Ah, love, sweet manufactured binary repetition that you are.

I have been playing Fable III, lately, and I really can’t get over how extremely short the game seems to fall of its goals, at least as expressed by this interview with Bit-Tech (discovered, and post in part prompted, via The Brainy Gamer). Abbot of the Brainy Gamer says it this way: “In Fable III, Peter Molyneux wants us to feel loved.” The game is supposed to be about connection, about relationships, about choices that affect our ability to live in the world of Albion, and most of all about people. But whether because of technical floppery or design misunderstanding, the very attempts the game makes to be personable for me make it emotionless.

So far in the game, I’ve married at least one person—whom, quite frankly, I have more or less forgotten about—as well as my actual wife, whose hero has visited my world once or twice. I’ve made dozens of people love me, both before and after I completed the game’s main storyline and in the process became love-at-first-sight fodder for every straight woman or gay man in Albion. The best way to express my experience of in-game love is through my experience with my preferred sword, Avo’s Lamentation. The sword has the “Blessed” augmentation, which allows you to earn guild seals (read: experience points) faster if you make 5 villagers fall in love with you.

This should be a problem in and of itself—how can a game be about love if love is a quantifiable resource?—but the procedure for fulfilling the requirement was both dreadfully uninteresting and, perhaps counterintuitively, impersonal. It went like this: I would walk up to a person, ascertain whether they were interested in people of my sex (in my experience, incidences of homosexuality in Albion are very low), and if so, I would interact with them by pressing A.

At this point, the screen would fade, and recenter on myself and my partner. My partner would have two bubbles floating over her head. One of them was the A button, which was labeled something like “Hug” or “Dance” or “Whistle” or “Hero Pose” or “Tickle” or “Pat-A-Cake” (seriously). The other was for the X button, and was labeled something like “Chicken” or “Burp” or similar—I don’t really know, because I never pressed X. Pressing A allowed me to dance with the person, or hug them, or whistle at them, or play pat-a-cake, as appropriate. This made them like me more. Holding A allowed me to extend the interaction, making them like me even more. Holding A to the interaction’s completion 4 times would take someone from neutral to friendly.

They would then send me to dig up something in another place, almost always at the exact same spot in the Mistpeak mountains. I would do so, and then we would be friends. Repeating the procedure with the interactions another four times would make them want to go on a date with me. I would drag them to a location—most commonly the lakeside in Millfields—and they would then announce, matter of factly, “That’s it. I’m in love with you.” And they would be in love with me.

This is love in Albion: Press A. Repeat.

In fact, this is more or less everything in Albion, for a player interested in being a “Good” character. Pressing A is always the “good” moral choice, and pressing “X” is always the bad one. In fact, most of the time I was presented with a moral decision, I found myself pushing A before I even heard what the choice was—I even found myself thinking about that skipped dialog as “flavor text.” All of Fable III‘s lofty aspirations for love and moral complexity in effect boil down to “Press A to be a good person.”

I don’t think it was meant to be this way. Peter Molyneux, Fable III’s creator and engine, says what makes Fable III distinct is the ability to touch.

You can see, as soon as you give the power [to the in game character] to reach out, touch and embrace, it makes a really big difference. It’s so much more intimate than just pressing X – because you physically have to drag him there, it’s so much more involving. There are so many times when entertainment, a film or something, hits us like a tidal wave and then it just goes. If you own your own touches, if you’re making them, then you’re so much more likely to remember them.

Bit-tech inserted the phrase “to the in-game character,” but I’m not so sure that was the original intention. Chris Dahlen wondered aloud on Twitter recently whether some of the problems with Fable III might be because Lionhead was originally considering Kinect (nee Natal) integration. The interview confirms:

We’ve been working on Natal for some time – we created Milo for the first demo – and we’d be crazy not to integrate the two… . We were getting lazy, tweaking people’s thumbs for 20 years. A button does this, it’s all so standard. We, as an industry, we have failed, to some extent, to create a unique form of entertainment and Natal makes you [as a games designer] think again.

You still need a controller to play Fable 3 but there are places in the world where you can use Natal, where it’s cute, funny, engaging. You don’t need it but it does enable an enhanced Fable 3.

So: some aspects of Fable III were meant to be Kinect enabled, and those aspects are “cute, funny, engaging”—just like in-game interactions are meant to be. It casts a different light on the previous quotation—the ability to “reach out, touch, and embrace” was supposed to be ours, not the characters —unless you want us to believe that what’s “so much more intimate than just pressing X” is just pressing A.

I think we were meant to hug these characters with our bodies, that in Molyneux’s dream, we all stood in front of our TV’s playing pat-a-cake in first person, staring at our partners and imagining the touch of their hands on ours. I think Molyneux wanted us to be our characters, and to feel—as much as we could—like we were holding these people in our arms, dancing the tango, hearing them laugh at our tickles, and maybe even kissing the air and thinking of them.

I can see how it might have worked. I have a Kinect, now, and it really is amazing how different the gaming experience is when your body is the controller. I can only imagine how different it might have been if each time I took one of these digital women on a date, I had to physically take their hand, physically embrace the air I imagined was them, physically respond to their kisses. It would have been a much different game.

As it is, though, Fable III fails for me precisely because it is not what it wishes to be: a game about real emotion.

Nota bene: Wordpress informs me that at least one reader found this post as the result of the following search, which I choose to repunctuate and interpret as a poem.

avo’s lamentation:
making 5 villagers love me
not working.