13 November 2010

I’m playing Fable 3 right now, a game that falls squarely into that delicate, special genre I call the Molyneux Playing Game or MPG. That means it has certain features and characteristics that set it apart from other games. Let’s define.

First off, game in this genre will have been preceded by one of two things: either an incredible amount of hyperbole which takes the form of ‘this is the best game ever made’ (this is normally the case) or, in the event that Peter Molyneux had a rare moment of reflection, the exact opposite. In this case, he will publically lament he hasn’t ever made a truly great game, or he will openly chastise himself for making outrageous claims. This first element of the MPG can often befuddle or frustrate people, but in fact it is an acquired taste. Seen in the correct light, this exotic mating ritual with press and public offers tremendous amounts of amusement.

The game that is delivered will offer some revolutionary, elaborate interface features. Dungeon Keeper’s cursor was a grotesque hand that could pick up and slap the labyrinth’s denizens. The Movies introduced a menu system that was part of the game’s mise-en-scene (much like Fable 3’s Sanctuary menu system). Fable 2 had the oft-publicized Dog That You Will Love to help you find treasure and fight enemies. Wrapping it up (without being nearly complete), Fable 3 introduced the element of touch to inspire a closer bond with your virtual comrades. These strange features will either bomb completely (the menu as an in-game location) or be such a bull’s eye that you can’t imagine ever having done without them (the dog, which is unfathomably excellent).

An unfortunate element of the MPG is that it doesn’t end well. The last game I thought ended really well was Dungeon Keeper. The rest kind of fizzles and pops to a halt. It seems MPGs are gaming engines that run on bizarre novelties. At some point the ideas run out, incapable of pushing the game through to a satisfying end. MPGs will often leave you with an intangible feeling of missing something. Games like Fable exacerbate this by offering selfreplenishing, randomly spawning gameplay after the main story is done, most always leaving you feeling like a hollow man yourself.

So far the picture I’ve painted isn’t a resoundingly attractive one. But MPGs have a secret saving grace that, no matter their shortcomings, makes them special. There’s a devious sense of fun to them, possibly very British, that shows especially in the details. The Fable series exults in this. From snippy item descriptions to whole side quests taking place in closed-off little worlds locked away behind demon doors, it’s here that the magic happens. Free from the bindings of a huge story arc or the demands of creating a believable world, creativity is allowed to run rampant. The result is anarchic fun that makes the MPG shine beyond what other games offer. Giving specific examples would spoil the fun!

I’ll say it again: I rather have a flawed masterpiece, something that tries something fresh and fails, than an artless game that’s cut to perfection!