Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Reimagining Interaction in Fable: The Journey

The first three entries in the Fable series were action-RPGs full of choice, consequence, morality, love, and adventure. Fable: The Journey is something…different. It's certainly a Fable game, with the lush landscapes of Albion painting the horizon and quirky-looking characters pulled from the pages of fairy tales. Kinect rules this experience, so fans of the series might immediately and disdainfully dismiss it as a "Kinect game" -- a label often applied negatively. Don't – it's entirely too early to jump to any conclusions regarding this imaginative twist on the Fable world.
A boy and his horse.

After Fable III's generally lukewarm reception, Lionhead Studioswanted to do something different. "Why don't we take on the challenge of designing a game for Kinect?" suggested Peter Molyneux, Lionhead Studios' Creative Director, and that's what they set out to do. With Kinect, Microsoft claims that "You are the controller." According to Molyneux that's not what Fable: The Journey is about. The Journey is "written to get the best out of Kinect rather than turn it into a controller." This design philosophy is apparent throughout the early part of the game, even if it still holds some of the frustrations of other Kinect games.

When Fable: The Journey opens, you're sitting on a wagon looking at the back of your horse's head and a softly lit countryside. Two leather reins stretch toward the screen. There's no tutorial, no on-screen instructions, and no indication of what you need to do next. From there, instinct takes over. Whip your arms, and the leather straps reflect the motion, telling your horse to start trotting. Pull on side or the other, and the horse veers in that direction. Pull too hard, and you hurt the horse, reflected both in its pained cries and physical damage to the beast.
What's worse than potholes? Exploding barrels.

Green experience beads dot the dirt roads of Albion, and by moving slowly or charging through different areas, you might attract the attention of enemies. During one scenario, the wagon moves at a clip on a cliffside, as ocean waves crash over the road – soaking the wagon and driver during a particularly exciting section. All the while, flying demons attack from the sky, making it a perilous road – one that the player must navigate. Dodging arrows and dangerous wagons is only part of the adventure, and keeping your horse under control and safe is part of the journey.

This relationship reveals its importance early on when healing and grooming mechanics come into play. At certain junctures, you can pull your wagon over, get out, and take care of your four-legged companion. Using gesture control, you can both pull arrows out of the horse's rump and heal other wounds using magical powers. This closeness represents the tight bond shared between Gabriel, The Journey's gypsy protagonist, and his horse.
Magic in action.

This health mechanic also ties the Fable series' strength of morality to this Kinect adventure. Molyneux explains that, "the unfortunate side effect of healing is that something has to pay. The simple rule is, you can bring anything dead back to life…[but] maybe a cute puppy dog has to die to heal your horse." The short demo revealed no long-reaching reveal of this effect, but it remains conceptually interesting.

"You don't have to preach to people anymore," says Molyneux, referring to the lack of tutorials, "they can play the game and experiment." It's a simple thought that lives throughout The Journey. There are actions, commands, and abilities that a huge percentage of players may miss entirely. "You can train your horse and manipulate your horse without touching the reins," reveals Molyneux. But the game never explains that you can talk to it, that by screaming out a fireball spell, its intensity reflects your emotion. This sense of mystery, and layering, is part of the greater design. "If you never discover [those commands], that's fine."
Hand the reins to your AI friend to fight off the winged demons.

This sense of discovery continues when stepping off the wagon and conjuring magical spells. With mechanics similar to Bulletstorm, you get a whip-like spell that can topple stone columns, fling enemies into the air, and interact with the environment. This element is a brand-new addition to The Journey; added to the game just weeks before the demo. With your other arm, you can send out bursts of electricity, fling fireballs, and augment each spell after it's left your hand. From just a few minutes experimenting with the magic gameplay, the depth of gesture recognition and varied combat options was apparent. "Every time you use the magic, it feels different," states Molyneux. But that's also when a familiar problem arises.

Despite design philosophies that Lionhead intended and are present in Fable: The Journey, it still suffers from the same gesture recognition headaches that the majority of Kinect software knows all too well. The demo used an early build of the game, but while playing, a subtle adjustment of the reins to adjust the horse's trajectory caused a massive yank on the horse's head. Or flinging a fireball at a specific monster actually sent it flying harmlessly to the opposite side of the screen. Sure, some actions were recently implemented to the design and the control issues weren't overwhelming, but they were consistent enough that Fable: The Journey, with its lofty goals, still must adhere to the restrictions and limitations of its hardware.
Gabriel showing off his powers.

It's too early to know if Fable: The Journey successfully rewrites interaction, but after seeing its intention and execution, it's safe to approach the project with cautious optimism. While elements rely on historical design – such as on-rails combat while an AI comrade takes the reins -- there is still something special about the healing system, the depth of gestures, training your horse, and exploring Albion with new eyes. 


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