Retro: Fable

By Alec Meer on January 12th, 2009 at 6:39 pm.

Lionhead aren’t good with interfaces. Black & White’s wavy-hieroglyph spellcasting is infamous, of course, and I spent a little too much of the Christmas just gone swearing at the agony of magic selection and food-eating in Fable 2. Revisiting Fable the first though, the sequel comparative;y seems like a masterclass in elegant menu-making. This action-RPG’s wheezing, long-winded inventories, quest logs and maps are what you’d expect a taxman to come up with should he sidestep into game design. What game in its right mind would hide Quit under options? I wonder if it’s a failing that started at Bullfrog – Evil Genius and Republic, by that other ‘frog splinter cell Elixir, were similarly blighted by awkward menus. They’re like a great writer who’s never quite mastered apostrophes, and moreover doesn’t care. As long as he gets his point across, he’s happy.

I wonder too if a great clash of interface design is coming. Right now, we’re in the midst of a silent war between a movement that seeks to further complicate games’ controls – as demonstrated by the slow-growing button count on a 360 or PS3 pad, and Walker’s odd reliance on 5-button mice – and another that aims to strip them back. For the latter, look to the Wii and to the most recent Prince of Persia. Fable sits uncomfortably between the two poles. It’s determined in so many ways to be a simple, accessible action game that keeps relatively clear of the statistical overload of more throughbred RPGs, but perversely it carries the sort of dense menus and elaborate controls more common to the beardiest roleplayers. It’s a game at odds with itself.

Which is a theme that runs all through it. It’s a game that shouts about choice, primarily in the option to become a living legend through kindness or through viciousness, but forbids you from ever straying from its very real paths. No doubt Lionhead’s decision to restrict roaming to key quest hubs linked by narrow, enemy-littered roads is deliberate, rather than the simple cop-out it’s been labelled as: it wants to point you at fun stuff, not endless empty fells.

In truth, it doesn’t matter that much – it’s pretty enough and populous enough to distract from its geographical slightness. It’s how it depicts the restrictions that sours the deal: all flimsy wooden fences and tiny stone walls. In asking to accept that those, of all things, are impenetrable barriers in a world of might and magic, it’s insulting. If a game absolutely must tie its players to a beaten path, there are better ways to do it than visibly breaking its own rules.

Yet for all the backwards design decisions like that, Fable’s Albion – even its land’s name is singularly British – feels far more alive than, say, Fallout 3’s Washington, or World of Warcraft’s Azeroth. That’s not casting aspersions on other developers – Fable’s is a far more exaggerated world. Its people pay no heed to each other. They exist only to react to you, whether it’s to cower in fear of your famed murderousness, to coo in delight at your noble prowess, or to disparagingly shout whichever self-demeaning nickname you’ve currently adopted.

Oddly, this single-mindedness makes the place feel more genuine: their every reaction only to something that actually happened, and your ever-mute character’s total lack of verbal response leaves the other half of the conversation safely in your own imagination. Meantime, guards and traders stomp and totter between the towns’ connecting roads, there to bully or to barter with at your discretion. Thanks to their exaggerated swaggers and cartoonishly bloated limbs, you don’t look for cracks in Fable’s reality – instead, you accept the world it paints. Had Fallout 3 not chased photo-realism, its many animation failings wouldn’t have been anywhere near as glaring. As it is, this remains a remarkably pretty game: like WoW, there’s a certain timelessness to its toy-like character designs.

At the time, Fable was both praised and hated for its moral choices – choices that, as has forever been the case in games that make similar promises, were pigeonholed into a simple Lovely and Horrible dichotomy rather than reflecting any sort of inbetween status. Looking at it now, the morality seems far less important than it did in 2004. It’s a choice we’re so used to now, and the only difference here is that your character visually reflects it: angelic light and butterflies for a goodie, satanic horns and sulphurous insects for a meanie.

The morality, then, is ultimately incidental – charming polish rather than the meat of the game. What Fable really is is a particularly relaxed action game set in a particularly adorable, self-effacing world. With the exception of the awkward spell-selection, combat is simple and visceral – again, the toytown characters and Looney Toons animations do it many favours. It’s a chummier Diablo, happy to let you wander off and get married or beat up a few NPCs for while, but ultimately waiting for you to walk a familiar thump’n’collect road. Occasionally, a sterner voice asserts itself – there are a couple of hard choices, a few moments that pluck at heartstrings – but the ultimate impression is that it’s a playground. Like every playground, though, there’s an unavoidable barrier on every side.

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24 Comments »

  1. phil says:

    I utterly loved the first game, simplistic though it was, right up to the point were you fought a giant scorpion in the arena with your childhood friend. Dramatically you could see what the game was trying desparately aiming for but it came out as trite and forgetable, then it was just a lazy sequence of predictable reveals until the arbitary choice at the end. Still, the early hours were as close to providing a desirable hoilday destination as the XBOX came, well, maybe after KOTOR’s dune sea.

    I’d say Fallout 3 world is better realised though. The fact you can follow characters in real time, traders, antagonists, even Liam Neeson, as they charge about the wastelands, interacting like how good little emergent game play elements should, drew me into the game far more the clapping peasants.

  2. Real Horrorshow says:

    Since I didn’t have an Xbox I didn’t believe, fall for, or even know about the insane hype surrounding the game that I keep hearing about. So when I finally played The Lost Chapters on PC I was pleasently surprise. I only played it once, I’ll probably never play it again, but that one time it was a very fun game.

    It reminded me of what I liked about Zelda games…generic fantasy story, real time combat, and the little stuff like going fishing. To me it felt retro even when it came out. It was the lighthearted casual experience that I enjoyed, the polar opposite of your stereotypical PC RPG.

    Hmm, now I have a strong urge to download Ocarina of Time for a N64 emulator…

  3. Kua says:

    A more appropriate retro review I’d like to see. I hate to admit it but I often get bogged down and bored with PC RPGs but this was a breath of fresh air. It had real character.

    And you’ve very much inspired to take another bash at getting an N64 emulator to work. Is it really as hard and frustrating as I recall?

  4. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    The most frustrating thing I found with Fable 2 was how bloody slow they were. If they had quickly switched to the next set, it wouldn’t have been nearly the chore it became when there was a 2-3 second pause between sections. Really it’s not on, LH.

  5. Homunculus says:

    The school that you could bring books to and have the teacher read to the kids, then see how they assimilate its information was my favourite part of this game.

  6. Noc says:

    I am still angry about this game. I bought an X-Box for it, because I heard – including from people who’d played the game, who should have known better – that it was this gigantic open world, where you had a ridiculous amount of freedom and could make all sorts of choices. Fable’s tag line itself was “For every choice, a consequence.” I was younger then, and had yet to don the gray mantle of the jaded gamer. I was naive. And I was super excited about this game, as was everyone else.

    And then I played it. It’s not a bad game. It’s a pretty decent action RPG. It’s fun. But it baffles me how anyone could confuse it with a game about freedom of choice.

    This continues to annoy me to this very day.

  7. pepper says:

    I use 7 buttons on my mouse, and yes, UI design is currently being worked on in games, not only in the ingame part itself, but also quite a few editors are a pain in the ass to work with, gamasutra featured a article about that a long time ago.

  8. clovus says:

    Hiding exit in options is bad, but hopefully nothing will ever top the PC port of Assassin’s Creed for completely insane quitting procedures. Search YouTube for the video if you don’t know what I am talking about. I had a hard time understanding when the game saved so I usually sat through the whole thing instead of hitting Alt-F4.

    I played Fable: The Lost Chapters and was also really let down by the “consequences”. I murdered my whole home town and they were all back alive the next day and just a little scared of me.

    The fact that you couldn’t kill major plot characters was fun though. I married the evil mayor or whatever of the first major city. I then had some fun beating her over and over again until she finally divorced me. She just wouldn’t stay down.

  9. Heliocentric says:

    I never did finish it, I went with a combat heavy character, when i realise now its the ease of use of magic with a nice hammer for backup that I really desired.

    Dug it out, of the shamepile. sits on my desk boring into my mind desperate for attention.

  10. Real Horrorshow says:

    @ Kua: Actually it’s pretty easy. I haven’t messed with it in a while but the one I used I think was Project 64. No plugins required, and the games are only 20-30 MB.

  11. Matt says:

    Fable 2 really does commit some horrific UI crimes – I found myself memorising how many pushes of the D-Pad I needed inbetween pushes of the A button to eat another damned stick of celery to lose a bit more damned weight. But then, its greatest triumph was in making you care enough about so stupid a thing that you would go through all that awkwardness to achieve it.

    Sponge is right, though. The pauses on the menu were a right pain in the posterior and threw off my careful counts every time.

  12. Ofoug says:

    I played Fable 2 a while ago and if that interface was an actual improvement on the first game, they do need help =) Not the worst UI I’ve seen in a game but definitely annoying much of the time. Hm… I’m an interaction designer so I guess I should just mail Lionhead and basically say “Hello. You need me.” ;)

  13. Ginger Yellow says:

    Worst UI decision in Fable 2? A map that is bafflingly, absolutely, utterly useless. It literally might as well not be there at all.

  14. nickski says:

    have to agree on the map, am playing fable 2 at the moment on my toy box, and while loving the world and the simplicity of the combat finding your way around without endless piddling and an elephantine memory is more than a chore. also took me about 4 hours to figure out the bloody spell system. Though on a brighter note i have commited bigamy and sired many wee mees and married ‘Lisa the whore’, so not all bad! If it comes to PC i’d say buy!

  15. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    Fable was pretty disappointing, even if it managed to allure with potential. It also reminds me of an unstable ex, which does make me dislike it even more.

    Oh well, farthing in someone’s general direction, dogs scavenging for condoms and Aryan representations of goodness will probably keep on enthraling the Xbox crowd for years so hey, why not.

  16. roBurky says:

    I liked Black and White’s interface.

  17. thefanciestofpants says:

    I’m with roBurky. I thought Black and White’s interface was bloody brilliant, as was the game. Shame Black and white 2 was such a cop out.

    On topic; Have fond memories of Fable, really had a very convicing world as you say, in it’s own style. But yeah, the interface could have been better.

    Nice Retro peice :>

  18. lobsterjohnson says:

    This game was super easy, only two challenges:

    1- Escort missions were a bitch

    2- Marrying the only cute girl was a bitch, she ran the charity shop in the snow area, but you could only talk to her as a regular person as she was walking home, so it took some effort, but she was so cute! Well worth getting the only cute one in the whole game.

    (Oh and your guyeses post-preview thing is pinging gravatar every time I make a keystroke…..seems not right?)

  19. phil says:

    @Lobsterjohnson

    The only ‘cute one?’ You missed the murderous posho supermodel Lady Grey? You get a mansion if you actually married her.

  20. Ian says:

    “It’s how it depicts the restrictions that sours the deal: all flimsy wooden fences and tiny stone walls. In asking to accept that those, of all things, are impenetrable barriers in a world of might and magic, it’s insulting.”

    This is similar to something that bugged me about GTA… eh… San Andreas I think. I had rapidly got bored of the gangstas (yo) and resorted to what I’ve done when I’ve played any GTA game since GTA 2. Farted around hijacking cars and maiming folks. But I reached a toll booth that I thought would give me access to the wider world and it was apparently made of impenetrable adamantium, or perhaps was protected by advanced forcefield technology. I much prefer Just Cause’s method of letting you go anywhere (or to the extent that I tried to) right from the off.

  21. Caiman says:

    I never played the first one, but the second was one of the most enjoyable games for a long time. I agree the UI could have been better, but I’ve been playing games since the mid ’70s and I’ve put up with a lot more annoying shit than this in the past. I’m probably immune to it! Also, I’m one of these weird people who prefers to find my own way around and use my memory than refer to a map all the time, so the Fable 2 maps actually hit that sweet spot of being just useful enough to figure out where you are, but not too spoilery. Combined with the awesome melee combat, best in any game I’ve played, the game delivered. The most annoying thing I found was that it was difficult to play a middle of the road character – when the townsfolk surround you every bloody minute twittering away, I’d cast a few lightning bolts to piss them off, but they’d soon be back, twittering. I wanted more of a strong, silent type of hero, keeping under the radar, a quiet achiever, but the game didn’t let me do this.

  22. Ross says:

    @Homunculus

    By the end of the game, all I was doing was just looking for books to take to the school.

  23. Daniel Rutter says:

    I reached much the same conclusion about Lost Chapters. I liked it quite a lot. You just have to develop the ability to turn anything Peter Molyneux says into a faint mosquito-like whining sound, and then disappointment is reliably avoided.

  24. Heliocentric says:

    I finished it. Last time i found myself caught desperately trying to buy decent armour and weapons. Best tip i can give you? Enflame spell kicks ass. Not only is it fairly deadly, it knocks everyone in a circle over, and if they are lying down they can’t break you combo meaning you get xp faster. You’ll need to buy every mana potion you see but its okay as you don’t need to buy anything else, no bows no swords and most importantly, no armour. With your crazy wealth i suggest you buy all the red meat fish and carrots you see. Assign them to 567 and them spam those 3 keys after fights. I had gotten my combat multiplier to over 50 in some of the less hospitable areas. Thats 150 xp per food item. Meaning you can try every spell and skill in the game in one play through.

    I finished the game, glad i did won’t be replaying it but i will be encouraging my girlfriend to play. Now i’ve just got to resist telling her how to play.