I just started playing Fable 2. I know, I'm behind the times, but it's been a long time coming, and I didn't want to get so choked up by my disillusionment that I couldn't actually enjoy the game (I'm looking at you, Oblivion/Professor Layton 2/Dragon Age). So I've steered carefully clear of anything to do with the game, citing a lack of interest but, really, just not wanting to suffer that same dramatic let-down as going bungee jumping only to realise at the bottom of the dive that your rope's made out of snakes.
So I popped the DVD in the drive, still vaguely terrified that my 360 would somehow decide to chow down on it like nachos in a blender, and curled myself up on the couch to play. I can be a girl this time - nice. I like that. Some women (and, more frequently, men) complain that adding the option to play as a girl is a token effort to include female gamers, but anything that makes me feel good about playing my gender *coughAioncough* is a bonus as far as I'm concerned.
I'm a child. Nothing new there, either in-game or out. I need to collect some magical golden coins. Well, not really magical, but only magical in the sense that they'll advance the plot. I feel a little like Mario, but that's okay. Let's follow the shiny fairy-dust path of plot device - wheeeee! - and wind up somewhere interesting.
Except... Who put a sermon in my tutorial? Kicking chickens is pretty fun, I'll grant you, but you don't lose any reputation because of it. I helped save a dog - since one of the few things I know about the game is that there's a dog involved, I kind of assumed this was important - and suddenly I'm little miss goody-two-shoes. Hmmm. Swing my sword around, and most of the crowd of children finds me 'funny', after I just sent a bully home with a broken nose and severe mental trauma, no less, but some of them 'hate' me for my innocuous sword-waving. Double hmmm.
So I go around the corner, and find a place infested with beetles. Some of the dialogue has been quite interesting so far, and since it's the beginning of the game, I'm inclined to give it a chance, though a big thumbs up to the designers for including the 'hold A to win' dialogue option. A slightly smaller thumbs down for making the dialogue so ridiculously long that it's almost worth skipping on principle, but it's mildly entertaining, so I wait. Kill some beetles, got it. Wait, what's this 'we' business and why did my sister not go with me?
Ah! A moral choice! I get to make a... No, wait. I get to decide whether or not I want to kill some beetles (+1 destructive, +5 good), or smash all the guy's stock to make up for him not paying his 'protection money' (+2 destructive, +3 evil). It's actually more work to smash up the crates than the beetles, so I scuttle a few barrels and get on with it. A nice little revelation from our window-dwelling ruffian comes if you kill all the beetles, and Mr. Storehouse Owner almost-but-doesn't-quite reprimand me for wantonly wailing on his crates with a wooden sword, but apparently I'm now the world's best child.
Next up... a hobo with an appetite for alcohol! He's too sauced to rescue his booze, so I head off on a merry, but brief, chase to find it, since I'd previously found it next to a slumbering chap with something against bathing. My sister warns me not to wake him, but since I'd trodden all over him in my previous efforts to explore, I grab the bottle and saunter easily away.
And now! Another moral choice! Give the bottle to his wife/mistress/sister/honestly who can tell? for a gold piece, or give it to him for a gold piece? Well, since I'm a pre-teen of my word, I decide to hand the bottle over. What? 3 evil points?
Hey, look, buddy, you know what? I want to make this clear to designers the world over: I'm not responsible for what he does with his life. If he wants to drink himself to death, he will. Me not fetching his alcohol for him ain't gonna do a damn thing to dampen his enthusiasm. I'm not the shepherd of every idiot with a liver, and if I thought I was, I probably wouldn't be playing video games, but doing something society considers useful, like finding a cure for cirrhosis or growing genetically modified livers in specially-shaped glass tubes.
And that brings me to my main point, in a very roundabout and not at all economical way - I'm tired of being responsible for everyone else. I have a job, I have a life, I have a cat, so I know about responsibility and, coincidentally, being used as a hot water bottle in winter. There are many things I do need (read: want) like an all-access pass to Blizzard HQ and a mountain of Planescape rulebooks, but a sermon on the evils of alcohol isn't one of them.
I'm not picking on Fable 2 in particular here. I think it's interesting they chose to use something like alcohol addiction, albeit in a semi-humorous light, in their game. Perhaps they hoped there was a stronger message they could get across, although it's undermined by the comedy. Possibly they weren't really thinking about it at all. But having my choice affect gameplay seems a little heavy-handed.
Before you get up in arms, yes, I know, it's a game about moral choices. Yes, I understand, everything is going to influence gameplay. No, I'm not a cynical lock-up in a basement somewhere with nothing better to do than whinge on the internet. You'll just have to trust me on that last one. But I resent being told how to live my life through the medium of video games. Just as I don't watch movies about domestic violence or drug abuse, I feel I have a right to control the content of the games I play. Maybe I'm mistaken, but it runs a little deeper than that.
I guess my main problem with this kind of choice is that, ideally, I would like to be surprised. I would like to not know, for once, which way a story was going to play out. Maybe he has a thrown disc and needs the alcohol to self-medicate; maybe he lost all his loved ones in a fire. There could be so much more to this (granted, single, simple and forgettable) interaction, but, really, the only subtext is this: drunk people are evil, and the people who help them are too.
Yes, player agency and needing to understand the effect of their actions, yes, it's in the tutorial and it won't have any impact on my game, really, yes, I'm reading too much in to it and I'm belligerent and feel long-suffering in a perhaps unjustified manner. But Fallout 3 managed shades of grey, and consequences. Oblivion did, to a lesser extent. Games like InFamous made a mockery of it, inadvertently, by giving some evil points for knocking civilians down, but more good points for shocking them back to life - my friend took me from two-thirds evil to two-thirds good in only 20 minutes of free-roaming gameplay. It seems most games give you more points for doing a 'good' deed than they do for a 'bad' one, which makes it almost too easy to be good.
Then again, in games like Baldur's Gate, it could become impossible to finish the game if you were evil, because soldiers would attack you on sight and shopkeepers would charge exorbitant prices for simple things like arrows. That way isn't the path of wonder, either, but somehow it felt like more of a choice.
I don't believe people are good or bad. I believe people change. This is something that these newer games reflect relatively well - people treat you according to your fluctuating status. It would be nice if the people you screwed over remembered you as you were when they met you, even if you're suddenly the most saintly man alive but, hey, we can't have everything.
Apparently what we can have, though, are alcoholic bums who drink themselves to death and make the people in the immediate area stand around, doing nothing to stop him, and hate me. I see. In the meantime, I guess I'll just keep playing and kill as many people as I can. Y'know, because I've already taken one step down the path of evil and now I'm a baby-eating nun.
We're getting there, toward living, breathing game worlds, slowly. But I'll be happy when we get closer.