Games are increasingly becoming part of political discourse. After all, I became Queen of Albion and my advisor asked me if I wanted to bail out the economy.
Fable IIIPublisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: XBox 360
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Release date: 2010-10-26
Note: this article includes discussion of spoilers for Fable III.
It seems as though politics and games have never been closer. Even leaving aside last week's U.S. Supreme Court hearing for the controversial California law criminalizing the sale of M-rated games to minors, we are also living in a time when games are increasingly becoming part of the political discourse. GamePolitics recently provided a rundown on political candidates featured in game-themed commentary and ads, game regulation and censorship are becoming bigger issues in Australia and Germany, and game satire and parody are now an established part of internet-born pop culture and conversation.
But how do you reference politics in a more mainstream work? And does the inclusion of politics date or problematize the gaming experience no matter how you do it?
Fable III likes to comport itself as cleverly referential, and in some respects, it succeeds fabulously. I especially liked the sidequest "The Game" (you just lost, by the way), which I found amusing and nostalgic from design to iteration. But then I became Queen of Albion and my advisor asked me if I wanted to bail out the economy.
The entire arc of Lionhead's latest mirrors a political trajectory from campaign to office to defining military action. The language that it uses is in no way subtle. You build alliances by signing -- in writing -- the campaign promises of your expanding platform, and the game is equally explicit when it comes to keeping or breaking those promises. You have the option of private and elite interest groups swaying your political policies with money or driving your country into fatal amounts of debt.
In fact, it's hard not to read current political rhetoric into the game, especially when you learn that your brother's tyrannical policies were actually in the interest of national defense against a wave of embodied terror from the Middle East.
The messages that Fable III transmits are as morally binary as they are unequivocally post-9/11. You find that the tyrant you have spent the entire game differentiating yourself from is in fact the model that you need to follow if you're going to fund the means to defend your nation. Preserving nature and building schools are all good, progressive things, but they damn your people in the end. There is no way to completely "win" Fable III. Either you save the maximum amount of life by becoming a caricature of extreme right politics or you devastate your country by being a liberal.
There is no "yes, but" to your royal decrees. Even your allies, who should understand the threat that the country faces, can't accept a "later" for your promises. Even the thought of explaining why taxes must be high and public services be cut is waved aside as "the people would never understand." They won't? They seem to believe everything I say until it's more convenient to the plot that they don't.
More than anything I felt defeated by the system as soon as I became the ruler of Albion. The larger mechanism of politics as usual was left unaffected by my coup, and I was left -- it seemed -- with very little agency at all. This is partly the fault of the binary, as Rick Dakan pointed out last week ("Ruling Albion in Fable 3 is Terrible Gameplay and Worse Storytelling", PopMatters, 4 Nov 2010), but it is just as much (if not more) the fault of drawing upon problematic resources.
Being a French born title, it's not fair to say that Fable III is explicitly a reference to one country's politics over another's. Many Western nations faced economic collapse in the wake of the 2008 recession, just as much of the world has been affected by America's anti-terrorism policies after 9/11. But it's difficult to look at the sum of Fable III and not see the last few years of American politics scrawled across the screen.
Is it satire, parody, or in some strange sense the mythologization of the popular discourse? Contemporary politics have a habit of working their way into retellings of the mythic, but there are so many ways Fable III could have asked me to bail out the economy without actually using those buzz words. It has that style to it, of course, something very Pratchettian in its anachronistic sense of humor, but it's difficult to see Pratchett's Discworld series dealing with something so ephemeral and specific. Pratchett's work has a timeless and essential quality to it, not being the study of specifics but the charming pecularities of people's interactions with technology and major events. It's also well more self contained. I won't go so far as to say that Fable III is irreparably dated by the models of politics it uses, but the context for some of these moments will become progressively more inaccessible over time.
I did in fact choose to bail out Albion's economy, but I did so cringing, doing it more for the morality points than the efficacy of the action. These binary solutions that Fable III works under are not in service to the complexity of governance or the flaws inherent in a large apparatus which remains static even when the head of state switches hand. However, the game will hopefully dissuade anyone from such reductionist politics.