards to the peoples of cities.

As it stands, the only consequences of rent taxation are the change in the economic rating of a city detailed above and the “purity” or “corruption” level of the player’s avatar (all this does is affect their sexual attractiveness). Renters and shopkeepers will pay rent no matter the rate or their personal economic concerns. I’d like to suggest that rent rates should affect the quality of life and satisfaction of the NPCs. Taking a cue from Sim City, the player (as a landlord) would have to invest gold in the maintenance of the buildings she owns and be wary that an increase in rent might cause NPCs to move away. This would mean that the player would receive significantly less money while away from the game – with the added possibility of losing money if a city is left in unfavorable economic conditions.

A counter-argument to this modification would be that Fable II essentially makes the same argument as The Landlord’s Game: the rich get richer, and the poor stay in debt; however, in a game about consequences there should be consequences for economic mis-management. After all, a fear of uprisings was much more common in feudal societies than it is in late capitalist cities.

This leads to another new mechanic that would make the player’s new job more manageable: the cronies. One important aspect of the game that we haven’t discussed here is the hero’s canine companion that changes in demeanor based on the player’s actions. Unfortunately, the dog can’t do nearly as much population control as its conceptual father – the Creature of Black & White. Hiring a squad of cronies would fill this role, and free the player to avoid a considerable degree of micro-management (rent has to be adjusted for every individual building). This crew could either be benevolent or evil based on how the player directs them to act, and they would serve to enforce rent payment at early stages of over-taxation. They would also help curtail protests against the actions of the hero.

These additional mechanics would add a new level of depth to Fable II. Consider, for instance, the quandary for a “good” hero faced with a renter who decides not to pay up: how far would the player be willing to go to get the money they need to maintain their property? What would happen if a wealthy NPC paid off one’s cronies to turn against the hero? The possibilities created by these improvements would far outweigh the difficulty of their implementation.

Even though we usually classify Fable II as an action RPG, a lot of the game can only be properly analyzed when considered as an experiment in the god game genre. Instead of giving players a birds-eye view of the world, Fable II allows one to control urban dynamics from the POV of a pedestrian. Forrester’s Urban Dynamics helps us understand the ways that the world of Albion changes in reaction to the hero, and Michel de Certeau’s writings on walking-in-the-city shows us how the walker exerts disruptive control of an environment through mental synecdoche and asyndeton. The game would be improved if an exploit in the game allowing easy wealth accruing were fixed by adding a level of complexity and consequence to the player’s control of local economies through rental rates.


One Response

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  1. deckard47 said, on February 28, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    Great article, it hits on how weirdly Sim-y Fable 2 can get. I like just about every single one of your suggestions. Especially he one about hiring cronies. Fable 2 could definitely take some hints from Saints Row 2, with its gangs and respect meters. I’d love to see your economy and rent changes mixed in with some guild warfare. That would be amazing (and hard to pull off, I’m sure).

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