Fable.png['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Lionhead Studios' Fable 2.]

Fable 2 attempts a hard bit of interactive storytelling: it combines a fairly predetermined plot arc, your character's quest for justice against the world's chief villain, with more emergent narrative, in which you are allowed to form friendships and connections — and even marry and bear children with — the people you meet along the way.

At the end, the game tries to draw the two forms of player involvement together, having the villain threaten something or someone that you've grown close to in sandbox play. The idea, clearly, is to let the player define for the game what he/she will care about, and then use that as emotional leverage.

This is an ingenious design approach, but it works better in concept than in practice — at least for me. Two moments in particular stand out where this design let me down:

1. Shortly after the system told me that NPCs would have gifts for me, I met a man. When I talked to him, I saw the symbol of a ring on the meter of how much he liked me. I reasoned that this meant, if I made him like me more, he'd give me a ring. So I spent a little time with him, doing dances and falling over afterward, because he seemed to get a big kick out of this buffoonery. I made faces. I gave him the thumbs-up sign. I flirted a little, just to butter him up.

But when he'd fallen in love with me and wanted to get married, I was startled and not at all pleased. I realized what the ring on his meter indicated then, when it was too late and I'd led him on. I had no intention to get married, but when he started to follow me around (a mistake thanks to more confused socialization on my part), I let him.

I let him follow me out into the wild, and when we were set upon by bandits I didn't give him a second thought, just assumed he'd look out for himself or have the sense to hide behind a rock. My dog never got killed, after all. But then the battle ended and he wasn't following me any more.

I actually couldn't tell what had just happened: did he run away? Or — it seemed more likely — did he fight and die because I was too absent-minded to attend to him?

I felt guilty about that. It was the first thing in the game that made me feel like I'd done something wrong. Sure, I'd been arrested for trespassing earlier, a faux pas that cost me some morality points, but it was purely because I was trying to talk to the woman inside the house and thought she'd warm up to me faster than she did. This time, I'd coldbloodedly ignored some guy, toyed with his affections and then led him to his death. That felt culpable.

I resolved, on my character's behalf, not to tease anyone else into falling in love with me. I just didn't have time for it; not as a hero. I couldn't afford the distraction, and the people themselves were just too preoccupied with everyday activities.

Many hours of play later, I had become more cynical about the minor characters, so I decided to seduce and eventually marry Christopher the Alchemist for his cheap supply of resurrection potions. And when my character was tricked into taking up a mission that angered some people who turned out to be perfectly innocent, I first tried to placate them with gifts and gold, but when that failed I went ahead and killed them. They kept following me around and trying to shoot me, and I couldn't have that.

The interesting moral arc here, for me, was first the realization that my character could not treat "ordinary" people as her equals and her acceptance of emotional distance from them; and, later, the decision that she was more important than they were, and therefore it was all right to use them or even if necessary kill a few.

There was no way for me to communicate that to the game, though. It kept treating me as an almost-pure-good character when in my own opinion I had entered a serious grey zone.

The disparity between the story I thought we were telling and the story the game thought we were telling became even more painfully clear at the end. The assumption was that I had a husband and a son and that I must love them, and that's what the game worked with — in, I regret to say, a fairly predictable and melodramatic fashion.

2. The game's most painful moment for me was when I witnessed a woman losing her father and then deciding that her chosen life of non-violence wasn't such a good idea after all. My own character had gone through something similar. I wanted to comfort her, tell her I understood, maybe offer a cynical remark supporting her newfound aggressiveness: yes, the world is like this. Yes, you might as well stand up for yourself because no one else is going to. Something. My character had things to tell hers, but I couldn't say them.

Both of these issues come back to communication: communication with the other characters, communication with the game engine.

During cut scenes it's possible to make a few choices, but these are of course out of a small predetermined range. The rest of the time, Fable 2's freeform communication options are limited to gestures and expressions of mood rather than anything with declarative content. Before playing Sims 3 I might have said that was inevitable in a sandbox game.

Now I'm not so sure. Sims 3 shows that it's possible for a game to track the context of even very freeform interactions, and offer conversation options based on the current situation. Something like that would have gone part of the way to resolving the sensation of muteness throughout Fable 2, and perhaps made it easier to believe I had some kind of genuine or substantial relationship to the other characters.

But what I really found myself wanting, as a player — and this would have addressed both the missed moments — was a way to mark events that I experienced, to tag them for later retelling and give some indication of what they meant to me.

I wanted to be able to remember the catastrophe with my first, doomed lover. I wanted to be able to retell that story to other people that I met in the game, and I wanted to be able to determine what its meaning and resonance would be. Over the course of the game, I wanted to develop an inventory of the events that were most important to me and use them to reveal, explain, and persuade.

I know this would be hellaciously hard to design and implement. But there is so much about Fable 2 that works brilliantly: the sheer beauty of the environment, the accessible but interesting combat, the relative absence of dull grinding missions, the excellent voice acting, the humor. The most consistent source of frustration to me was my muteness. The good/evil and pure/corrupt scales allow the player some range for self-customization, but they are not in the end truly expressive. They don't allow much scope for the player to pick out what matters.

Letting the player select the anecdotes that constituted his story would make the sandbox a much more powerful contributor to the narrative.

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]