Opinion: Mixing Albion and Stillwater

In this opinion piece, writer and commentator Tom Cross examines the open worlds in Volition's Saints Row 2 and Lionhead's Fable 2, and how the two studios could learn from each other's games to improve their next titles.
[In this opinion piece, writer and commentator Tom Cross examines the open worlds in Volition's Saints Row 2 and Lionhead's Fable 2, and how the two studios could learn from each other's games to improve their next titles.] Many video games concern themselves with providing “realistic,” “immersive,” and “transparent” game experiences. In these games, the developers try to postpone the moment when the games “gaminess,” the certainty of its simulated nature, becomes unpleasantly or blatantly apparent to the player. Games employ fixed first-person perspectives, transparent UIs, hidden loading screens, and seamless transitions between gameplay and cutscene. For some video games, these concerns are secondary to another set of concerns, namely that of entertaining the player with as many or as intricate game systems as possible. These games forgo narrative and sensory depth, and instead attempt to provide the player with such interesting and varied options that the player will be having too much fun to notice the paper thin quality of the more “stylistic touches.” And, the reasoning goes, if they do notice, they’ll be having too much fun to complain. Saints Row 2 is unapologetically in the gameplay-over-story camp, providing countless diversions, activities, and options, right alongside a ludicrous story, bland environments, and highly derivative style. Fable 2 is also focused on providing a wealth of options and activities for its players, but it also strives to create a complete, fulfilling experience from a stylistic, aesthetic approach. The world of Fable 2 is meticulously realized, brilliantly and beautifully designed, and wonderfully fleshed out with characters and voices. f27.jpgYou, You, You However, both of these games share one imperative: they are about you, and will often sacrifice degrees of realism or sensibility to maintain the focus on the player character. From Saints’ amazingly deep character creator, to Fable 2’s highly reactive character models, to the reactions of people in the world to your presence and alignment towards them (whether through medieval prestige system or gang allegiance system), both games want to make you the hero, the gang leader, the focal point of the universe. In this, both games succeed; there will never be any doubt in your mind that you are the Hero of Albion, or the baddest gang leader in Stillwater. Likewise, both games succeed at providing you fun, nigh-unending distractions and options. Real estate, murder, quests, competitions, and item collecting all serve to compliment the main narratives. However, the difference for me in these two games lies in just how fun they are, and how much I admire their accomplishments (and for what reasons). Saints Row 2 is an absolutely amazing game to play. I have played more of this game without a break than I have any other game in years. It requires almost no investment, and it returns so much more than it requires you to give. At any moment, I can take part in any number of amusing, silly, ludicrous, outlandish, and most importantly, fun activities. I was eager to see how this game would stack up next to Grand Theft Auto IV, and I wasn’t disappointed. In GTA IV, the most basic tasks are a chore, from moving to shooting, from driving to completing missions. In Saints Row 2, every single one of those simple activities is a breeze. Cars handle way too well, like arcade race cars, shooting is easy, character movement is simple, and the interface is in general simple, easy to navigate, and lacking in any attempts at an “immersive” (read: maddeningly counterintuitive) experience. In Stillwater, you know you’re in a game, and you love every minute. When compared to my experiences in GTA IV, there is no comparison. There, I disliked every second I wasn’t wandering aimlessly around the city. Even then, the “realism” of the simulation made my movements unpleasantly elephantine, and my encounters with the police frequent and deadly. Saints Row 2 always encourages you to take the path of least resistance, and enjoy it as much as possible. Sain6.jpgThe Saints Might be Fun, But... With such glowing praise heaped on the game, I’m sad to say that I hope that the next one is markedly different. The world, fiction, and aesthetics of Saints Row 2 offend, disgust, and annoy me. This is a game that is less offensive than GTA IV (barely), only because it doesn’t think it’s the second coming of absolutely amazing gaming. It’s quite content to be its own breed of stupid suburban gangster-fantasy, and as such doesn’t make the same mistakes that GTA IV made (and that its critics made). Unfortunately, it can’t match GTA IV’s scope and coherence of vision. I may dislike Rockstar’s latest hit, but there’s no doubt that it is as perfectly oriented and lovingly designed a game as was ever made. It strives to create a complete, uninterrupted fiction, far more than Saints Row 2 could ever hope to do. The only problem is that fiction is derivative in almost every possible way, blithely trading in stereotypes and worn out plot devices. Fable 2 then, is the interesting meeting of these two schools of open world game design. While it provides many of the same attractions and distractions found in Saints Row 2, it is also beautiful, cohesive as a narrative (regardless of the merits of that narrative), and is possessed of a strong sense of self. Saints Row 2 is also quite aware of what it is, but it’s also quite content to specialize in the simplest kind of cliché storytelling. Fable 2 doesn’t crib its story, characters, characterizations and style from the worst fiction around it (as Saints Row 2 does), and Fable 2 is equally as sure of its place in the realm of fantasy fiction as Saints Row 2 is of its place in gangsta fiction that appeals to young white guys. Fable 2 is designed to be appreciated on multiple levels, from its characters to its architecture, from its music to its voice work. It’s a game that takes a lot of time and effort to make you believe you are in a different world, and to add all of the touches we normally see in our world to this new imposter. Saints Row 2 doesn’t disappoint me because it tries to reproduce a version of our own world in the game (on the contrary, games like GTA IV, Left 4 Dead, Hitman and others all prove that it’s possible to make compelling modern environments within games), it disappoints me because it’s obvious that it cares so little about creating interesting, immersive fiction. saints-row-2-game.jpgIf Only Fable 2 Had a Bit More of the Saints in it Imagine my consternation then, when I realized that I liked playing Saints Row 2 much more than I liked playing Fable 2. This isn’t to say that I don’t like the time I spend in the latter game world. I enjoy meeting people in Albion, hearing their stories (it’s the kind of game where I will actually listen to the entertaining quest narratives, instead of just reading the dialogue), and exploring new areas. Being in Fable 2’s world is amazing, a truly transporting experience. Playing in it isn’t nearly so wonderful. In Saints Row 2, I can play for hours and have a great time, but it’s hard to remember any of the details of my world. Like I said before, the simplest aspects of Saints Row 2 are fun; the same cannot be said for Fable 2. Using magic (and to a lesser degree, melee combat) is a trying experience, especially when compared to the relatively simple ranged combat system. The game also features an annoyingly vague and obtuse interface, a ridiculously small map, and hugely convoluted inventory system. It shouldn’t take me long minutes to drink a series of potions, but it does, just like it does to change weapons, armor or any other menu activity. So here we are, faced with two games, one which is amazing to play and an eyesore to contemplate for longer than a few minutes, and one that wows its players with every sight and sound, but can’t deliver on the gameplay end. My hope is that Lionhead makes Fable 3, but instills it with only the best Saints’ sensibilities. Who doesn’t want to stroll down the newly annexed streets of some Albionic town, accompanied by one’s color-coded gang (or “guild,” in this case)? The gang and customization mechanic from Saints Row 2 are just a little bit better than those on display in Fable 2, but it’s a bit that makes a big difference. Likewise, if Lionhead can make the next one play as well as it looks and sounds, it’ll have one of the best adventure RPGs out there. Just make sure you don’t pick up the Saints’ bad habits, Lionhead.

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