E3 2011: Peter Molyneux Fable: The Journey Interview

As we walk into the minimalist little room upstairs at Microsoft's E3 booth where Fable: The Journey is being demoed, Peter Molyneux is admiring the wall. Scrawled across one of the wall panels of the E3 booth in his handwriting are the words "IT'S NOT ON RAILS", and underneath, the signatures of journalists who have been to see the game and agreed that, yes - Fable: The Journey is in fact not on rails.

Before we chat, we're given a short demo of the game in action with Molyneux explaining some of his philosophy behind how to design what is essentially still an action RPG specifically for Kinect. With that done - and you can read our combined preview of that and another demo through this link - we got to start asking questions. Here's what the visionary designer said.

RPGSite: This isn’t the first time that Fable has been linked to Kinect – Fable III was. Did this project come out of that?
Peter Molyneux: Well... there were some questions. I think my answer was ‘we love Kinect, we love Fable, you should expect something’ – and maybe this is the result of that. I think I was answering in that way predicting the future – we hadn’t actually started anything at that point.

We did have a few gimmicky things in mind for Fable III – but we ran out of time – as you saw, the cuts in Fable III were pretty harsh, so that was definitely one of the cuts that happened there. This is a Kinect only experience – you can’t play it with the controller.

RPGSite: Would you regard this as a main-line entry in the Fable series, or would you regard it as more of a side-story?
Molyneux: I think... side story sounds wrong. Y’know, it sounds like we’re not giving it the love and care. I just think we had a really strong idea of what Fable 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 would be – all about heroes and this family of heroes – and we didn’t want to tell that story here – but we may well tell that story in the future.

RPGSite: This game seems to look a fair bit better visually than the past Fable titles - how has the change been achieved?
Molyneux: I’ll be completely honest with you – I think our Fable tech was getting a bit old. Some of the code there was about ten years old, and, well, look around this show – the level of graphical fidelity is so high. We chose to move over to Unreal and drop our old engine tech. We spoke to the Unreal guys – our big worry was open environments, free roaming and what have you but we’ve gotten past that – and this is – basically it’s just over four months work to produce that, so you can expect there to be much higher quality than this.

But yeah, you know – having spectacular vistas and some of the drama you’re seeing in the billboards out there for Modern Warfare and such – that’s what we want to get to, and it takes a long time to build that tech, and Unreal has that ready. So we’re thinking about super-dramatic things – and it’s wonderful that Unreal already has the tools and software to do that.

RPGSite: You guys have put a lot of effort into developing Milo – what did you learn from that process?
Molyneux: One thing we learned – we were up to about four hours of gameplay – which is a lot of gameplay, in Milo – we learned that you can tell the most incredible, immersive story if you take – get away from people’s embarrassment at the thought of being seen using their body to control it. Once people get into that mind-set, it’s an incredible way of telling stories.

One of the first lessons we learnt is that if you try to tell the player how to sit or how to stand, if you over-preach to them about gestures and hand-movements they start to feel uncomfortable. There’s a lot of technology here that allows you to slouch or cross your legs or sit on the sofa, or sit with a cup of tea... and a huge amount of stuff with voice – the voice recognition, which we’re not showing in this demo – all to make people comfortable.

RPGSite: Have you used any features designed for Milo in this title?
Molyneux: So there are a lot of features – a lot of tech that we’ve used in this that we had in Milo. There’s a lot of voice empathy stuff – we’ll be using that a lot, but I’ve been asked not to talk too much about that – but imagine being able to speak in the middle of a narrative storyline in Fable it’ll be fantastic.

Y’know, we’ve also got... well, I can’t really talk about that, but we’ve got this thing called chanting... [Molyneux trails off and is quickly put on track by another member of the demo team.] Oh yes – all the sitting-down tech was developed for Milo as well. There’s a lot of tech there, and a lot of emotional stuff that we developed for Milo as well.

RPGSite: Will you be able to scan objects into the game?
Molyneux: This is another feature that I shouldn’t really talk about at all, but, you know... so, anything you’ve seen in the Milo demo, we’re going to be using. I’ve mentioned customization, and that should give you a bit of a clue there.

RPGSite: You mentioned that the horse might lose the shine on its coat in the demo – the transformative elements have always been a big thing in Fable – are we going to see that manifest itself in other areas – the magic, perhaps?
Molyneux: Yes! We try to build the morality choices into the gameplay rather than ‘as well as’ having them in the quest system. We’ve got this really cool system about how to gain levels, taking life force from other things – you can take it from anything that’s alive. If you take too much you’ll end up killing things, and that is evil. That’s a really nice counter-balance, as a lot of us want everything – we’re like greedy children in a sweet shop.

What I’m saying is, that’s fine, but you’ll have to do some terrible things to level up as early as possible.

RPGSite: The ending of Fable III can be pretty significantly different depending on your actions, and this takes place fairly soon afterwards – will you be pulling in any save games or anything to determine the state of the world?
Molyneux: We’re certainly considering it. There are certainly some nice things we can do depending on your choices. There’s one region in Fable III – Bower Lake – you can drain it – and it’d be great to go through that area and see it afterwards. What’s a little bit difficult is that you – your Fable III character – is still king while you are playing through The Journey – it’s a little bit of a – it screws your mind up, you know?

RPGSite: Is the new technology available with Kinect allowing you to come up with ideas that you wouldn’t have before?
Molyneux: Yeah, it is. I have to admit that new ideas and innovation – I love that side of things. I... I’m trying to think of a diplomatic way of saying this – I’m just a little bit bored with doing things the same way in all games. It just seems to be – whilst I love the drama of a lot of the games being made at the moment there is a lot of sameyness. You spend your fifty bucks on one game, finish that game, and then spend fifty bucks on another game that is essentially the same.

One’s got a green palette, one’s got a grey palette – you’re shooting – ducking and diving – and it seems almost on the point of being a little bit like Holywood where they’re in a rut with their action films where two and a half minutes into the film you meet the baddie, ten minutes in the hero starts losing some power – you’re working through a formula.
I’m not saying we’ve quite got that in this industry, but we’re moving towards that and I think mixing things up with emotional gameplay, and mixing things up with the way that you play and the feeling of connection – it feels a bit more refreshing to me – but I’m obviously going to answer with that as I love working with Kinect.

RPGSite: Do you feel like developers have a handle on where Kinect is going now it’s been out for a while? It’s still lacking in some areas – no unified menu system, little agreement on how to do certain things and such...
Molyneux: You know, this reminds me exactly of the mid 80s. When the Amiga came along, Amiga said – you’re gonna be playing with a mouse. I remember everybody writing ‘oh god, the mouse is the worst thing for gaming, it’s all a mess, there’s icons all over the place’ – it took a little while for the development community as it was then to start exploring and experimenting with it.

Out of that exploration and experimentation came Wolfenstein, Doom, RTS games – those were – before that we were using joysticks, and those weren’t possible with Joysticks. I think that any invention as big as Kinect, it just takes a while for us to get our teeth into. I agree with the scepticism of hardcore gamers saying they don’t want to play games on the Kinect because there’s no example yet of anything which is as dramatic or as exciting or as involving yet – I think it just needs a few games to come out that fill that gap.

Take my word for it, when you get past that issue of the early bumps in the road which every new control method has, it’s a wonderful device with some wonderful possibilities.

RPGSite: When you’re on your horse you’re free to move around as you want, but when you got off it looked more like it was on rails – is the game divided in two?
Molyneux: This is the real frustrating part for me. When we crafted the demo, we deliberately – I deliberately decided we shouldn’t put any navigation in the demo when you’re off your horse – mainly to save time on-stage. We’ve pioneered wonderful systems in Milo for navigating around – though none of you ever saw that – and it’s a great system. You’re able to move around by using your body and your hands to gesture ‘I wanna go there, this side, or that side’ – we just didn’t put it in there.

That’s my fault, because I said ‘let’s just concentrate on the magic.’ Let’s make that as robust and amazing as possible – and the sacrifice was when we saw it at the Press Briefing I think people thought it was on rails.

You actually – in the main storyline, you never really leave your horse and carriage for very long.  We’ve been inspired by games like Ico – if you left the little girl for very long bad things happened – same in this game – so you tend to have a lot of the action around the horse and carriage and there’s some wonderful moments. You know, I can’t wait until August and we go to GamesCom because we can show you some of these moments.

There’s this fantastic moment where – you’ve picked up Theresa, she’s really badly injured, and she’s also lost all of her power. She can’t see anything in the future, she’s panicking; she’s losing it to be quite frank. She’s in the back of the wagon. If you’ve never played Fable before, she’s just somebody you need to look after.

She tells you that you need to go through these woods. It’s a network of passages, of turnings and twists and turns. All of a sudden you start realizing the sun’s going down and there’s these Balverines – werewolf-like creatures – are going to come out. They want one thing, and one thing only – they want your horse. They want to eat.

So they start attacking you – they’re literally leaping onto the back of the horse and are tearing away at the flesh of the horse. You know, you’re battling with the horse, you’re battling with your magic, trying to get these Balvarines off, but your horse totally loses it – you’ve got to use all those voice commands, all those rein commands to try to get your horse back under control.

After a while, your wagon loses a wheel, you crash over, your horse is down – completely lame – Theresa is passed out in the back of the wagon... You’re left having to repair your wagon, look after your horse, heal the horse, heal Theresa, and defend the whole of that environment from the Balverines. It’s a great moment.
It does involve action off the carriage, and to me it really does involve emotion and engagement.

RPGSite: Would you still say the RPG elements in this game are significant, or would you say they’re a side thing from the main action-based gameplay?
Molyneux: I think they’re more significant than has been in Fable since Fable II. Because, um – you will find when you use the magic that you really want more. You know those little plasma balls – you want more of those; because more of those means that you can make more stuff. You want more items to create.

We’ve got this very simple, beautiful mechanic – I think it’s a beautiful mechanic because it really supports, again, your ability to be kind or cruel. That is to do with life force – now, to go up levels, you have to collect life force. The more you collect, the faster you’ll go up levels, get more spells, more magic, more stuff. Let’s take an example of how you get life force.

You’re clip-clopping along, and then by the side of the road there’s the cutest puppy dog you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s got big saucer eyes, it’s looking up at you and whining a little bit. You know that with your hand, if you place your hand over the puppy you can start to draw life force from the puppy. After a little while, the puppy will close its eyes and fall into a blissful sleep. You will have got some life force.

But no! You may be that greedy gamer that wants it all. So if you keep on sucking life force the puppy will start whimpering and then eventually, it will die. That ability of being able to take the life force from anything living that you see to level yourself up is all part of the moral choices and part of roleplaying – truly part of role playing.

It’s not just killing things that gets you stuff – it’s anything in there. We’re using that mechanic to amazing effect in the game, because somebody’s asked me a question – can you take the life force from things like your horse, or Theresa, or anyone you meet – well, this is just some of the emotional entertainment we’re playing around with.

Definitely it’s a role-playing game – there’s people to meet, lots of levels to go up, there’s a sense of freedom and exploration or anything you care to throw at me about a role playing game – it’s definitely there.

RPGSite: You traditionally have jumped from one property to another a lot over the years – but you’ve been with Fable for longer and for more consecutive releases than any other. Do you have a real hunger to, after this, do something all-new, or is Fable something you’re comfortable with for the long run?
Molyneux: Er – gosh. What a last question. Well. How best to answer this – you know, in a certain way, for someone like me, this is the worst of times. That’s because there’s so many exciting, incredible new things to use, to mix together to create the best experience – I’m not just talking core gaming, we’re in the temple of core gaming now, at E3 – but a great example is social gaming.

I’m really fascinated with this – when I take my son to school, which I’ve been doing ever since he’s gone to school – when I first took my son to school I’d, y’know, chat to the parents outside – ‘what do you do – oh, I’m a games designer..’ and they’d say ‘oh god – can’t let our children go and play at your house, there’ll be guns everywhere.’

That attitude has changed incredibly to, now, I mean – outside the school gates the parents are playing on their mobile phones – they’re playing Zynga games on Facebook – they’re excited about games. That’s completely changed. For someone like me, I find that an absolutely fascinating place – there’s a hundred million people playing some type of computer game at this moment somewhere around the world. Just four years ago, that would’ve been much lower – it’s incredible growth.

On top of that you’ve got all these new control and input mechanisms, mix that with the cloud – which is a fantastic way of innovating as well – and a lot of me sort of wants to do ten things at once. I have to say to myself, time and time again – I have to focus on just one thing. If I try to put my focus on multiple things – I’m just not smart enough – I need to focus on just one thing, and right now that’s Fable.

RPGSite: Thanks very much for your time!
Molyneux: No problem, but -- can you sign my wall?

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