The Game On Interview with Peter Molyneux, Part Four

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

Game On: You were speaking of archetypes just before in terms of the light and dark sides of Albion [Fable 2's game world, also an ancient name for Great Britain]. Political messages in Fable 2?

Peter Molyneux: Yeah, I mean, I think, it's a funny game to have a political message in. I think part of, we debated that a lot, you know, now that Albion isn't run by heroes. In the original Fable, Albion was kind of run by heroes and heroes were the thing, and there weren't any lords or kings, there were just heroes, and greater and greater heroes. The impression that we wanted to subtly give you in Fable 2 is that money and technology have just got rid of those heroes now, you know, and the world doesn't need them anymore.

This is what happened in England. There was the age of King Arthur and his Knights, and they were the police force, and the knights were the nobility, and they had this incredible social code. Then they kind of disappeared, and they were replaced by the Robin Hood figures which became the holders of the morals. And then they completely went, there was almost a door that shut on that whole ethos of individuals holding the morals of the country, and it was replaced by commerce, and replaced by money and nobility and the order of law. In a way, we wanted Albion to feel a little bit like that, like "Gosh, I really am the only hero around," and "Am I the only person that realizes that if I have power, I should behave like this?" And of course it is a story about you anyway, so what you are in this world is quite interesting.

As I come away from Fable 2, I think that's some of the experience I want. But I don't want to paint an illusion that we, that there was a deep subtext here. There isn't. This is a game about you, not a game about any political message that we want to put across.

GO: Remember when we emailed about the whole "hero to zero" thing? The idea that instead of leveling up conventionally, you'd maybe start high level and give up conventional physical power in exchange, say, for social capital, which would give you the ability to interact with the environment in alternatively compelling ways?

PM: Yeah, yeah.

GO: It got me thinking about the whole Joseph Campbell monomyth in games, the idea that a hero ventures out and battles supernatural forces and comes back victorious, with, you know, some lofty lesson to share with the world, and how that's sort of this accepted wisdom, this un-snappable truth you mess with at your peril. Did you look for ways in Fable 2 to challenge that?

PM: I don't want to spoil things for you at all, and I'm not going to comment on that until you've finished the game, because there are moments, I think, where it's right to remind you of who you were.

Incidentally, I found that whole zero to hero thing and hero to zero as being an intellectual challenge. I think you could do a hero to zero. I think it is problematic, and there's a twist in it that you could use, but I think it would be...I think someone's going to do it, by the way. It probably won't be me, but the idea of starting with everything and losing it...what I find entertaining as a designer to think about is, if everything equals just unlimited power and almost confusion in terms of being able to do everything from the start, then having the choice of what you lose, gradually, and in that choice discovering yourself, I think it could be quite entertaining.

GO: That's something I know you've talked a lot about as you've evolved developmentally, that constant friction between "Here's this interesting, fascinating, high-concept science experiment that might not be very entertaining to actually play," versus something that's entertaining while still salvaging some of the conceptual stuff.

PM: I just think that a lot of the time, and this is kind of what I've learned from Fable, and I've learned a huge amount as a designer from Fable 2, is that a lot of the time these experiments are interesting, but are they entertaining? I am obsessed at the moment with how you feel when you play something, and a lot of the time I've felt that experiments I did in the past made me feel interested at the start, but actually slightly unfulfilled at the end.

What I'm hoping now is that I always bear in mind that these experiments...don't expect me to get less ambitious, because the next project I'm working on which I obviously can't talk about, is stupidly, ridiculously ambitious. But it is centered and grounded on how you feel, rather than what the experiment is.

GO: This is the Dimitri thing you talked about earlier this year, the one where your preliminary research led you to speculate it could lead to something that'd splash the cover of science magazines?

PM: Dimitri was actually a way of me naming an experiment we were working on without it ever being a title, and I chose Dimitri because that was the name of my grandson, and that's just a name I called this experiment. That's been grabbed by people who keep asking "When's Dimitri coming out?" And it was never intended for people to think about as a game that they're going to play, but more of an experiment that we were playing around with over a long time.

We always experiment with stuff here, and that experiment has turned into something that we are making now, and it's had breakthroughs and it's pretty amazing. In fact I'm not doing anything on Fable 2 at the moment, it's all to do with this other project.

GO: You have to get going, but I wanted your take...I know you've talked about this a lot lately, but I wanted to get your take on the PC games industry. You know, is it really dying, is it actually thriving in terms of online sales and MMOs, what's up with PC gaming, and why?

PM: I'm going to say something pretty radical. I think that PC gaming is as healthy as it's ever been. I think there's probably more people playing games on their PCs, I just don't think they're gamers. And I think for gamers, I think it is a distressing state of affairs for gamers. The only games they've got, the successful games, are World of Warcraft and The Sims.

Things we're not realizing, I think as in industry, are that behind it you've got Pogo,, there's enormous numbers of these games. I mean there's this one called Big Fish that proudly announces a new game every day. How ridiculous is that? A new game every single day.

I mean, I'd argue with that point because a lot of them now, for me, are getting pretty repetitive. But I think it's just that gaming has gone to the people who don't talk very much about gaming, it's gone to the people who are what we define as casual gamers. One day someone's going to wake up to that fact and start making games for those people which have got the excitement and innovation and some of the unique experiences that console games have.

The second thing is that, I mean personally I would love to make Fable 2 for the PC. I love the mouse, I love designing games for a mouse-based system. I think it's still a way of playing games which, you know, everyone's really excited about the Wii and all that, but for me, the mouse is for the PC an awful lot what that pointing device did for the Wii. It enabled people to play games that you simply can't play on consoles with controllers. It's a very comfortable way of playing games. So I still love the PC.

I'd love personally...this is not an announcement at all, but I would love to see Fable 2 on the PC. I think if it was going to be on the PC, the big challenge is changing the controls from a controller to a mouse, but keeping that whole ethos that it's going to be simple, and anybody should be able to just pick it up and instantly, hopefully intuitively, get how to play the game.

GO: I'd probably just plug my 360 gamepad in. I find I'm doing that more and more these days, and I used to be pretty hardcore mouse/keyboard, coming out of the whole pre-mouse Commodore Vic-20 and C-64 and B-128 era.

PM: I know, there is that, there is that to it, which is interesting. I think...if I was going to do a PC version of Fable 2, I think maybe the drama would be the same, maybe the story would be similar, but I think the experience would be radically different because of the mouse. Personally doing it as a controller just because you expose yourself to people who'd play isn't all part of it, so I think there is a real opportunity with the PC version if we were to do it.

GO: Thanks Peter.

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