The Game On Interview with Peter Molyneux, Part Three

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 Three -- Part One, Part Two, Part Four.)

Game On: Let's talk about the dog. I know you're wary of making too big a deal out of the dog, but can you talk about how the creature AI in the Black & White series [where you could teach a creature to behave in certain ways, much like a pet] informed the dog in Fable 2?

Peter Molyneux: Yeah, I mean, the dog is, he's the first feature of Fable 2 I talked about, two years ago. I stood up in front of this big crowd at GDC and I said we chose to use the technology that we were inspired by in Black & White to create a dog. Nothing more, and nothing less. And he is both an incredibly exciting feature for me, and I think when, if I talk to gamers, initially they get very disappointed with the dog because he doesn't, he isn't immediately this incredibly useful game mechanic. We're very used to in games that things are traveling with you or you've got power-ups that have to be immediately useful. But that's not his job. His job is to be just a dog, and for you to first and foremost realize that he isn't, hopefully you found this, that he's not aggravating, and he isn't a burden to you. You don't have to direct him, you don't have to focus him. The only thing you're really responsible for doing is healing him.

Now I think as you play the game you'll start to realize that, and this is another thing about coop --you only realize how different your dog is when you meet other dogs, the other players' dogs, and you'll realize his behavior will suddenly change. Because what we did with the original Black & White was to allow this behavior to be changed by the creature watching you doing stuff, and that's how he learned. And what was very primitive in the original Black & White is a lot more subtle in Fable 2. In other words, your dog starts to become a reflection of what you're like, and you'll notice soon that he's going to start being a bit more aggressive to certain sorts of people because you've been aggressive to those sorts of people. And he's going to start getting very excited when he meets people like your family and friends of yours and the companions you travel with you'll find form a relationship with the dog.

All I really want out of this dog for you is firstly, for you to have someone to travel with, to have a companion, for you not to feel lonely. He is going to be weaved into the story because personally I find that that bond, as the game goes on and I knew I had 12, 14 hours to really cement this relationship as you play the game, so I didn't want to do it all at once. As you play the game, I think you'll find that, you know, that relationship gets really strong.

GO: Speaking of the dog's usefulness, I tend to be one of those neurotic gamers who, given the opportunity, I'll waste a lot of time, particularly in games that have one of these blacked out automaps where you can kind of use the black spacing to gauge "here's where I've been, here's what I have yet to uncover." I think about it and I think it's such an annoying thing that I do because it's really not playing...

PM: I'm exactly the same way as you. I find that so compulsive, such a compulsion. It's not particularly enjoying, especially in some games where you go to those areas and there's just nothing there, and the whole reward is unveiling the map. It isn't that there's some secret hidden there.

GO: The reason I mention it is that I'm finding, I think for the first time ever, that...to slightly disagree with you about the dog's early usefulness, the dog was initially very useful to me, because I discovered I could just relax, because I knew if there was something really important nearby, he'd let me know. I could explore, but without feeling that "must check everywhere" compulsion to poke my head around every corner.

PM: Yeah right, that's right. That's the order of his mind. The first thing in the dog's mind, actually before anything else, is that "I mustn't aggravate you." So he's kind of aware of what's going on in the world and the game, and that is kind of directing his thought and behavior quite a bit. After that, it's "I must do everything to help you." So sniffing out those dig spots, hunting out those chests, warning you of what's going on.

There's another thing that may happen, or it may not. It depends how you play the game, is that he kind of reminds you what's different, which is another very useful mechanic. You know, a funny thing about making games is, especially where you travel through regions more than once...it's amazing how blatant you have to be to point out a difference in the world. Now that difference may be a statue or a door or a tree, but even if I put a big flashing neon sign, there's a good chance a huge proportion of people will miss it. But that single little bark from the dog, you've kind of become attuned to, and suddenly I don't need neon signs anymore. I've just got the dog there, and you'll notice the kind of obsession the dog has about leading you to places is variable, and it's variable how important those places are, and there's 50 subtleties with his bark, which you may or may not have picked up on. And those subtleties are almost subconscious.

We really sat down and talked to people who understood dog behavior, and it became obvious that dogs do have a language. It isn't just a bark. There's yaps, there's little trail offs, how fast it trailed off, and those are thing which when you actually sit down and think about it, and then you hear a dog bark, you start to realize there is this language which we're kind of subconsciously attuned to, which we tried to emulate in the dog. But at the end of the day, you know what, all I've said is "It's just a dog." It doesn't do any more or less than you'd expect a dog perhaps to do, and there's no science fiction to him. He doesn't wag his tail and fly through the air or do any of that. He is just a dog, so don't expect too much from him, but I hope you're surprised by the end of the game by some of the things that he does when you think that he's just a dog.

GO: I met Lionhead's George Backer at GCDC in Leipzig in '07 and caught his session "Life, Love, and Death," and he said the problem with games today is that they compartmentalize drama and gameplay, and you effectively have non-interactive drama only loosely wed to interactive gameplay. So for example, cutscene with character drama, run around kill stuff, cutscene with more character drama, more action stuff, etc. I'm already getting the sense in Fable 2 that the quests, the way you level up, the sound design, the way the art looks and changes, the mechanics and the mini-games all seem designed to complement that emotional investment.

PM: You're absolutely right, you're completely right, and it's a whole problem rather than a partial problem. I'll be completely honest with you. I think we had this dream of doing interactive cutscenes, and I called them interactive cutscenes. And it was inspired by BioShock actually, which was, we want to tell you a deep and involving emotional story, but we don't want you to have the tedium of sitting through what are called "speak and waits." They're these terrible industry things where the camera points at a face when it's talking, then points to another face when it's talking, and if you did it in cinema or TV it would be the world's most boring program. So that was our inspiration, and a lot of our thoughts were about how can we make things more emotional for you, how can we give you the feeling you're in control.

For example, I was really keen on the idea that, rather than in existing games where you press the "skip" button to skip things, you were proactive and pulled the "look at" trigger to look at things. And that was just different for me, and it was a holistic thing. But I'll be honest, I think that interactive cutscene stuff was really hard and challenging to do for us, and you know I think we didn't quite take it as far as we will take it in the future, because the little that we did do showed us just how much could be done.

So, for example, and this is kind of the answer to your question, when we tell a bit of the story and we want you to engage something or we want you to feel something, the wind that's in the trees, where the sun is, what your companions are commenting on, what your dog's doing, what even the GUI is doing at that particular moment are all linked together to service that moment. And if you are in some way in control of that as well, and in some way can comment on that, it makes it much more powerful.

GO: Game writers or reporters or whatever you want to call them are experiencing this moment where it's sort of no longer hip to talk about the way a game looks because it's all they were talking about once the discrete 3D card thing happened. That said, Fable 2, I'll risk annoying a bunch of people for saying, looks...let's just say that I'm pausing quite a lot just to watch the sun go up and come back down again.

PM: Well those are the amazing, incredible people that I work with. They're just fantastically obsessive about the world that they've created. And I think their brilliance is in making something which is both familiar and strange at the same time. And when I say you have not seen anything yet, I promise you that's absolutely true. It's funny, when you're designing games, the temptation all the time is to show off as quickly as possible, partly because you want to convince people that you're smart and clever, and partly because you're itching for people to see it and you're frightened that they're going to stop playing, and you want to keep pulling out bigger and bigger rabbits just as quickly as possible. We resisted that temptation, resisted it in gameplay, because not much happens in childhood, for instance, to be honest with you. We resisted visually...you know, you've only so far seen the really pretty side of the starting city, but you're soon going to see the other side of Albion [Fable 2's game world, also an ancient name for Great Britain] which is a much darker side, and actually a much more dramatic one.

Next: Political machinations and rhetorical subtexts, a game of you, "zero to hero" versus "hero to zero," monomyths, lessons learned and science experiments, the once and future casual paradigm, and the state of PC gaming.

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