September 13, 2004

Writing Fable, part one

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 1:58 am

Fable boxFable is one of this year’s most anticipated games — and with good reason. The creative team behind it has been responsible for a string of innovative games (e.g., Black and White, Dungeon Keeper) and this time they’ve set themselves a massive challenge. Fable, which will be released shortly, aims to re-imagine the adventure game so that it doesn’t center on hoop-jumping — it aims to situate a traditional hero’s journey within a simulated world. While some early reviews bemoan the fact that elements of Fable had to be scaled back, it’s clear that the game is still remarkably ambitious. As the player’s character ages, and as the world changes around him (“him” because plans for female heros were among those cut), he can choose at almost any time to explore and adventure in the world, pick up the plot of the hero’s journey, or try to use the actions available in the simulated world to route around what would be the next necessary step in a hoop-jumping adventure game. And, what’s more, this world isn’t just a graphical world. It’s also a linguistic one. It’s one in which the work of writers — James Leach chief among them — is central.

You can read quite a bit online about the work of Peter Molyneux and Fable‘s game design (e.g., in The New York Times). You can read quite a bit about the work of the AI team and the simulated world and characters (e.g., early reviews from places like IGN). I will concentrate, in these posts, on the writing of Fable.

I’ve been in occasional correspondence with James Leach since the panel that Andrew and I organized for SIGGRAPH 2002. But it was in preparation for my talk this summer on “Computer Games and the Future of Fiction” (which had to measure up to talks in the same series by the likes of David Macaulay and John Perry Barlow) that we got into some in-depth discussion of Fable.

James introduced his writing for the game’s story and world separately — and I’ll follow his lead here, starting (in this post) with the story. But, as you’ll see by the time I’m done, one of the impressive things about Fable is the blending that can take place between the story and world writing.

Fable: Been enjoying all the attention, have you?

Fable: Most of Bowerstone is talking about it...

The story

The work on Fable‘s story began with, of all things, writing a traditional short story — one driven by the “classic” hero’s journey elements. As James says, “The reluctant hero, the call to arms, the mentor all appear in the traditional way.” The initial short story set up one prototypical version of events, broken into scenes. Then these scenes were broken down further, with the dialogue pulled out and bullets for any important physical actions (those for which new animation would be required).

Here’s a sample from the arena entry scene:

• A GUARD bangs on the door with his fist.

Open up! There’s a new sandmeat delivery.

• The gate opens, you both walk in.
• You are escorted by two guards.

Oh look. A hero. I’m so excited.

Welcome to the Arena. Where the Heroes fight. And die.

Have you been nominated? Good. A couple of things you need to know. One, don’t attack the heroes fighting alongside you. Two, only kills earn you money. Any bleeding heart compassion and you walk out broke.

Yeah. Like in a hundred pieces.

• He opens gate at the end of Hall of Champions.

And this will be your palace for the duration of your stay.

• Guard opens cell door and you step in.

Good luck, sandmeat.

As you can see, by this stage there was already a focus, found in the dialogue, on the elements important to the Fable gameplay. At the next stage this became even more pronounced — as things were passed on to the animators and game scripters (as in scripting language, not movie script). What came back to the writers, after this, was a database of lines of dialogue aimed entirely at gameplay issues. It was, let’s say, without much care for language. Here’s the same scene as it came back to the writers:

Welcome to Arena. Heroes fight here etc..

You need to be nominated. And Guild Seal won’t work.

Not nominated yet!

Been nominated now. Well done.

Guard will show you in.

You could die in here.

Go in? Yes/No.

The job of the writers, then, was to weave back into these lines (which were tied into the game’s logic) some semblance of the texture of language from the original story. The writers had to, as much as possible, work within the structure created by the scripters: only using lines with existing numbers and tags, leaving questions and responses in the places indicated, and so on. As James told me, “New lines can be added to explain something further or enrich the atmosphere, but as a default we try to work within the lines we’re given.”

The lines that are sequential end with a multiple of ten (_10, _20, etc). When lines needed to be added, the old BASIC technique was used — adding up to nine lines between numbered lines. Also, lines that could be chosen between randomly were numbered in this latter way. Random selection between lines was used to try to keep story events that can happen multiple times from triggering the same line each time. For example:

Stop! Thief!

Hey! You stole that!

Come back with that! That’s my stock!

The writers, in addition to writing dialogue, wrote directions to the animation engine — emotion or attitude tags, which were placed next to the narrator. Common tags indicate emotions such as fear, sadness, happiness, pride, annoyance, and anger. (The shopkeeper’s angry when speaking all of the lines above.) These determine body language and other choices made by the animation engine, and slowly decay over about ten seconds unless refreshed or replaced by another tag.

This, then, is the revised dialogue for the arena entry scene, rewritten by the writers and with emotion tags added:

Welcome to the Arena. This is where Heroes battle to become legends.

You need to be nominated before you are allowed entry. And note that your Guild Seal won’t work in here.

You can’t come in without a nomination card. You think we just let anyone in?

Ah, a nomination card. You must have done something pretty special to earn this.

The Guard on the other side of the door will show you in.

Take a good breath before you enter. You might not see the outside world again.

You ready to go in now?

As James put it, “It’s worth noting that the dialogue in the writer’s version two of the script bears fairly little resemblance to the original scene.” While the original story shaped the game, the dictates of the gameplay created the context for all the final language that is included in Fable.

This process was carried out, and then checked, and then voice acted, for the more than 200 speaking characters in Fable‘s story. In order to generate dialogue for this many characters, and keep them differentiated in his mind, James took on a new writing practice. When defining each character, he gave that character a set of “Driving Reasons” (or DRs) — which also turned out to be quite useful as directions for the voice actors, as well. Here are a couple examples of these:

The Innkeeper (a minor character)
DR1 — He’s drunk all the time.
DR2 — He hates his wife.
DR3 — He’ll say anything to get others in a conversation to avoid speaking to her.

The female Hero Briar Rose (a more important character)
DR1 — She’s aware of how physically attractive she is.
DR2 — She’s reached the exalted Hero status and is very proud.
DR3 — She’s disdainful of everyone else.
DR4 — She’s very insecure about Heroes tougher than she is.

Now, with all these characters, it was probably inevitable that there would be a mistake. Each line is tagged with the narrator’s name, and for some types of narrators (Guards, Bandits) there are quite a few, differentiated only by number. Unfortunately, as James admits, “we did fall foul of forgetting how many Guards or Bandits there were and we ended up having two BANDIT_8s sounding identical as they erroneously shared a name, despite being separate characters.” Luckily, BANDIT_8 and the character that should have been given the narrator tag BANDIT_9 are about two hours apart in gameplay terms, so it wasn’t a show-stopper.

That’s about what I have to say about the writing for Fable‘s story (nothing about the plot specifics is to be said before the official release). But I’ll be posting more soon, with information about writing for the world and more.

Update: on to part 2.

Fable: For a while he could control himself...

Fable: We heard the howling and feared the worst...

Fable: A hero of your stature deserves the glory of fighting in the Arena.

17 Responses to “Writing Fable, part one”

  1. jill/txt » writing for games Says:
    […] 13/9/2004

    [writing for games]

    Noah’s written a useful post showing the development of the writing for the soon-to-be-released game Fable. It&#8 […]

  2. alter ego : a fable fansite Says:
    Probably one of the most interesting reads that have been published on the web with regards Fable for a long time. […]

  3. nick Says:

    I’m quite fascinated by Fable, and am eager to see what it is like. I’m also curious to know about how it “re-imagine[s] the adventure game so that it doesn’t center on hoop-jumping … [by] situat[ing] a traditional hero’s journey within a simulated world.”

    I wonder which adventure games you or the Fable team are thinking about that are based on hoop-jumping? Is “You need to be nominated before you are allowed entry. And note that your Guild Seal won’t work in here.” not an indication of a “hoop” in Fable?

    And which ones don’t simulate a world? I don’t think Myst offers a very rich simulation, but any adventure game I can think of seems to try to offer some sort of simulation.

    The failings of adventure games such as The 7th Guest don’t really seem to be caused by some lack of simulation — as if the game would be better if our character could grow older, grow horns, open the soup cans and have a snack, get tired and have to sleep, and so on. Nor do they seem to be caused by the mere presence of puzzles in the first place. Rather, I think the problem is in the way those puzzles fail to connect to the simulated world, the characters in it, the events in it, and its overall “riddle.”

    More extreme and unmotivated sorts of simulation (hunger and sleep in Planetfall, for instance) are often actually pointed out as flaws in interactive fiction, so it doesn’t encourage me to read that an adventure game is a more detailed simulation, any more than a high polygon count assures me that a game will be good. (In fact, for the same sort of reason, too much focus on the richness of a simulation often worries me.) However, I trust that Molyneux, Leach, and others on the team have thought through the experience of the game and the ways in which it can be enriched by this greater simulation, so I’m quite interested to see how that plays out.

    On another topic, I wonder how much Leach’s writing experience differs from that of a writer like Rob Swigart (Hacker, Portal, Murder on the Mississippi) who was writing both the scenarios and dialog for graphical adventure games about 20 years ago? I’d be particularly interested to know what things about this process have changed and which ones are similar to those in adventure game development from the home computer era.

  4. noah Says:

    Nick, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Hopefully some of what you’re wondering about the specificity of the relationship between Fable’s story and its simulated world will be answered in my second post on this topic. (I agree that what’s in this post is nothing more than a teaser.)

    I’d definitely be interested in the answer that someone like Rob Swigart would give to your other question. Do you think we might entice him to come by and offer some thoughts?

  5. nick Says:

    Looks like Rob won’t have time to comment this week, but will try to stop by next week. By the way, I think Murder on the Mississippi may be most interesting to compare to Fable of the three works I mentioned — Hacker is a mostly action-based game with a clever frame and Portal is more of a computer novel (as the package proclaimed) than an adventure game. But Rob may think otherwise…

  6. josh g. Says:

    While more or less simulation might not make or break the game as narrative, it can draw people deeper into an already well-crafted narrative. Shenmue comes to mind, although only by what I know through word of mouth, as a game that drew people further into gameplay by the depth of the world surrounding the story.

    I can think of many ways in which a lack of simulation can detract from the game experience. In a 3-D game, any time my urge to explore the immediate area is hindered by an artificial boundary that doesn’t correspond well to the visual world, I’m annoyed. (Splinter Cell had a few bad cases of this.) In an IF, any time the game fails to simulate an object which it just described as being present, I’m annoyed. (Mentioning that I can’t do anything with it is fine, but telling me “You can’t see that” is not.)

    This isn’t to say that further simulation will somehow magically make a game better, but I think that it adds to the experience and can certainly break it if done poorly. (Although now I wonder if ‘poorly’ and ‘less’ aren’t the same thing, and my negative examples were the former. Whoops.)

  7. HeatherL Says:

    I can’t wait to get my hands on this game. Unfortunatly, it is going to force me to finally give in to Microsoft and buy an X-Box.

    My thesis was on actual role playing in computer role playing games, and I am anxious to see if Fable begins to address some of the issues that keep computer role playing games from feeling like role playing.

    I agree with both Josh and Nick….I don’t think its a matter of fine details in a simulation (eating a can of soup, brushing your teeth, etc.) so much as creating a sense of world consistancy with believable consequences for player character actions.

  8. B. Rickman Says:

    In line with Nick’s comments, I think talking about hoop jumping is an unfortunate way to frame the discussion. It is reminiscent of the eternal complaint of adventure/RPG players who demand nonlinear plotlines — a strange request, since few of the classic adventure games offer any sort of nonlinear plot. A critique of games that focuses on linear plots and hoop jumping is nothing more than a critique of the adventure game idiom, and as such there is no real way to respond to the criticism while at the same time producing something that is recognizable as an adventure game.

    Taking that into account, the question for Molyneux — and for Noah — is: Should Fable be considered an adventure game, or does it attempt to transcend the genre? Given Noah’s brief introduction to the game, I can’t see how the mention of “hoop-jumping” and an obsession with simulated worlds does enough to pull this game out of the genre in a meaningful way. These are just bullet points for a marketing campaign. Other than that, the thing which will presumably set Fable apart from other games of the genre is its high fidelity. Which means it is sure to catch the eyes of plenty of game “critics”, regardless of whether or not it says something interesting about the genre.

    As for the rest of what Noah describes, it is interesting to see how the writing process is applied, but it doesn’t offer any surprises. Here we have game production that is eager to embrace production values on a Hollywood level. Again, the game “critics” are sure to take note. Not such a good thing for independent game development.

  9. Rob Swigart Says:

    Sorry I couldn’t get on earlier — I’m sending off the final manuscript of my novel Xibalba Gate, which is paper based, but it’s content is a massive on-line simulation of the Classic Maya culture, so it has game-like elements. I finished the major draft of this novel about 5 years ago, and since then the technology of on-line games has caught up with my forecast. Kind of fun.

    As for Murder on the Mississippi, this was a game from around 1985. I had a dumb terminal from Activision and wrote directly to their PDP11, and my job was to create the characters and write the dialog, though I had a pretty big hand in designing the paddleboat as well. Someone else added puzzles for game play. Most of my work was done in play form, simple dialog in short scenes so the plot would play out, with many alternate speeches for the characters depending on game play.

    Hope this contributes something to the discussion. Very interesting.

  10. michael Says:

    The alternation between writers and animators/scriptors reminds me of the way that authoring is often done in the comics industry. When I lived in Portland in the mid-90s we lived next door to comic book artists Barbara and Karl Kesel. At the time, Karl was a writer for Superman. As is apparently common in the comics industry, the different artists working on Superman were distributed, communicating through daily Fed-Ex packages. Karl would write a plot outline in paragraph form and send it to the penciller. The penciller would then take the plot outline and turn it into a bunch of frames. Karl would then get the frames, perhaps surprised by how his plot outline was turned into a multi-page sequence, and re-express the story as dialog, thought balloons and narrative, given the particular frames the penciller came up with. Scott McCloud refers to this as “assembly line” comics authoring, which has the potential problem of creating a battle for control, or at least an out-of-sync problem, between form and content.

    Similarly, the strong separation between programmers and writers, by separating concerns with interaction and writing, seems like it could limit creative possibilities, or at the least create a communication bottleneck in the team. Noah, Did James have a sense of any missed opportunities created by this separation?

  11. noah Says:

    Michael, that’s a good question. What James did mention was that the writers tried to keep the changes made to the structure they got back from the scriptors to a minimum. Which indicates some changes were made, and that more might have been desired if it didn’t “cost too much” within this distributed authoring framework.

    BTW, I am working on part 2 of this post, but many other plates must be kept spinning…

  12. Jeremy.espinosa Says:

    The game is realy good but I think you should have to pay for the download it should come with game and you should be able to fifgt in the aren more then once.

  13. ronald Says:

    FABLE, what’s more to say. since i have the game, i can say it’s one of the most realistic RPG game that i have ever played. The only downfall is that you can actually finish the game within a day if you were to choose to. But, after the story had ended, i found that the game is still not over which makes me want to go play even more to finish building my characters stats.

  14. Albert Palagos Says:

    fable is the only adventure that let you take the control of your behaviour and actitude in a magic world, mistery and magic autumm. a very good environment like sleepy hollow or edward scissors hand. its magic wonderful totally exceptionall .

  15. Albert Palagos Says:

    everyone must play this experience. however i think that the adventure would be even bigger if the argument and the world of the game was more intensive. anyway this is it, your story.

  16. Albert Palagos Gillen Says:

    Anyone who play Fable , experiment a different kind of game experience , because it haven’t been never before a game like this. Even not considering all the promises that did Peter Molineux(Fable creator) about the gameplay, this game is one of the bests of his generation. una obra mestre!!!

  17. ham Says:

    whats the purple fable case

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