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In with the Neux: The Fable of Peter Molyneux

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Peter Molyneux awakens from his bed of posies and loose eiderdown, rubbing his eyes free of stardust. What is eiderdown even? Molyneux shrugs, flicking away the burdens of the world with a bob of his shoulder. It’s made of the memories of children born in the flotsam, their lives forfeit to undersea gods, he believes. Molyneux steps into his shower, a hollowed out redwood, and bathes in moonlight and tectonic vibrations. His eyes, open to the mysteries of forever, glance at an errant spider. His mind works like the turning of the world’s gears and he thinks, “A game designed to be played by spiders. Chitinous spiderleg peripherals will be developed to accommodate curious and adventurous humans.”

And like the explosion of light at the start of the universe, it becomes so.

I’ve never met the man but this is how I imagine Peter Molyneux to be. To me, he is a mythic figure–a mystic of this Web 2.0 pre-apocalypse. He’s a barefoot prince with a rayed halo. An illusionist perpetually stuck in the prestige. He used to be hated, you know. But in the course of a few years, Peter Molyneux underwent a memetic transformation from hyperbolic developer to this speculative video games Svengali. I wonder how that came to be.

In a way, he always has been a kind of weird pilgrim. As a video game developer and core audience rabble-rouser, Molyneux has been notorious for dropping majestic pronouncements about a game’s scope and capabilities. Back in the day, when Molyneux was still fresh faced and sprightly, we gamers ate it all up.

It was a time when video games was going through its awkward teen years. Fights were breaking out on the streets whenever “legitimacy” and “video games” were placed in the same sentence. Video games were expected to outgrow the arcade and finally don a mortarboard, to explore high-minded themes outside the realm of assaulting virtual people. Expectations were placed, feelings were hurt, and gaming strove to step up its, er, game.

Then came Molyneux placing Fable on a gilded pedestal, speaking of quirky minutiae and unparalleled player freedom. And we trusted him.

In the past, Molyneux’s mind gave us a beautiful thing in Dungeon Keeper, a dungeon-labyrinth simulator with a wicked sense of humor and razor-sharp gameplay. He made Populous, a war strategy game where you controlled terrain instead of armies, directing your horde via valleys carved through mountains and coastlines rising from the sea.

Of course we were hyped! With the first Fable,  Molyneux promised us real-time grass growing, carvable initials on in-game trees, constant magic use causing accelerated aging like eldritch progeria.  In a fit of public manipulation, Molyneux promised us, almost literally, the world.

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What did we get? The unfortunately unforgettable title of ‘Chicken Chaser’ and none of the above. The first Fable was to be the shining punctuation to the “legitimacy” debate, the Next Big Thing. What it became was a perfectly ordinary RPG. It didn’t break any new ground–it sort of just lightly stamped on it a bit and kicked a pebble or two. Molyneux’s promises and IOUs were revealed to be pretty worthless. Reviewers and consumers released their bated breath as a grouchy sigh. And at the end of it all, Molyneux just twisted the hem of his turtleneck and blushed out a naive apology and a promise to dazzle us with the sequel.

Then the sequel came out and it was fun and solid and emotionally affecting but not the vast, quazmadic ideal Molyneux promised.  Cue the apology, the casual self-effacing insult, and another pile of promises for the third installment. The Internet snorts as they articulate their ire with Photoshop. Fable III. Hello again, disappointment.

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Don’t call him evil. Think of Molyneux’s flimflammery as less of a shady PR maneuver and more of a grandiose stage illusion. He’s running on pure ambition, man, dreamstuff boiling in the dwarf star that is his heart. His ideas are forged in a kiln of Enthusiasm and hammered down with Single-Mindedness. There’s no room in his craft for impurities such as Realistic Expectations and Reasonable Projections!

Peter Molyneux’s reputation as this dreamy-eyed king has inspired @PeterMolyDeux to be who he is. The real Peter Molyneux is caught up in the trenches of designing and marketing and management. Life’s burdens have temporarily severed his bonds with the filigree strands of genius floating in his head. As response to the vacuum, @PeterMolyDeux has dedicated his fakey life to churning out tweet after tweet of unrefined gaming brilliance. He’s not the real deal, but he’s clearly been touched by the same fey Molyneux shares lodgings with.

@PeterMolyDeux stepped lightly, releasing its ideas to the willing and ready public. Tweets were retweeted, handles were shared, and people started closely watching the affectionate parody of a man everyone disliked. Our shared ridicule made us love the gag account. We imagined the serene face of the Peter Molyneux typing up that overoptimistic screed himself. And after several tweets, the genuine Peter Molyneux stood up and he’s the one laughing the hardest.

Then something wonderful happened.

Because of @PeterMolyDeux’s deadpan theatrics and Molyneux’s tacit acceptance, the Internet began to soften towards the latter. He’s no longer gaming’s court fool. He’s, what? A human being with a sense of humor?

Born in this crucible of hilarity was the MolyJam. The MolyJam is an indie game jam–a kind of gamedev coding fest bound by a common theme–open to developers worldwide. Happening all in 48-hours, devs alchemize code and design to make mad scientist vidya builds.

Their ideas are based on @PeterMolyDeux’s tweets, tweaked and distilled to include other important components, like gameplay, win conditions, graphics. But the core conceit of the tweets are intact, their existence enabled by several hundred wonderful people showering in the euphoric brilliance of @PeterMolyDeux.

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During MolyJam Deux, however, organizers poured the real Peter Molyneux’s decontextualized words into the idea machine and started turning the crank. It just goes to show that you really can’t beat the omnipotent zeal of the original:

“When you’re doing it in multiplayer, it feels incredible. I love that.”

“It’s easy for me to guess that people like relaxation, but is there a way I could measure it?”

“Pull the right trigger to see The Most Interesting Thing in the World.”

“I’m angry. I’m super angry. My wife is barely talking to me now, because she lost a million gold coins.”

Peter Molyneux has shuttled back and forth into the online limelight and is now enjoying an amiable cocktail of respect and ridicule. But over-inflated promises and caustic self-criticism aside, video games needs people like him. Anyone who has walked through the conflagration of Internet rage, only to come out the other end, savvier and self-aware but generally unchanged and unscathed, is a special kind of person and we should heed his ways. Especially now that he is learning to be a reasonable man and not a perpetual hype machine. When asked about his latest god game, Godus, he said, “Well, I’m not going to say it’s the best game I’ve worked on… but it feels like the most complete game I’ve worked on. I love playing it, and maybe other people will love playing it.”

Molyneux understands what riles people up and gets them stomping–the ability to travel anywhere, to influence anything, to shape worlds and thoughts. He managed to ensnare millions of people–mostly angry people–into clicking on a gigantic cube just to see what he’s trying to do. He could dive into the ocean and wrestle draconic sea serpents to the surface because he firmly believes they exist. And you’ll only need a word and a wink from him to convince you, too.

This week is for Molyneux and for MolyJam, where we’ll review a MolyJam Deux game for every day of the week. Prepare to weep, to laugh, to scratch your head and some other body parts if the game calls for it. Prepare to imagine.  Prepare to…

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About Job Duanan

Job believes that pixels are building blocks of love and understanding.

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This entry was posted on 22 July 2013 by in Features and tagged , , , , , .
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