Simon Pegg and Ben Kingsley are among a group of celebrities providing voices on the new computer game Fable III.
The effect of stars on video games
The story is a classic fantasy tale of a young, would-be hero on a quest to save the people from a tyrannical king - the twist being the nefarious ruler is his own older brother. It stars the A-list talents of Ben Kingsley, Simon Pegg, Stephen Fry, Zoe Wanamaker and John Cleese. So it would seem rather surprising that last week's big release isn't enjoying the kind of breathless Oscar talk that currently surrounds Mike Leigh's direction in Another Year or Julianne Moore's performance in The Kids Are All Right. But there's a particularly good reason for that. Fable III isn't a film at all. It's a new videogame for the Xbox360.
Of course, actors have been lending their voices to computer games for years. Kiefer Sutherland has featured in the all-conquering Call of Duty series and Samuel L Jackson was a particularly fine piece of casting in the controversial gangster game Grand Theft Auto. But Fable III is different. It raises the bar so high - the list also includes Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and 28 Days Later's Naomie Harris - that the producers have even found room for amusing cameos from the likes of Jonathan Ross.
But although hearing Cleese's butler character utter the first words in Fable III undeniably brings a smile to the face, the sheer starriness of the "cast" is, in the end, a smokescreen. Apparently, there are more than 47 hours of speech in the game, which immediately suggests that this is an exercise in speaking lines rather than proper acting. One could naturally level that accusation at cartoons and animations too, but Tom Hanks' turn as Woody in Toy Story is full of depth and charisma - and a few visual clues. In Fable III, it's possible to not even realise Kingsley is King Sabine - and that's not just because the lip-synching is terrible. So what was the point in asking him to do it in the first place?
The real reason is clear: Fable III's makers clearly believe Kingsley et al lend their game a much-needed gravitas. I once edited a popular videogame magazine, and it was always amusing how obsessed the industry was with earning its place on the cultural map. There were constant campaigns to have Tomb Raider taken seriously and pored over in the same way an arthouse film might be in broadsheet newspapers. As soon as the figures stacked up, the games companies were boasting that they were driving a bigger industry than movies or music. No one ever seemed to mention the obvious reason: games cost five or six times as much as a trip to the movies.
To this day, the ultimate accolade is to have your game described as "cinematic". But films aren't worried about sounding like music. Books, most of the time, don't want to compete with art. They all exist in their own cultural space, developed over decades and sometimes centuries. And so should video games. There's a very real sense that games producers have become so sophisticated in their aims, they've forgotten to have fun along the way. FIFA 11, for example, is the best looking, and possibly most realistic football game I've ever experienced. It's also for the most part incredibly boring because, like the real professional game, it's very difficult to score.
So, because of their very nature, games will always struggle to have the lasting cultural significance of great literature or cinema. The backstory in Fable III might be adept, but scratch below the surface and it's a game where you have to unlock doors, mix potions, solve puzzles and fight the end-of-level baddies. Nothing wrong with that - it's the immersive, entertaining experience we buy an Xbox, PlayStation or Wii for. It's telling, though, that the films adapted from computer games - Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider - are almost without exception appalling. And that's because games, in the end, are not driven by narrative but by problem solving.
Games, indeed, are games and should remain so. Which is not to say that the developers of Fable III shouldn't be congratulated for their ambition in gathering together such an impressive array of actors to "star" in their game. But until the likes of Martin Scorsese or Leigh somehow harness an Xbox360 to tell a story that works as a game - which, let's face it, is never going to happen - being shown how to use an ancient sword by Cleese is a nice gimmick, but nothing more.