Villainous character in 'Fable'
Microsoft Game Studios
Who's bad now? Playing the villain in "Fable" has a number of perks including a nifty set of horns.
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 9/30/2004 5:54:37 PM ET 2004-09-30T21:54:37

I got fired from my job last night. To celebrate I threw a party where I flirted with three women and danced with two men. I then trashed my house and, in a fit of angry spite, stole my neighbor's garden gnome.

If nature had meant for humans to live without the repercussions of a night's drunken orgy, it would have supplied us with an "Return to Previous Save" option. But until evolution decides otherwise, I've busied myself of late pushing all the wrong buttons with two new titles, "Fable" and "The Sims 2," where the power to choose one's own adventure is left to the player.

"Fable" (Microsoft Xbox)
"Fable" takes place in your typical quasi-medieval setting of dark forests and tweedy English villages. There are quests to seek. Trolls to pummel. Wenches to win.

Made for the Xbox, "Fable" is considerably smaller than PC role-playing games like "Morrowind," a game so massive that FEMA keeps a line open to rescue lost players. 

But "Fable" does boast a couple story-enhancing features that makes the game's relatively brief 10-hour playing time worthwhile. For one, your character in "Fable" ages throughout the game: starting as a young boy orphaned by marauding bandits and maturing, eventually, into a ripe old warrior.

The second twist is a visual metaphor that plays off the adage that eyes are a window to the soul.

In "Fable," wholesome looks make the hero. Throughout the game your character comes across a number of moral challenges. Choose the side of good and over time your character's face radiates a saintly glow. Hack up the villagers, however, and your character starts to look like Marilyn Manson, circa 1995 -- complete with little horns, 'natch.

Game designer Peter Molyneux has always had a taste for making heavy topics game-friendly. 1989's "Populous" tackled the ultimate heavy, religion, by having the player assume the role of God over a rowdy and thankless tribe of humans.  Molyneux continued the theme of faith and fear from a deity’s perspective with 2001's "Black and White."

If there is an existential thread in "Fable" it's on how moral choices, small and large, can effect the development of an individual over time.  It’s a compelling idea for a game, although it falls a tad short in execution as the world is not as open-ended as one would hope.  "Fable" has, well, a fable to tell about heroism and the corrosive effects of power and it doesn't allow much deviation from the plot. There are only so many paths your character can take before the decision tree becomes too obvious.

Still, there are some interesting twists. Take stealing. In many games, rummaging through abandoned chests is how players acquire bootie. In "Fable" that action is given a moral weight and if you're trying to win as a heroic character, you'll have to weigh the consequences.

"Fable" succeeded for me once I forgot about where it came up short and just submitted to the illusion.  Graphics are sharp as is the voice acting -- gotta love real British accents for a change. 

I enjoyed receiving accolades from the villagers as word spread of my character's deeds. And when I joined the forces of evil by sacrificing a couple innocents at the Temple of Skorm, I felt a sick thrill watching my character’s face take on the darkness of its soul like a digital Dorian Grey.   

Biker Mama and child from 'Sims 2'
Maxis
You can't finish creating your own "Sim" without giving it a horoscope.  Meet Ms. Biker Mama.  She's a Pisces.

"The Sims 2" (PC)
By most standards, 2000's "The Sims" wasn't much of a game, but a time-suck where players ran the "lives" of their "Sims,"  or simulated humans, right down to how many times they used the bathroom. 

Naysayers labeled "The Sims" a "digital dollhouse" to which Sims-fanatics responded, "Exactly!"  It was the lack of a stated purpose, in a traditional gaming sense, that made "The Sims" revolutionary. Players gave "The Sims" a purpose. They constructed storylines for their Sim families; they built and shared Sim characters and neighborhoods.  And if "The Sims" phenomena bore a faint resemblance to something out of a Philip K. Dick novel, it was only because "The Sims" was different.   

Now we have the larger, more complex "The Sims 2" which boasts a 3-D engine that redefines “micromanagement” by allowing players to really zoom in on the action.

Sim-addicts, kiss whatever scraps of social life you have left goodbye.

The "Sims" of "Sims 2" are prone to the same silliness as the original. They still live in bizarro-neighborhoods -- half "Leave It To Beaver," half "Peyton Place."  They still suffer from mood-swings that would make Joan Crawford blush. And although they display a tendency for commitment, they'll jump into the hot tub with anyone .

In "The Sims 2" every Sim has its own psychological baggage.  Past successes like a first kiss or a job promotion or the distant memory of getting potty-trained help shape each "Sims" outlook. Conversely, past failures or a childhood trauma have an odd way of reappearing later in life.

"Sims" fans are advised to dust off their Psych 101 textbooks. For example, one of my adult Sims had a tendency to cryiin the corner when alone.  And the appearance of cockroaches drove him half-mad.  The only thing I could credit my Sim's funk to was my own bad parenting.  (full disclosure:  I played with a new feature on "The Sims 2" that allows the "genetics" of Sims parents to be passed down to Sim children. But after the kid was born, I didn't have time to raise him, ok?)  

Also new in "The Sims 2" is the assignment of lifelong aspirations to each Sim.  Some want to get rich, some want to find romance while others are searching for more philosophical truths.  "The Sims 2" version of success is defined by making sure these Sims find what they want.  Or not...one of the understated pleasures is watching your Sims crack when things get tough.  They cry a lot, gesticulate wildly and start having dreams about bunnies. 

Maxis  /  Maxis
Introduding my slacker "Sim" who enjoys nothing better than playing "SSX' in his boxers.
If all this sounds too depressing in the vein of "I already have a boring life, why do I need to lead a virtual one," have heart; the number of possible paths open to you in "The Sims 2" is infinite.

With an improved Sims creator that allows you to customize a Sim right down to a body type and the size of his or her eyebrows, you can import your real world posse of friends and family into the game.  Curious to find out what the offspring of your friends may look like?  Let "The Sims 2" genetics feature take a guess. 

Players might want to explore some of the towns of "The Sims 2."  From aliens to mad scientists to giant bunnies -- there are a number of strange and whacky individuals in the included towns that ship with "The Sims 2."  Families, neighborhoods and towns hold certain secrets.  

The improved architectural tools are another game in themselves.  A virtual Home Depot, the architectural component has been vastly improved to allow players to build their homes from the foundation up.  Players can even import towns built in "Sim City 4."

Or, players may just want to take advantage of the 3-D graphic engine.  The details in "The Sims 2" are amazing.  Zoom in close enough and you can tell the time on tiny digital clocks or watch television (I caught a cooking show).

One of my Sims displayed a preference for playing video games -- what a surprise.  I could have forced him to read the want ads or take a shower or call a buddy.  But I recognized a good vice when I saw one. 

I let him play.  My choice. 

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