['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's Fable 3.]

In the early hours of Fable 3, I was delighted to discover that the malicious Reaver was still around from Fable 2, and not just because I adore Stephen Fry's voice acting. It was mostly because his sinister presence added weight to the ending of the previous story: my need to compromise with an obviously evil ally had had lasting repercussions for Albion.

Alas, most of the rest of the Fable 3 moral experience wasn't nearly so satisfying.

I was most looking forward to, and most disappointed by, post-kingship portion of the game, in which the player's options are reduced to binary choices in civic planning, and it turns out that being nice to people all the time (or, in the game's terminology, "good") will leave Albion without the money necessary to defend itself from evil.

There are all sorts of problems with this portion, both thematically and from the perspective of gameplay.

Lionhead does have a theme in mind. Things get harder and less clear-cut when we come to power. Promises cost more to fulfill than we expected. People we regard as friends make unreasonable demands. There aren't enough resources to go around. We have to choose whom to favor and whom to annoy. The stakes are higher than we knew.

It's a valid point, unconvincingly made.

Gameplay problems

Part of the problem is structural. The binary choices set before us are unnecessarily extreme. They represent dilemmas we have no way to anticipate. And they're often flavored to suggest that other answers would be possible if only our main proponent of fiscal conservatism weren't a worker-shooting, child-oppressing monster with an acknowledged taste for arena sports.

If we're supposed to believe that the issues we're encountering are a result of fundamental, unavoidable problems in the infrastructure of Albion, this part of the game needs to allow us to engage with the system more fully. It needs to be less like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel and more like SimAlbion.

As leader, I should have the freedom to experiment with a variety of tactics, not to choose between options chosen for me by advisors. I should see problems coming and be able to work to avoid them (and then, perhaps, to fail). I should still have my old friends and advisors pressuring me -- that's a good way to give a personal face to particular agendas -- but the means and tactics should be mine to explore. Let me really see these hard choices arising organically from the nature of the Albionese economy, and then I'll believe in them.

Even a simplified, accessible resource management game (like a more economically focused version of Electrocity) would be more procedurally compelling than this parade of cut-scenes.

Of course, to a very small extent we are allowed to manage resources during this period: our own personal fortune of real estate is our own to manipulate, and we can donate our profits to the state. But Lionhead cheats here, by playing games with the calendar. Though we have 365 days available for investment and development at the beginning, time jumps ahead unpredictably during the "reign." When I got to the big confrontation, I had a huge amount of money of my own still invested in housing and shops; I had been saving it to liquidate sometime closer to the deadline.

The "bad news" that I'd failed to save adequately for the apocalypse didn't feel like something I was responsible for. What I had been able to do with resource management was ignored, and many of my other important choices were based on dichotomies I didn't believe in.

On the other hand, the death of my citizens didn't feel real to me either, given that I was presented with an endgame in which most of my friends survived and the city looked intact. I'm told that if I'd gone back to explore the open world of Albion after the credits rolled, I would have found it underpopulated. But the impact of that outcome was largely missing from the ending of the story, for me.

Add to that my gripe about the first part of the game, that I as a player couldn't actually control which favors my character promised to do later, and you've removed any sense of player complicity or responsibility in what happened.

So overall, the moral point here is lost almost completely. I don't feel the weight of consequences for failing to save up as much as I needed, but that's okay, because the game didn't play fair with me about the process of saving up either. The whole business was contrived and unpersuasive.

Here's a thing about procedural rhetoric: it doesn't work if you don't include the procedures. Lionhead didn't give us a world with self-consistent rules and let us work out for ourselves that we'd have to compromise between what we want and what we don't want. It tried to program in the conclusion instead of the argument.

Thematic problems

My other objection is more fundamental, and has to do with the terminology throughout the Fable series.

The moral conundrum of how to rule -- what are our priorities? How can we reach them? Whose suffering do we have to allow for the good of all? -- exposes the foolishness of having such a simplistic good/evil rating on everything the player does.

I half expected the good and evil score to go away at that point, as though in acknowledgement that reality isn't so simple. Or perhaps to change into something else. Good swapped for a popularity meter, say, because most of the choices the game tags as "good" are things that would earn at least temporary appreciation from the masses. Evil changed into some kind of counter of how many people your policy have hurt.

By continuing to tag expensive but sympathetic programs as "good" and the ones that offer long-term survival as "evil", Fable III proposes a moral universe in which virtue and necessity are sometimes explicitly opposed.

This is an interesting philosophical position, but the presentation is muddled; it's not clear to me that this is exactly what they meant to say.

Good and Evil not so easy to score

Part of the muddle comes from the fact that the Fable series defines "good" in a very low-context way. It conflates "good" with "being nice," "showing mercy," "not hurting anyone," or, in some cases, "not hurting people's feelings."

There are exceptions. You're allowed to kill people as long as those people are pre-labeled as evil, or support someone who is. Bandit henchmen, soldiers dutifully serving a king you oppose, people like that. It's good to obey the law, most of the time, and respect people's property, except for those occasions when it's good to defy the law and attack the palace.

Naturally, however, because the implementation is all about tagging some acts as "good" and some "evil", and recognizing and scoring those acts in the moment when they happen, there is no procedural way for actions to be judged in terms of any but the most basic and prescriptive ethical system.

Fable III's system can't judge intentionality (did you mean to kill that guy, or did your finger slip?); outcome (did you do a "good" thing that was fabulously ill-considered and had bad effects in the long run?); or motive (did you steal this bread because you wanted to give it to a starving orphan later?). Some moral systems also consider values such as integrity, loyalty, or adherence to abstract principles, but those don't have space to appear here either.

And neither is politics

Fable III's argument is not just moral. It's also political. It's inherently good to make schools for orphans. It's inherently evil to raise taxes or reduce entitlement spending. Good to treat sewage. Bad to ravage wetlands. Good to preserve a sparkly lake, bad to drain it and mine underneath.

In other words, Fable III presents a hollowed out, caricatured version of progressive and conservative politics. The progressive agenda is virtuous but naive, the conservative one vicious but sometimes necessary. Building up a wicked defense budget is a necessary thing to do. Capitalists are grotesquely self-serving and incapable of philanthropy. The criminals and the victims in poor neighborhoods are completely distinct sets of people.

I don't mind seeing a game brave enough to try to take on serious topics. I do find this approach frustrating because it serves a harmful oversimplification of political issues. Kotaku's review rightly points out that most politicians basically believe that they are working towards the common good, even if they have different ideas about what that good looks like. Not infrequently, they even have roughly similar goals, but disagree on how to get there.

That's especially true with the recent economic crises. Everyone wants the economy to be healthy, unemployment to go down, the poor to live better, and so on. The disagreement is about how to get there. But it's a lot easier to run a campaign about how your opponent wants to bankrupt your grandchildren or how he doesn't care about low-income pensioners than it is to present a pithy argument for or against Keynesian macroeconomics.

In fact, a game would be one of the few effective ways to communicate some of those arguments to a broader audience -- but again, it would need to convince through persuasive rules, not through obviously contrived scenarios where the only two options are housing the homeless or building a brothel.

For Fable III explicitly to take up questions about entitlement spending, taxation, resource management, and the long-term financial health of its fantasy nation, and then treat those questions in terms of shallow moral binaries, makes it a party to the political discourse problem.

I welcome Fable III's attempt to mean something. Next stop: a better thought-out point, supported by a more effective procedural argument.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this work that I purchased at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.)

[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 also contracts for story and design work with game developers, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]