Peter Molyneux, the creative force behind the Fable series and the seminal god game Populous, recently said he'd gotten hate mail from people who couldn't bear the excruciating choice that confronts them near the end of Fable II: Who will they sacrifice—thousands of people, or their dog? But then, Molyneux's ability to strike a nerve is near-legendary. It's not just his commitment to narrative and emotional involvement. It's the delight he seems to take in putting people in situations that show who they really are—sometimes uncomfortably so.
Molyneux and I will be talking about this sort of thing in a session at SXSW Interactive called "The Emotion Engine: Can a Video Game Speak to the Heart?" Scheduled for Sunday, March 14 at 5:00 PM, the conversation will focus on the expressive potential of games in general and in particular on what to expect from Fable III and Milo and Kate, currently under development at Lionhead Studios, his headquarters outside London.
When I first spoke with Molyneux—in August 2008, a couple of months before Fable II came out—he explained why he gives players these kinds of choices. "It's a personality test. It reflects on what you're really like. If I can make you care about something, then the story will be much more meaningful. So I wrap the AI around a dog—he's going to love you, he's cute and fun as a companion, and in tests, people can't help but care about a dog. This is what we can do that books, TV, film cannot."
He's clearly ambivalent about Hollywood. With a movie like The Dark Knight, he said, "it's so evident the skill it takes—who are we even to dare to say we have that skill?" But he also said, "The trouble with a lot of Hollywood stuff is—I'm so bored with it. James Bond, Tom Cruise—the character of the hero is locked in concrete. He must have a love interest, they must end up in bed, he never talks under torture. The only surprise is whether they're on top of a cliff or under water.
"But that's great—you've got that hero template, and now I can start messing with it. Maybe, just maybe, you'll play Fable II, and the next time you go to the cinema you'll see one of these heroes and say, You know what? I'd never be able to do that."
People playing Fable III, as Molyneux explained last summer at GDC Europe in Cologne, will face an entirely new set of choices. Midway through the game, the hero becomes ruler of the kingdom, with all the power and responsibility that entails. To write this part, Molyneux and his team spent a lot of time poring over European history, which has no shortage of potentates making bad moral choices.
In Milo and Kate, he wraps the AI around a little boy named Milo. Like Fable III, Milo and Kate relies not on a conventional controller but on the interface he's spent years developing as part of Project Natal: an Xbox 360 peripheral that reads your facial expression and tone of voice as you play. How much does Milo actually "know"? What kind of trouble can a hero-turned-ruler get into? From Joseph Weizenbaum's ELIZA to Shakespeare's MacBeth, we'll have plenty to talk about at SXSW.