Many years ago, there was a man who stood before adoring crowds and offered up the path to salvation from a painful, empty existence. He was a man of peace and love, and all he wanted for anyone was for their lives to be better than they were. He spoke of big ideas that blew our minds. He was, for a time, beloved.
But it didn’t last. In the blink of an eye, public opinion turned against this man. Many of those who had loved him suddenly began calling for his head. The rest hid as the crowds destroyed him. The man went peacefully to his demise, a willing martyr to a cause few others could comprehend, because he knew that God’s plan doesn’t operate on man’s timetable.
That man’s name is Peter Molyneux, and we should feel bad for running him out of town.
If Peter Molyneux was ever guilty of a crime against video games, it was that he really, really gave a damn about them. Molyneux was a dreamer, but not just a dreamer—he also acted on his dreams. Yet he was never able to bring them to fruition in a way we found satisfying. His games—from 1989’s Populous to the Fable series—are celebrated, but the man himself has been villified, as an over-promiser and a liar, by gaming as a whole. A business that prides itself on trying hard while almost always coming up short cast him out for being too ambitious and seldom knowing when to quit.
Molyneux’s dreams were different than other game developers’; that’s what really set him apart. Most folks in this industry dream of creating the most naturally falling virtual hair you ever imagined, or of digital grass that’s visible from further away than any other video game grass ever.
Molyneux dreamed of a tree. This tree was a metaphor that nobody else understood, but it captured our imagination even so. In the 2001 game Fable, he said back then, you would be able to plant a seed anywhere in the game world and then, after years had passed in the story, come back to that spot and see the burgeoning flora you had birthed.
Molyneux’s tree never materialized, and that crushed us. We loved the idea of the tree—loved it so much that it felt as if we’d baptized the designer in the River Video Games to announce that Molyneux was Doing Things, man. Which was weird, because it was always as much a metaphor as it was an actual technical feat Molyneux and his studio, Lionhead, wanted to accomplish.
It represented what Molyneux wanted to do overall, the meaning he wanted to express through his games. It wasn’t a technical feat he was trying to accomplish, like Naughty Dog building a water-based set piece in Uncharted 3 because they really cared about making digital water that had the properties of real water. Molyneux instead was trying to make games in which the passage of time was really felt in a substantial way, which he eventually did: in Fable 2 you start off as a child who grows up to become a great adventurer. You can get married and start your own collection of babies in a house that you own in a town you visited on your travels. The plot of the game dictates that you go away to prison for a decade—when you get out, you can return to that town, enter your house, kiss your spouse, hug your children who are well on the way to being grown up.
That family is what the metaphorical tree represented. But we were too bent out of shape that he never made the tree itself to care that Molyneux had built exactly what he’d promised years earlier. Somehow we forgot all the tree-related idioms about families.
THE LAST APOSTLE, MILO
Of course, the tree was something he talked about for the first Fable game, not Fable 2. And the tree was hardly the only idea he promised for the Fable series that didn’t come to pass. I also wouldn’t claim that the series, which includes three games and a horrendous motion-control spinoff I’d rather forget, is some kind of bastion of high art.
But Fable does represent artistic aspirations that are pretty much absent from from the game industry these days. So it hurt when Molyneux would promise things that would, we hoped, enhance the unique storytelling experience possible in gaming and then fail to deliver. Game developers very rarely promise the kind of stuff Molyneux would talk about doing. He went after substance. He was turning water into wine, but it was a two-year-aged bottle of Andre rather than some crazy good expensive shit. He turned a loaf of bread into enough food to feed 5000 people but the bread was a little stale.
The last straw for Molyneux was Milo. Milo was an artificial intelligence of sorts that you would interact with via the Xbox 360’s Kinect camera. All that was ever shown of Milo was a sort of hangout simulation—Milo would do stuff in his world and you would talk to him and be friends. You could supposedly teach him things, like how to skip stones on a pond, and through your relationship he would supposedly be able to pick up on your facial ticks and read your emotions and, I guess, eventually become a real boy like any number of movie AIs we’ve seen.
The problem for Microsoft, which was footing the bill for Milo’s creation, was what to do with it. When Microsoft folks would claim that Milo was never intended to be a product, but was instead just a tech demo, Molyneux openly disagreed and said Microsoft was frustrated at not knowing how to use Milo in a traditional game form (elements of the tech were later repurposed for the terrible Fable spin-off I mentioned earlier).
Molyneux thought Milo would reach beyond the standard audience for games, but we never got to find out. Hilariously, we blame Molyneux for some sort of failure with Milo instead of the megacorporation also responsible for the Windows Phone. Microsoft made Windows 8 but Molyneux was the crazy one. They never figured out a way to make us give a shit about the Kinect camera at all but yeah, sure, let’s blame the guy who had the only interesting idea for how to use the thing.
After the Fable-Spinoff-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named was released in 2012, Molyneux split. And we took our frustration out on the man who gave us hope—crucifying him, if you will—while those truly responsible for the continued literal nonexistence of the tree went free. We nailed Video Game Jesus to a cross and then buried him wherever his new studio, 22Cans, is based, leaving him to rot and make a game called Godus, which we all like to make fun of even though none of us play it. We drove him to that, and as of this week Fable is dead and Lionhead will soon be shuttered. That’s our fault.
When asked if we ever loved him, we denied it three times, after which a chicken in Fable 2 was promptly kicked and it made whatever that sound is that chickens make when kicked. Molyneux’s Easter Sunday will come someday. In the meantime, we’re left in the darkness pretending we never cared and whining about about all the times Molyneux said one of his games was going to be like this but turned out to be a little bit less than this.
As the cliche goes: we may be done with God, but God’s not done with us just yet. Maybe it will all click someday, upon Video Game Jesus’s Second Coming.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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