Though his calm and and exceedingly eloquent manner might suggest a more languid pace, Peter Molyneux wastes little time when raising expectations -- and he knows it. "I'm going to get into trouble for saying this," says the British game designer before launching into his Fable 2 GDC presentation. "If we don't think it's going to be a landmark game, it's going to be bloody pointless to make it." Several moments later, I find myself thinking about what a horribly cruel man he is.
And that's a good thing. You see, one of Fable 2's key features is, well, a dog. Not some sort of magical beast or a disturbing, anthropomorphic St. Bernard. A tail-wagging, ball-chasing, honest-to-goodness dog. Fable's gesture system makes a return here, with petting and cries of scorn eliciting different reactions from the dog. At one point, Peter's on-screen character screams and waves his hands menacingly at the dog, frightening it into a quivering pile of fur. It seems mean, but the press members in the room chuckle appreciatively. Those monsters.
Of course, any seasoned RPG adventurer has learned to dread the mere inkling of an escort mission or the frustrations inherent in dealing with an AI partner character. You know how it is. They run into walls, fling themselves into bottomless pits and more than often, end up getting you killed. With that in mind, Peter explains that the polygonal pooch has been programmed with two fundamental laws. "It must not piss you off," is the first one.
There are no direct controls for the dog. You're unable to command it to move, to jump or to rip someone's face off. Instead, the dog will always run ahead of you and respond to your actions. To demonstrate, the adventurer slowly strolls into a small and exquisitely rendered town. The crooked and cobbled nature of the nearby houses let you know you're in a fantasy world, and the real-time shadows, saturated bloom lighting and impressive sense of scale let you know you're playing an Xbox 360 game.
Two bandits approach from behind a fountain. One wields a mace, another wields a long-range weapon -- both wield a strong desire to break your body into tiny, unrecognizable pieces. The dog starts growling, and prepares to protect his master. That's the second law. "The dog must care about you." Of course, you can protect yourself too. In Fable 2, you have a gun.
Peter explains that the ideal strategy for defeating these goons would be to take aim at the long-range attacker first. But what of the fellow with the mace rushing up to you while you fire off magical projectiles? The dog will take care of that. By taking note of the weapon you're fighting with and who you're attacking, the dog will do its best to aid you in battle and deter elements you might not be focused on. The attack went well, but our pooch wasn't left unscathed.
The combination of fluid animation and canine whining makes your heart deflate at an alarming rate, letting out a notable "aww" as it falls in on itself. Peter rotates the camera to focus on the dog, slowly limping back to its master. "The dog will follow me across the country, if it has to. It loves you." Peter goes on to explain that the dog would follow you to a bar on the other side of the world, only to claw on the door. If someone lets it in, they'll scold you for treating your pet so poorly.
"But maybe we should put it out of its misery." Upon saying this, Peter Molyneux instantly becomes the most savage and heartless man on the planet. With gun in hand, Peter slowly marches towards the dog. It's harrowing. "So, I'll just use this healing spell now."
And it's at this point that I realize that Peter Molyneux had told the truth. One of his elaborate promises had become reality, before the game was even close to being completed. The talk of engaging the player emotionally and making them become truly involved with a virtual world -- we've heard that before. But this time, it was experienced by everyone in the room. Peter gives us a wry smile. "If I can make you care about that dog, if I can do that... then I've got you."
Considering that I was ready to tell the man off for treating that dog so poorly, Peter definitely got me. A companion dog might seem more worthy of dismissive derision than praise at a cursory glance, but the ideas it highlights are much more powerful. Can we be excited about an RPG because of a dog that licks your face and chases chickens about? Absolutely. The game might still fail miserably in other aspects in the coming year, but for now, this is something we can legitimately latch onto.
Of course, cat lovers will be pleased to note that Fable 2 promises interesting lifestyle features to the point where you could be an STD-ridden pregnant woman swinging an axe over her head. That's probably worth another article altogether.