Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Moral Aesthetics" and the bloddy quest for cute boots

Go ahead and ogle, rotate the camera for a better look, let your gaze move up from the toes in slow femme-fatale exposition: kicky pirate boots, striped breeches tucked into their turned-down tops; a heavy, dark leather duster with a face-obscuring high collar; piercing eyes; an elaborate bonnet, once the pride of a merchant-class matron, now rain-stained and battle-battered. Everything in shades of blood red over the full but firm curves of a woman of action who's not shy of calling for another plate of mutton. Sex and danger, she accessorizes with weaponry: a burnished pistol, a samurai sword.

Yeah, Fable II is the shit for dress-up-dolly.

Seriously. At this point, I'm only in it for the outfits. I've been playing this busting-at-the-seams action/RPG sequel intermittently for a few weeks now – mostly as a break from my Fallout obsession, which is problematic since Fallout's “jump” button maps to Fable's “cast magic” button and I'm constantly freaking out the townies by accidentally shooting fireballs around the pub – and nothing gives me more satisfaction than popping open a treasure chest to find the goblins gave their lives guarding a sweet hat. The other night, I played an extra three hours into the morning because I refused to rest until I'd scrounged up a decent pair of gloves. It's that kind of game.

There's more to Fable II, of course; lots more. I guess there's a crazy evil wizard-duke or something? I'm supposed to be questing for closure with that guy. But even that closure extends into the dress-up-dolly realm, into... moral aesthetics. You choices change your look. Saintly searchers for truth and justice get a glow about them, pale and bright an angelic; hell-bent reavers of bloody vengeance have their complexions veer into the dark and diabolical. My deeds so far haven't had enough ethical weight to make for much of a moral makeover; you're not really picking sides in the cosmic battle while shopping for dyes or rummaging through bookstores for dog-training manuals. All my girl's got so far is a little bit of a hollow, haunted look around the eyes, probably as a result of all the scared-shitless rubes I've left in my clumsy fireball-flinging wake. To get the real exotic smoky-eye look, she's going to have to slaughter a slave caravan, at least...

That is, if I continue playing very much longer. Fable II offers a lot to do – you can get married (even gay-married!), have kids (or not; condoms are a common treasure item), buy a house, buy a business, build a trade empire – but there's something that keeps it from becoming the oh-god-just-six-more-hours-then-I'll-save-and-quit-I-swear obsession it'd have to be to power me through all that stuff. That something is its mechanism for social interaction.

In Fable II, you communicate with the world's denizens through dozens of “gestures,” little animations that evoke certain responses in those near enough to see/hear them. Brandish a trophy from your exploits, and folks might clap and cheer, bumping up your level of fame. Do a little dance in the town square, people might think you're funny and nice and like you more. Blow a fart (or launch a fireball) and you're going to alienate the crowd. I see where they want to go with this – to model your social interactions more organically than might be possible with canned dialogue choices – but the result is just... well, silly.

Let me give you an example. Wandering a misty clifftop trail one moonlit evening, I encounter a ghost. This ghost, the forlorn shade of a jilted lover, charges me with a task: seduce the chump that broke her heart, then do for him as he did to her. I always do what ghosts tell me, so, OK, I head to town and find the guy. I get his attention with a little trophy-brandishing, then just start mashing the “Seduction” button. As the townsfolk look on and cheer, I blow kisses, whisper sweet nothings, wink and mince about, and eventually the guy's love-o-meter is filled and he agrees to marry me.

This takes five minutes, five whole minutes from “Yo!” to “Yes."

Granted, it may have had something to do with the fact the guy's a crummy townie and I'm a buxom samurai-sword asskickin' vixen with a crimson corset and a pouchful of sheepskin jimmy-hats and he'd be a lunatic not to jump at the chance to park his raggedy unemployed ass in my paid-for gypsy caravan, but still. The whole scene was so ludicrous, the gossamer threads suspending my disbelief all snapped in a hurry; I was out.

And yet... the clothes! They bring me back in; I still haven't found the gloves I was after, you know? I can put up with the ridiculous clowning for a while, fired by imaginings of what wonderful shirts, boots and doublets might lie farther into the mysterious reaches of the land of Albion...

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