The Game On Interview with Peter Molyneux, Part One

In our "15 Coolest Games of Fall 2008" slideshow, we describe Lionhead's Fable 2 as "a colonial-era fantasy" in which you can have sex (safe or not), get hitched, raise kids, train pet dogs, battle eldritch critters, follow bread-crumb trails if you're ever lost, and -- depending on whether you're naughty or nice -- exhibit "good" or "evil" physical traits while grappling with the long term repercussions of even the most innocuous actions.

Turns out that's hardly scratching the surface.

Peter Molyneux is one of the industry's most respected figures, the creative force behind genre-defining games like Populous, Dungeon Keeper, and Black & White. He was inducted into the AIAS Hall of Fame in 2004, and holds an OBE (Order of the British Empire). His first Fable game debuted in 2004, eventually winning more than fifty awards and going on to sell over 2.5 million copies worldwide.

We caught up with Molyneux to talk about Fable 2 at his Guildford, Surrey, UK studio recently. (This is Part One -- Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.)

Game On: How are you?

Peter Molyneux: I'm fine, I'm in seventh heaven, because Fable 2's finished, and it's due out in six days time, and that's a pretty exciting place to be.

GO: Well I have to tell you, we'll have to wrap this up in like five minutes so I can get back to playing it.

PM: So how far have you got?

GO: I'm at the part where... [spoilers excised] ...and win their respect, but I have gotten married, and I have a kid.

PM: Oh my gosh, you're going to have to...there's an interesting thing that's coming up soon, and you're going to realize that getting married early in the game... [spoilers excised] Because even though you've done a lot of things already, really I think the game starts now...and you're going to come out the other side of this experience and realize that there really is a game there, and a lot of stuff up to that point has been left up to you. You know, it's up to you whether or not you get married, how wealthy you are and such.

How much money have you got, can you remember?

GO: I'm not exactly sure, because I've been spending it on titles and things like that, you know, just sort of pushing the different edges of things around to see what they do. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 gold pieces?

PM: Have you bought any houses or shops yet?

GO: Yep, the marital suite in Rookridge, aka the dilapidated one-story farm house up the lane from the pub beside the carrot field.

PM: Because if you buy a shop or buy a house then rent it out, then you accrue gold every five minutes, whether or not you've got your 360 on. So you will be earning money, even though we're talking on the phone now.

That is a whole area of the game which I personally get fanatical about. I think "I'm not going to stop playing until I own another property, because I'm going to go to bed and when I wake up in the morning I'm going to have like 5,000 gold more. And you start getting more...I find myself starting to get really greedy, and wanting to own things, and put the rent up, just because I'm going to go to bed. It's a fantastic feeling to come down to the game and think you've got all this money.

I had this brilliant thing happen to me the day before yesterday, as I came back from a press tour in Japan. I'd been away for about 10 days, and literally the first thing I did, even though it sounds very...it just shows you what a boring person I actually am, because the first thing I did was kiss my wife and hug my kid, then I turned on Fable 2 just to see how much gold I'd accrued over 10 days.

GO: I should probably admit that in the great debate about the original Fable, I came down on the "fan of" side, but already I get the sense that if Fable was a one-way river with only short little narrative tributaries, Fable 2 feels more like a fully realized matrix, where things keep reaching around from the early parts and showing up in meaningful ways in the later parts of the game.

PM: Yeah, you know that is...I think of this as part of the world, you know, and I've realized that even as a hardcore gamer, there's only so much combat I can take, and I don't want you to sort of put down Fable 2 just because, you know, "Oh I've had enough of it for now." I'd much rather you say "Okay, I'm going to go back and do some blacksmithing." And I do, myself, even though [blacksmithing] seems like a casual game, get very obsessed about it.

Have you gone to the [spoiler] cave yet?

GO: Yes, and I have to just interrupt and say that the way the... [spoiler] and reacts to you is pretty fascinating, because it changes the way that whole experience imprints on you.

PM: Ah yes, that's a mechanic I haven't talked about at all yet, that idea that we put things in the world to help sort of reflect things back at you from different angles.

GO: I talked to Ken Levine back about a year and a half or so before BioShock came out, and he revealed then that one of things he was trying to do, and then didn't really get to do it as much, was that he wanted to convey the horror of what was happening to you as you made these moral choices by the reactions of others to your appearance. Fable 2 is an entirely different animal, of course, but I'm already seeing quite a lot of that as I've been playing through.

PM: Actually there's a lot of inspiration that I took from BioShock, and certainly, I actually think that Ken and those guys did a fantastic job of allowing me to experience the story whilst I was playing the game in a way that no other game really has done before. I kind of used that. I sort of...before I played BioShock, I suspected that we would be taking this route, and we'd experimented for awhile, but I used BioShock an awful lot to justify what we were doing, and you know, to say look, if it wasn't for those tapes in BioShock, if there were cutscenes, and if the story was told to me while I wasn't doing something else, I just wouldn't have paid attention. But because I had the choice of them being played out, and while they were played out, I still had the freedom most of the time to sort of move around, that gave it the extra drama.

So I'm not saying I'm inventing anything here, and I'm certainly inspired by what Ken did on BioShock. I thought BioShock was definitely my game of last year. I think it's one of the best first-person shooters I've played, and certainly his world that he created, the undersea world, was very, very compulsive. I wish it wasn't quite so horrific, because then I could enjoy it with more people. I've tried to get other people to play, but the horror just wears me down after awhile. Other than that, I thought it was really, really a fantastic game.

GO: I'm assuming you played System Shock for DOS back in the day?

PM: I did, and funny thing, I didn't enjoy those so much. I thought they were a lot more of a detailed world, and I thought that whilst the customization was good, it was a little over-complex, where what [Levine] did with BioShock was spot on. You know, they simplified it, and made it very clear what your powers were and what they did, and the convoluted state of the world didn't seem quite so confusing. So I thought it, for me, and this is contentious...I thought it was better than System Shock, though a lot of people will probably argue that point.

Next: Fable 2 for anyone, be-whoever-you-want-to-be, death and consequences, failure as entertainment, with great power comes precarious leveling, playing cooperatively with others online, and living in the past to better understand the future.

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