Sometimes I think that the greatest enemy of "free time" is gaming.
Recently, here at Erbosoft Galactic HQ, we've been exploring a game that's been out for awhile: Fable III. Originally, I had bought a used copy at GameStop, intending to check it out myself, but Sabrina found out I had it, and commandeered it for her own Xbox. I wound up having to buy another one. (And then, since it was a bit uncomfortable to play games while lying on the bed, I moved my Xbox from there to the computer room...and bought a cheap 19" TV to act as a HD display for it. Now my desk feels like the bridge of the Enterprise. Oh well, the TV does have a VGA input, so I can use it as a backup monitor if need be, too...)
Fable III, as with the earlier games in its series, is noted for having a "moral choice" system, where you can make choices between "good" and "evil" options (such as, at one point, to either protect a beautiful lake, or drain it to create a mine for needed resources). Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, purveyor of the fabulous Zero Punctuation game reviews you can find on The Escapist Web site, tends to criticize "morality choices" in gaming, because, in order to get the "best" endings to the game, you generally are forced to choose all one or the other (i.e., either be Mother Teresa or Bill the Slasher, to borrow terminology from an old 2600 article), but his review of Fable III, rather than rehashing that stance, goes into more detail about the difference in this game.
The storyline of the game puts the player as the younger sibling (pick "brother" or "sister," it's all the same) of King Logan of Albion, a tyrannical monarch by anyone's stretch of the imagination. The player is called upon to assume the Heroic mantle of his father (her mother) and lead a revolution against Logan. However, it turns out that Logan knows of the impending invasion of an eldritch horror called "The Darkness," and his harsh rule has been the result of focusing single-mindedly on building an army to repel the Darkness. He's more than happy to hand off the burden to you, with a year to go until the invasion, and from then on you're trying to both make sure your treasury has enough money to pay an army to put down the Darkness and to make the population happy by reversing all the bad decisions your brother made (which acts as a further drain on the aforementioned treasury).
Most of the "moral decisions" as this point seem to equate "good" with "liberal" and "evil" with "conservative" (gee, I wonder what game designer Peter Molyneux's personal political beliefs are?), but, as Yahtzee points out, "conservative" decisions aren't necessarily "evil" if they make the difference between a year of misery followed by survival, or a year of happy times followed by Armageddon. And the threat here isn't some nebulous "terrorism" threat, either; each of the loading screens at this point is telling you, "X Days Until Attack; Treasury Balance Y; Estimated Casualties max(6,500,000 - max(Y,0), 0)." And, post-victory, the NPCs you didn't manage to save appear as dead bodies on the ground all over the kingdom. When you look at it that way, it's easy to start thinking that perhaps Logan was right.
Still, this association left a bad taste in my mouth on occasion. For instance, one of the "good" choices you're faced with is to--wait for it--bail out Albion's banks. Now, I didn't like the fact that the Federal Government bailed out U.S. banks, but, in order to stick on the "good" path, I had to bite the bullet and drop the 500,000 gold. (Fortunately, my treasury, unlike the United States one, could afford it. How? Two words: Real estate.) And Yahtzee's criticism that the ending kind of "sneaks up" on you, jumping from "121 Days Until Attack" right to "1 Day Until Attack," is well-founded; in Sabrina's first game, she hadn't realized the issue and had been deficit-financing all the social reforms, which led to a "good but everybody dead" ending. I avoided her mistake by starting early and aggressively on developing a personal income (again, real estate) sufficient to bolster the treasury to the extent that I could spend freely and still have enough margin to save everyone with room to spare. (Another two words: Strategy guide.)
As flawed and simplified as it is for the purpose of gameplay, though, the storyline system of Fable III is light-years beyond, say, the DOOM series of games, which basically boil down to "If it moves, shoot it; if it doesn't move, shoot it anyway." Or, say, the Modern Warfare games Sabrina likes so much, which are pretty much "We're the good guys; here are some bad guys; go shoot 'em." It's not quite as open-ended as the so-called "4-X" games or "God Games," of which the Civilization series is one of the trope codifiers (and which are so compelling to me that I often actively avoid them to avoid the syndrome where I start playing one at 8 PM and next thing I know, "Hey, is that the sun rising?" ), but it's in-between enough that it can suck you in. Hence my not having posted anything since I planned to several days ago.
Some days I think I oughta just stick to solitaire on the iPhone.