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Weekly Musings #15 - Is Open-Ended Overrated? Thoughts on Fable.
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: September 20th 2004

The big buzzword in gaming for some time has been "open ended." The idea is simple in theory; a game that's more like a sandbox, where the gamers can go anywhere and do anything their hearts desire. And why not? Especially when it's put together with superhuman abilities, an open-ended game where the world is your oyster can be very appealing.

But then, reality sets in. There's an ugly truth to most "open ended" games these days; once the initial novelty wears off, they tend to have boredom issues. Strange as it seems, gamers actually do appreciate a storyline. Side quests are optional for a reason.

Enter Fable, on the Xbox; the new RPG where you get to define your own character, spend XP leveling up your way, set up your appearance... well, it's been done before, but the "morality" system wherein your actions in-game define your looks; go evil, and you'll grow horns and look evil. Go good, and you'll develop a halo and ethereal butterflies. 

The development of Fable wasn't without the traditional issues. Some storyline points, including a couple heroes, were dropped. Some of the side quests weren't quite as well developed as one might have been wishing. Some plot points don't go anywhere, in an "oh that's interesting" sort of way. The game's not perfect, that's for sure. But it was the tryout of a new idea, as well as trying to blend old ideas together. It sets up a good premise, and runs with it, and that's not a bad thing.

As for some of the "bad" things, I honestly think some of the gamers who are panning the game are doing so merely because they need something to pan. So let's go over three points.

#1 - Storyline quests.

Despite what you may think... EVERY game, even the pinnacles of "open ended" gameplay, has storyline quests that you have to do, in that NOT doing them doesn't advance the story. Spider-Man 2, Grand Theft Auto... they still have plotlines. There's still stuff that you absolutely, positively, must do to move the plotline forward and get access to later quests/items/areas/whatever.

Storyline is what most of today's games are really about. And storyline can be entirely linear, and still fun. The Legacy of Kain line, Ninja Gaiden, Legend of Zelda games all do decently well today with storylines that are 100% linear. There's nothing wrong with it, and I'm sorry you weren't quite expecting it.

In Fable, these are a bit more required than the other two I just mentioned, and yes, this means the game is a bit more "linear." But if you want something 100% open-ended where you never have to do a storyline quest or mission, you're playing the wrong game. The only thing I can even think of that comes close would be MMORPG's.

Now, Fable with online play would have been interesting, there's no doubt about that. But it also would have required even more testing and design time. Plus, it runs against part of the next problem:

#2 - Loading zones.

As far as loading zones go, I can see the gripe. Some areas in Fable are pretty small. Some are also pretty damn large, of course, but that's neither here nor there. Loading zones, especially when you're trying to traverse a large area, get annoying.

However, I can see exactly why the designers did it in this case. Cutting the game into load zones allowed them to do one thing they couldn't otherwise do.

It allowed them to make every zone completely mobile; the moment you step into it, EVERYTHING in it is moving, not just what you currently can see.

This, believe it or not, is important. If it weren't the case, then the flirtation system wouldn't work that well - roam out of "active" range, and the game would either reset flirted girls to non-flirted, or freeze them in place till they returned. In order to make a dynamic load system, they'd also have had to take the world detail down to account for the possibilities of getting too many enemies following the hero in a gigantic train. With a static area, they can limit the spawns appropriately.

Even in the MMO world, zone spots and loading spots are commonplace. It's sometimes viewed as a design flaw, but it's really not; it makes coding the game, and parceling up the work, a LOT simpler.

#3 - "Short" playing time.

People obsess way too much over games' playing time these days to start with. Going through my old collection of NES games recently, I can't name one - barring RPG titles like Zelda or Final Fantasy - that could really not be beaten in a day, or two at most. Yet gamers are obsessed that the game they're buying ought to be worth an entire month of just sitting on the couch playing it. And so the designers wind up putting in tons and tons of side quests that really don't mean much, and spending time that could have otherwise been spent making the storyline tighter or perhaps adding in those extra heroes with their plotlines.

Besides, with Fable, there's an option - play through again and play a different way. Made a nasty physical fighter of yourself last time? Try magery, or thievery this time. Go around and kill the whole world if you want, or marry a girl in every town. Buy every property in the place, then kill your tenants. DO something. Or perhaps, just perhaps, accept that you enjoyed the game while you played it, and move on to another fun game.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at)!
Alternatively, post 'em right here for everyone to see!

Weekly Musings #15: Is Open-Ended Overrated?

Added:  Monday, September 20, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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