GDC 07: Innovations in Fable 2

Peter Molyneux swears that he’s learned his lesson. After enduring a significant backlash from fans who felt he failed to deliver on the grand promises he made for the first Fable, the ambitious designer guaranteed that he would not make the mistake of talking up his games without working code to back up his claims. So despite the fact that Molyneux very desperately wanted to talk about the three big innovations that Lionhead was introducing with Fable 2, he managed to keep his excitement in check and focus his enthusiasm on the one feature he was actually prepared to demo live to the audience. So just what was this innovative, ground-breaking new feature? A dog.

Yes, you read that correctly. Actually, the new feature is slightly more complicated than just a dog. Building off of a philosophy that a sequel should offer more than just more of what people liked about the original, the dog is one of several gameplay elements that Molyneux is introducing into Fable 2 in a conscious attempt to innovate and drive game design forward. Paramount among his ambitions for Fable 2 is the goal of making the player genuinely feel love for and feel loved by characters in the game. “If I can get you to care about something,” Molyneux declared “then I’ve got you.”

Similar to the pets in Black and White, the dog in Fable will physically morph in appearance in correspondence to the player’s moral alignment. Players that demonstrated aggressive and evil behavior would end up with a dog that resembled the Doberman pincers guarding the local junk yard, players that opted to follow the saintly route would end up with a cute sheep dog, and those that walked the line between the two would fittingly end up with a mutt. Based on Molyneux’s description of the system, players won’t be able to choose the breed or customize the color of their dog, but that may change by the time the final product is released.

The dog operates under three fundamental laws – it must not irritate the player on their journey, it loves the player unconditionally, and when push comes to shove it will put forth its best effort to stay alive. In accordance with the first law, none of the buttons on the controller are used to control or baby-sit the dog. Players can opt to use the Live headset in order to give voice commands to their pet (no word on whether the game will recognize gushing baby talk) and interact with it using the same gesture commands that work on human NPCs, but most of the dog’s behaviors are controlled by its own AI routines.

During the demo the dog displayed an assortment of mannerisms both obvious and subtle that one would expect from a pet, including looking over its shoulder at the player, wagging its tail, lying down and letting out a whine when it gets bored, barking with excitement when the player holds it’s ball, and charging with glee when the player gets down on one knee and throws out their arms for a hug. The dog featured beautifully rendered fur and was very well animated and the love it demonstrated toward the player character was palpable even, so it was easy to get attached to the character immediately. The dog adds more than just a side of Nintendogs to the proceedings however – he’s a quadrupedal co-op partner, and he’ll actively contribute to the gameplay.

One of the major problems Molyneux had with the first Fable was the fact that his team spent hundreds of man hours constructing a lush 3D world for players to explore, and in reality they could play through almost the entire game without taking their eyes of the simplistic 2D mini-map. Fable 2 ditches the mini-map and places the canine in the role of the guide as the player is moving through the environment. The dog will always attempt to keep in front of the player, and will give subtle cues to the player about which way to go to the next destination. For example, if the player comes to a crossroad in the path, the dog will position itself towards one of the roads, look over its shoulder and wag its tail, in the same way a real dog might signal to its owner ‘hey, this is the way home!’ on the way back from the park.

The dog will also recognize environments that it’s seen in the past, which is important since the dynamic region system in Fable 2 will cause many areas in the game to change over time. Molyneux talked up the feature at X06, but during this demonstration his description of the dynamic regions made it seem as though players could only affect the development of specific parts of the world by interacting with them at certain times. He once again used the example of a gypsy camp in the middle of a forest that players could opt to protect from raiders or leave to be destroyed. However In any case, once the player does impact the physical world around them, the dog will help them notice those elements that have changed by running up to certain points and barking to let the player know that there’s something worth checking out.

He’ll also play the role of scout, running ahead of the player and checking around corners or through trees and barking at the first sign of enemies. The dog won’t actually attack the enemies until the player lets on that they wish to attack by pulling out a weapon. Of course, as mandated by the third law, if an enemy attacks the dog then it will fight back in order to survive. The dog will target different enemies depending on what weapon the player decides to use. If the player draws their sword, the dog knows to focus on the enemies toward the rear using projectile weapons, whereas if the player draws a gun the dog will focus on enemies bearing melee weapons since they’re most likely to close the distance and try to deal damage between shots. The dog attacks by tooth and claw, running and jumping at enemies.

The player’s canine tag-team partner isn’t immortal however, and if it takes enough damage in a battle it will die. It will be interesting to see how Lionhead balances the damage model for the dog since Molyneux was fairly clear that he didn’t want players to have to babysit their furry companions. If the dog dies to easily then it could break the first law and annoy players but if it takes too little damage then players could simply stand back and let it do all the work. During the bout of combat in the demo, the dog put up a reasonable fight, successfully dispatching a few of the enemies but taking moderate damage in the process. The damage taken was apparent from the dog’s limping gait and pitiful whines, and watching it attempt to chase after Molyneux as he walked away was heartbreaking. Molyneux explained that the player could opt to heal the dog or simply walk away, on to the next area where they could buy another dog or perhaps take in a few pints at the local tavern with the town floozy. All the while however, the dog would be following, falling further and further behind but still putting forth the effort to drag itself after the player in an overwhelming gesture of unconditional love. At this point the room filled with cheers as the journalists in attendance realized that Molyneux already succeeded in making them care about something – they wanted him to heal that poor animal as fast as possible.

The presentation ended with a fly-by of some of the areas the player might encounter over the course of the game, during which Molyneux discussed how the player will be able to buy every piece of property in the game world. Whereas the collection of gold eventually became pointless in the original Fable, doing so in Fable 2 will allow you buy more and more property, which in turn opens up new narrative threads and quests to complete. The aforementioned dynamic regions will also play into the property system. If for example, the player helps defend a gypsy encampment from raiders and it grows into a large town, then the player will have more buildings to buy and quests to complete. If on the other hand, they allow the raiders to ransack the town and kill the gypsies, then the forest will eventually retake the encampment and players will have missed the opportunity to further explore the world of Fable 2.

While Molyneux had made a disclaimer at the onset of the presentation that the game was a work in progress and the graphics were rough, there are still a few elements of the presentation worth mentioning. First and foremost, the beautiful ‘dark fairy-tale’ art style of the first game has returned, and looks brilliant in high definition. Secondly, many of the areas showcased in the fly-by featured the same type of narrow streets and pathways through forests that many players grew fed up with by the end of the first Fable. Hopefully there will be plenty of open areas similar to the one created specifically for the demonstration of the dog’s gameplay mechanics.

With two more major features left to be announced for Fable 2 and more than a year to go before its release, we can already feel the hype building. Molyneux swears he’s learned to keep his excitement in check, but it seems we haven’t. In all fairness, he warned us. “If I can get you to care about something, then I’ve got you.” One hour’s worth of puppy love, and Molyneux’s already got us.