All / Technology & Society

Watching Fable: a Different Kind of Game Engagement

A while back, an XBox made its way into our household. I’ve never been much of a gamer myself: my main use of the XBox is watching catch-up TV while doing things like blogging, crocheting, and messing around on Facebook. For me TV is a background activity and I don’t generally have the patience to get involved with a game that requires my full attention–and my hands. (With the exception of Dance Central, of course.)

But one of the things my housemate likes to do is play Fable III. Fable is set in a sort of industrializing/steampunk society with imagery that will be largely familiar to fans of epic fantasy novels (and movies and games). A variety of famous personalities voice the game’s major characters which adds to its glitzy filmic quality. There are probably a lot of dedicated fan blogs that can explain Fable better than I–bear in mind I’m just approaching this as a spectator.

On the point of being a spectator, I’ve discovered that watching my housemate play Fable is at least as engaging as most television shows. This is probably not how the game developers intended it to be enjoyed, of course. But I find it fascinating how invested I get in the game even when I’m not technically playing. There is a lot of research about video game culture but I wonder how much of it is directed at what might be considered passive players. After all, just because I’m not in charge of the controller doesn’t mean I lack an opinion on game strategy.

There is, obviously, much more control and interactive potential with a video game than with TV, even for someone who is nominally an observer. “Chase that guy! Why aren’t you chasing that guy?” “No, don’t bet all your money on a single chicken race!” and “OH MY GOD WILL YOU STOP PLAYING THE LUTE?” are just a few of the valuable contributions I have made to my housemate’s Fable-playing. In fact on evenings when my housemate is for one reason or another not around to play Fable, I find myself missing watching it, though I have no desire to start a game of my own–as I said, my interest is passive. In fact I’m writing this while watching my housemate attack enemies with a giant axe.

I think part of the reason I find observing a Fable game session entertaining is because it’s different from my usual television offerings. It’s not a sitcom or a drama or a quiz show–though there’s an overarching narrative structure to the game, there isn’t one in each gameplay session. There might be chicken racing, dancing, capturing gnomes, or just pootling around hunting for treasure. Each iteration of playing the game is unique. Even the most gripping TV show, by contrast, needs to have a roughly similar narrative structure in most episodes because they’re all the same length. It’s very difficult to break out of a rigid format with that restriction, though I’ve seen a few shows do so successfully.

I also have a continuing fascination with constructed worlds–not just the virtual realms of video games and MMORPGs, but also immersive theme parks like Disney World and episodic fabricated realms like Renaissance Faires. (Obviously, dear reader, you will already know this because you’re familiar with my groundbreaking research on belly dance in Second Life.) Fable is so fully realized that it’s possible to spend a fair amount of time just wandering around exploring things and ignoring the main game narrative. A massive amount of construction has gone into every possible interaction: every conversation with a villager, every mysterious cupboard that can be opened, every quest that can be undertaken. All these exist in a constant state of potential, since aside from the main narrative it’s impossible to know what the player will decide to engage with. I find this fascinating: both the incredible effort that goes into providing the possible choices for even the most minor interactions in the game, and the way in which engaging with these possibilities affects the game’s outcome. The mildly sarcastic yet irreverent tone that certain interactions have adds to the appeal for me. For example one of the quests is helping to round up some missing chickens. This is accomplished by dressing in a chicken suit and luring them back to the farm. Another quest involves some extremely cheeky garden gnomes that escape and hide, shouting opprobrious remarks at passersby until they’re found. Neither of these are necessary to advance the game narrative, but hey, if you’re going to make a constructed world you might as well have some fun doing it.

Finally, there is one notable effect that watching a lot of Fable has in my real life: my dreams are more vivid. In a Fable-less world, when I wake up, my memory of dreams has about the same quality as watching a stridently-coloured cartoonish landscape on a somewhat pixellated television. Rather similar to the visual quality that a video game has–though the scenery is generally from my real life. I think partly because the visual quality of Fable is so dreamlike (at least close to what my dreams look like), when I’ve watched it for a while my mind tends to replicate its locations even more intensely than real ones I’ve experienced. In consequence my whole dream experience then seems even more lucid–I’d describe it as more realistic, but I have questions about whether faithfully reconstructing images from a video game can be described as increased realism. But that’s a question for another blog, I think.

What are your experiences with second-hand video game playing? Does watching them make your dreams more realistic? I look forward to hearing about your experiences in the comments.