[17 March 2011]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
The latest story-based downloadable content for the astonishingly flawed, yet surprisingly addictive Fable III from Lionhead Studios is the multipart adventure Traitor’s Keep. Set after you’ve already saved the kingdom (or considerably thinned out its population), you, the King or the Queen, are stirred from the doldrums of everyday rule by an assassination attempt. Thus sets in motion an investigation of an offshore secret prison where your older brother, the usurped King Logan, kept everyone from dangerous murderers to political dissenters.
This DLC could not have landed at a more contentious time, as the world witnesses political uprisings across the Middle East and protests in the American Midwest and where we see a shockingly stark contrast between the reality of these lived experiences and the fabula of our own entertainment culture, in which films about billionaires and monarchs sweep the Oscars. If there is brilliance anywhere in Traitor’s Keep, it is in highlighting this political disillusionment and the friction between a grim, cruel reality and the simulacra of perfection that we’re so obsessed with.
Unfortunately, in a consumer culture we can’t exactly rate games on the basis of their intellectual ideas, however subtly or (as is always the case for Peter Molyneux) unsubtly that they’re presented to us. And in the case of Traitor’s Keep—its high-minded allusions aside—it’s rather problematic as a play experience.
Just Because We’re Going to an Amusement Park Doesn’t Excuse You from Putting This Thing on Rails
Far be it from me to speak ill of linear narratives. I’m a big fan of RPGs and adventure games, which are not known for their open ended solutions. Furthermore, I’m not always convinced that multiplicity of choice is the equivalent of good interactive writing; indeed, I’ve seen a number of games where my agency over the story was not at all a factor in my immersion. That said, Traitor’s Keep feels so forced in its linearity that (not to spoil things too heavily here) it’s easy to tell that things are suspect from the first scene.
Although you always have access to your world map and things do open up more after the story events conclude, you’re given no freedom on which lead to follow first—even though the narrative makes clear that these incidents are contemporaneous and in most respects equally important. And yet you’re led, almost literally, by the nose from Keep to island, back to Keep, off to another island.
The environments that you are led to are still richly designed, proving you can indeed do a great deal from preexisting game assets. The juxtaposition between the squalor of the quasi-medieval Keep to Albion’s very own steampunk Disneyland is especially inspired. Indeed, I hope this themepark, Clockwork Island, is expanded upon in future DLC. However, in Traitor’s Keep‘s main narrative you fly through this and the other locations so quickly that there’s no real time to thoroughly explore them until post-story, at which point you are reduced to simple item hunts and fetch quests to justify your exploration.
If You’re Not Going to Patch the Combat System, Don’t Bother Scripting Duels
“Traitor’s Keep” is bookended by one-on-one duels. The problem is that this being post-game, the King or the Queen that the player brings in is going to be sufficiently strong and, also, likely to have a Summon Creatures potion or six. Simply use the potion, switch to rifle or magic spell, and fire away at a safe distance while your assailant monologues to a bunch of shadow creatures.
And I do mean monologues . . . Long, long speeches accompany these fights, and on neither occasion does it manage to hold the slightest amount of the player’s attention. It isn’t necessarily that lines during combat are a bad idea (hello, GLaDOS), but there is absolutely no substance to what these opponents are saying. Everything is communicated just as effectively in the cutscenes leading up to them, leaving the rest of the (pitifully one sided) battle a huge time waster while you fill your enemy full of bullets from a comfortable distance.
The largely linear stages that you must traverse to reach these bosses are also low on challenges, although the designers make some marginally successful bid to diversify these ordinary battles and include some element of strategy. There are zombies that are invulnerable until hit with moonlight, for example, in a charming reversal of Pirates of the Caribbean. However, ultimately, no amount of brightly glowing aggro points and exploding robot dogs can spare the quest from the tedium that it already experiences through a lack of branching.
But What Does it Meannnnn?
Despite large questions being raised during the DLC’s preamble about the existence of the Keep as a secret, illegal prison where prisoners live in squalor and until recently were subject to torture, you never really get to do much about it. As per Fable III‘s usual reductive politics, you have the choice of either slightly modifying the most egregious of the Keep’s problems (the “good” option) or allowing the whole operation to continue, even accelerating it (the “evil” option). There is no option to relocate prisoners to a legal facility, open official inquiries, and retry all prisoners in open and fair trials while also trying the guards for their participation in the inhumane treatment of their fellow human beings. Of course not. There are only simple, one button compromises, after which the entire corrupt system simply continues on as it is.
This provides the worst part of Traitor’s Keep‘s on-rails syndrome: while juxtaposing these lushly designed environments and provoking these exceptionally large sociopolitical ideas, when the story ends it’s as well as if nothing had ever happened.
Considering there are far better places that the sociopolitically-minded player could go to find stimulating allegory, Traitor’s Keep really doesn’t deliver for its money. The main game has enough mindless item hunts and linear story missions without giving us yet more of the same. The most unfortunate part of Traitor’s Keep is that it’s easy to see how the developers might have gone about it in a more open-ended and creative fashion, yet they didn’t.