The lessons Of Fable and what we want from a sequel

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According to the rumour-mills, we may be due another Fable in the world of Albion. A Fable 4, if you will. It’s easy to shrug that off as no big deal. Fable is arguably the series most talked about for what it doesn’t do rather than what it pulls off, not helped by the PT Barnum level overpromises of a certain Mr P. Molyneux. Plant an acorn and watch it grow into a tree, anyone? Not in this game…

When you ignore all of that though, and look at Fable as the hack-and-slash RPG that it is rather than the fantasy life simulator it was pitched as, it’s always been a somewhat underrated series with great ideas practically oozing from its pores. Successful? Often not, but if a sequel promises anything, it’s another crack at what could have been great. What does Fable 4 have to draw on? Plenty…

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For starters, Fable isn’t a series that just rests on its laurels. Each follows the same basic concept, with a largely linear path through the adventure, but with plenty of side-activities and quests to help shape your character and earn cash. The central gimmick is that how you play affects your character. Do evil, and you’ll grow horns. Use lots of magic and power will crackle from your fingertips. Likewise, how you choose to play affects your reputation and available titles, from “Chosen One” to “Nobhead”, with the NPCs reacting accordingly, and the availability of some of the missions and rewards. Demon Doors, for instance, won’t open and reveal their treasures for a goody two-shoes. Getting married and buying property raises your status, while having unprotected sex can result in having a child. Over the course of the game, these decisions mean that while everyone’s playing the same story, everyone’s character ends up unique. Said focus is also why during development at Big Blue Box (a company that would later merge with Molyneux’s Lionhead Studios) Fable went by the codename ‘Project Ego’.

This was more or less enough to carry the first Fable game, though it was a confused beast at the best of times and disappointing for how simple it was after all the promises and hints of something far grander. The story in particular was completely at odds with most of the actual action, jerking awkwardly from a game about hacking wacky critters and farting at comedy NPCs to plot beats about your lost sister being kidnapped and having her eyes gouged out by a bunch of bandits.

Not too surprisingly for a game that had been in development for years in the proximity of Molyneux’s ambitions, it felt like both a cut-down version of what it was meant to be, and not entirely sure what that was. Still, it was fun, offered a lot of freedom for an RPG not called ‘The Elder Scrolls’, and had great ideas, like being able to ‘Boast’ at the start of quests – taking on more risk for extra reward – and like heading out to fight evil in nothing but your Union Jack pants.

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Fable 2 (sadly, not available on PC) benefited from having a successful template to work with, and being able to build on it – to make the world more dynamic, to get rid of annoyances like the first game’s constant narrator nagging (despite that narration being from Knightmare’s Tregard, it got old fast). It also changed the world drastically, jumping forwards in time with an intro straight out of Dickens, and in a rarity for RPGs at the time, targeted newcomers to the genre more than old hands with the addition of a controversial breadcrumb trail that would lead you directly to your next objective so you didn’t have to rely on a map. It worked because there was enough around the edges to ensure that deviating from the path was usually worthwhile, but RPG veterans did reasonably chafe at feeling dragged around by the collar.

With all the changes, it’s arguably the most successful of the games, with the least interesting main story, but the most interesting and complete feeling path through it – helped by the introduction of characters like Stephen Fry’s lovably evil Reaver and the true star of the game, the player’s dog. This was an attempt to add more of an emotional connection to the action, even if the result was spending most of the game waiting for your hound to be killed in a suitably dramatic fashion, a la Dogmeat from Fallout. This indeed happened, with the final decision of the game ultimately boiling down to whether you wanted to bring your dog back, to sacrifice your family for the good of the rest of the world, or a veritable shitload of money. At least until a DLC expansion made it possible to resurrect the mutt separately, to a mix of grumbling and reluctant coughing up.

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As easy as it is to be snarky, the dog did work. Looking back, it might be hard to see the resonance, but this was only a couple of years after Nintendogs proved that people could develop a relationship with a fake canine buddy, and even if you didn’t form a connection, the dog served a valuable purpose by digging up treasure and helping against enemies. It didn’t quite provide the emotional core that Molyneux hoped for, but it was a memorable addition that defined the kind of feature that the series wanted to offer for both veterans and the mainstream audience flocking to console RPGs.

Unfortunately, what followed was Fable 3 (no longer apparently available on PC…), later described by Molyneux himself as “a trainwreck”. It’s not a Descent To Undermountain or Ultima IX level calamity, being at least playable from start to finish and still having plenty of fun moments, but it’s still a game largely defined by its failure. The concept, tragically, was fantastic – to spin the RPG on its head for a look at what it means to rule rather than simply fight for justice, and explore the issues that the average hero doesn’t normally have to worry about. The premise is that you’re the sibling of a cruel king, Logan, and that you flee and join the resistance with the goal of taking your bro down. You do this by travelling the country, making friends with its different factions, and promising that you’ll fix their problems, only to find that things are more complicated and that your good intentions may have to be sacrificed for the greater good of the country.

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But just like in the game, good intentions in the design aren’t enough. In practice, it fails early on by not actually giving you any say in those promises, removing the intended emotional conflict entirely. Then, after seizing power, the threat turns out to be laughable. It’s revealed that Logan was bleeding the country to prepare for an upcoming invasion of a monster called the Crawler, and as ruler, you’re expected to make the same decisions. Build an orphanage or a brothel? That kind of thing. The catch is that this is Fable, which meant that by this point of the game most even vaguely comprehensive players had or could put together enough money to defend the country with their pocket change, rendering all of this completely moot. Also, the ultimate darkness is a complete pushover that can be taken out in a one on one fight. Bah.

Still, as with the rest of the series, the issue here is execution rather than concept – and a few years away from the series, rather than a rush to get another game out before a console generation change or another similar game eating its lunch, is actually a pretty positive starting point. Even during this wasteland, the series has had interesting moments for those willing to take a look, with Fable: The Journey being widely eye-rolled at for being an on-rails game (despite Molyneux’s protestations, it was most definitely an on-rails game) but still doing some fun narrative stuff, and the launch of CCG Fable Fortune, which I confess I haven’t played myself, but which looks pretty enough and currently has a Very Positive rating over on Steam.

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With the same push for great ideas, and the incredible things done in both RPG and other genres since Fable first appeared back in 2004, there’s ever possibility that a new game could pick up on what worked – the customisation, the humour, the charm of its tongue-in-cheek British world, and the commitment to trying new ideas – while learning from the games and emotional experiences that came later.

Fable is never going to be a hardcore RPG franchise, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with hack and slash. But there’s a definite space in the market for a hack and slash with more depth and breadth than your average dungeon or monster infested field, and it’s shaped exactly like a plucky hero with a big sword, big ambition, and bowels full of poo-gas ready for anyone who might deserve it. Fingers crossed that if the rumours are true and Fable 4 is indeed on its way, it’s the game that takes everything the series stands for, and finally makes it a game praised for what it does well rather than standing primarily as a testament to what it could have been.

38 Comments

  1. Ghostwise says:

    Welcome back Richard !

    • DaisyRobinson says:

      I resigned my office-job and now I am getting paid £64 hourly. How? I work over internet! My old work was making me miserable, so I was forced to try something different, two years after…I can say my life is changed-completely for the better!

      Check it out what i do… Click Here And Start Work

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    subdog says:

    Cobbett is back!

  3. Abacus says:

    link to shamusyoung.com

    This is one of my favourite ‘long reads’ of Fable 2. Thinking back on it, the story was really clumsy.

  4. axiomatic says:

    So I played most of the Fable games and the only one that had actual consequences for your decisions was the first one. So my vote is for “consequences.”

    • satsui says:

      Yeah, definitely. That’s what I really enjoyed about the first game. The fact that everything you did had a consequence, even if you thought you were doing the right thing. I want that back. I liked the ability to come across a boss, only to understand their side of the story and you had a choice: Do I kill them, or do I let them live? If I kill them, some good happens and some bad happens. If I let them live, some good happens, and some bad happens. Which do you choose? It was like that throughout the whole game and that made it great.

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    Drib says:

    Maybe a Fable game without Molyneux is more reasonable.

    For the record, I really enjoyed all the (mainline) Fable games.

    Fable 1 felt comparatively open, had lots of different quests and a story that went around and around itself, and was generally a fun fantasy world romp, despite the weird incongruity between the goofy art and fighting, and the rather po-faced story.

    Fable 2’s story was… odd, but not really bad. The gameplay was much improved over 1, at least mechanically, and the setting had some weird wrinkles that I thought worked pretty well. Again there was that odd goofy-gameplay-dark-story thing, but that’s just how the series is.

    I really expected Fable 3 to end when I got the crown, so the “fine, now fix what you broke, jerk” thing was quite neat. But yeah it was a bit of a pushover given that you could just mill around collecting rent for a while and then pay the army with that. No need to do anything unpopular ever. Still though it was a neat idea, but executed poorly, as the article says.

    But I think a new Fable would be a good thing. I like the setting, I like the gameplay, I really can’t think of a reason to dislike the idea of a new one other than “they might ruin it”, but hey, that’s any sequel ever, isn’t it?

  6. SaintAn says:

    I just want Molineux’s original vision. The game he talked about, but we never got. The one with seasons, time (an ever changing and aging world), generations, consequences, and other stuff like that. We have the technology now and other games have done parts of the ideas. Add in some Zelda climbing mechanics and some well crafted world and weather system like Witcher 3 and you have the type of game I want so so badly.

    But it’s Microsoft, so it will probably be shallow lowest common denominator crap that is not even near as good as the worst Fable game (3 and the spinoffs) so I wont hype myself up about another Fable.

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      Isn’t “I just want Molineux’s original vision” the tragic story of pretty much everything he touched since, give or take, Dungeon Keeper II?

      The guy talks a gorgeous game; and he seems sincere enough about his own belief in it that it’s hard to accuse him of just cynical pump n’ dump; but he is…not exactly a poster child…for the “real artists ship” theory of product excellence.

    • FranticPonE says:

      Fable 2 came closest. You start as a kid, then poof you’re an adult that ages. Seasons came in that neat little DLC that would’ve been awesome if applied to the rest of the world. I’m sure you could do aging for everyone in a game today, the Sims has done it since 3 so with enough effort…

      But hells, as said it’s Microsoft. The blank, soulless stare of the giant corporate sloth will mutter something about being an action RPG and that’s what we’ll get.

    • Lawlcopt0r says:

      Yes please. I sincerely hope most RPGs go in this general direction. Also worth copying from Zelda is stuff like simulated electricity that travels through metal items, spreading fire etc. Makes the world so interesting.

  7. Smevan says:

    The (admittedly not useful) question is whether we’ll be getting “Fable 4”, or “Fable”, the un-numbered rebootening, in the style of recent revivals

  8. abstrarie says:

    I’d really prefer for one of these games with “consequences” to give some stuff to people who play in the grey areas of the morality spectrum. Maybe I murder some people sometimes, but also have a soft spot for saving kittens and am granted some powers specific to that band of the spectrum instead of only being rewarded for an extreme. Seeing that when you were bad you grew devil horns in this made me lose all want to continue. That is just lazy.

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      phuzz says:

      Yes. I can’t think of any game with some kind of ‘morality’ system that isn’t basically just good or evil, with nothing in between.
      Some times I want to shoot this pirate captain in the head because I don’t like them, but spare that murderer because they had a good excuse, but if I want the game to recognise my actions I either have to be a goodie two shoes, or an evil bastard.

  9. Phantom_Renegade says:

    Did anyone really bitch about the breadcrumb trail? I thought it was absolutely brilliant and every game ever should have it as an option. Or rather, your currently active quest should have it. I’m currently playing Xenoblade 2 and jezus christ is it hard to find anything on those maps. All ‘open world’ games should be given a choice. Either have something like the breadcrumb thing, or have the lead dev be shot in the foot. It’s been proven time and again that actually making it easy to find something in open world games is impossible, so this is the compromise.

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      Earl-Grey says:

      My favorite aspect of the breadcrumb trail was that it made it much clearer where I could go off-rails.
      I didn’t have to get annoyed because I accidentally went where I was supposed to go, I could piss off to wherever else but my destination.
      I liked it.

  10. Meat Circus says:

    Didn’t Microsoft acquire Lionhead and the old Pathological Liar himself because they thought Fable could become “their Zelda”?

    It is good to laugh.

  11. Rath says:

    The biggest improvement Fable 2 made was ditching the ridiculous progeria based levelling system of the first game that caused you to become older than your own mother.

    • Ejia says:

      I HATED that. There was no reason for the player character to be sixty years old just through leveling up when nobody else aged.

      • baud001 says:

        Well, personally I liked that you character would change of appearance and once you go far enough in the game, like in the Lost Chapter, enough time has pasted you can reasonably be older than your mom, who died like 8 hours ago.

  12. shoptroll says:

    Welcome back Richard!

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    Nauallis says:

    Storywise, my hope is that the writers ditch the “you’re the only Hero left” motif that Fable 2 and Fable 3 did such a morbid job of establishing, because they were trying to push co-op so hard. Fable 3 was very depressing, the world felt very empty.

    Maybe they go full Bioshock: Infinite with it and it turns out you manage to alter the fabric of reality so hard after the climax events of Fable 3 that you end up in a parallel universe where other Heroes have managed to survive and thrive, and now it’s WWI or WWII era and it’s time for some full-on pre-avengers level meta… Anyway, just not a depressing game would be nice.

    • pkroliko1 says:

      I think they could easily just set it in the future where heroes have returned. Fable 2(my personal favorite of the series) had some good ideas, and then 3 while i didn’t hate it was very meh.

  14. Sheepdog says:

    I’ve enjoyed all the Fable games. They definitely had some tonal problems and the ending of Fable 2 was just terrible, but I’ve had fun with them all.
    Hope a Fable 4 is on it’s way. Would be fun to run around Albion again.

  15. Peksisarvinen says:

    The first one was alright. Flawed as balls to be sure, but still alright. But it was all downhill from there.

  16. Gothnak says:

    It saddens me to see any article about Fable not mention the Carter Brothers (Simon & Dene) anywhere at all. They came up with the idea, they ran the studio that made Fable 1 (Big Blue Box), they joined Lionhead and ran the direction internally through Fable 2, and then Dene (Creative Director) left at the beginning of Fable 3.

    If you want to know why some Fable games worked and some didn’t, i don’t think you need to look much further than that.

  17. Monggerel says:

    WHAT DO WE WANT
    Chicken Chaser!
    WHEN DO WE WANT
    Chicken Chaser!

  18. ZippyLemon says:

    Twist: Albion is ruined, and it’s the whimsical British people who are the refugees. Your character has to come up from nothing in a bewildering and hostile but, of course, irreverent and silly world. Will you stand with your people or strike out alone? When the world hits you, will you hit back? Will you carve out a place in this new land, or will you settle into the existing order?

    This theme would likely be impossible for British devs to pull off tastefully so it’s probably a bad idea, but gee I would love to see the Fable motifs applied to a foreign world given the turbulent times we live in.

  19. Dogshevik says:

    Good to see an article by Richard again. Sadly I don´t have much to add to the topic.
    The little I know about the Fable series always left me a bit unsure about what it actually tried to be. And it never teased me enough to actually bother to find out.

  20. TillEulenspiegel says:

    Fable 3 (no longer apparently available on PC…)

    This is still incredible to me. Fable 3 was available for a couple years, then pulled because apparently it wasn’t worth bothering patching out the GFWL, which would have been necessary for it to continue to work. It was published by Microsoft!

    Fable 3 is, of course, still available in pirated form. As far as I know this is an unprecedented situation for a modern game (formerly available on Steam) from a big publisher. Many online-only games have died quickly, but they can’t be easily pirated.

  21. KOVERAS says:

    Personally i’d be satisfied if they implemented all of the funny ideas from previous games: Chicken Kickin’ Tournament; Fishing minigame; Gladiator fights; FamilyLife Sim + Real Estate Manager; Brothel Madame; caravan raid, etc. when you think about it, besides the funny-quirky minigames, it’s just like Mount & Blade Singleplayer…

  22. Rainshine says:

    I remember playing the first Fable; my memories are not terribly fond. While the whole concept of consequences to your actions (specifically the appearance changes) appealed to me, I remember finding the overall gameplay depressingly linear. Also, I seem to recall it being checkpointed and feeling very built for consoles and controllers, which is not something that I enjoy.

  23. Jabberslops says:

    I don’t think many people will see this comment, but I just thought I’d share one of the things that made me like Fable 2 the most out of the three despite playing Fable and later TLC more times than I can remember.

    When I first got Fable 2, I had been playing on a broken used Xbox 360 I got off ebay and fixed myself. The thing was finicky and only worked when it had been warmed up and sitting. It broke down completely during either my first or second play-through (I think it was my first O_-) and It basically stranded my character in the Spire for months while I tried looking for a new console.

    When you first set off to the Spire you have to leave behind everything, including your Dog. You are in the Spire for years before you escape. My console broke down right around when I was nearly about to escape. So after months of no console, I finally got another one and fired up Fable 2 to finish it.

    The point where it gets emotional is when you finally do escape and you return home, your Dog is there waiting for you. Months of not playing the game and I finally return to a Dog still waiting for me on the dock, everyday for 10 years. It was probably the most memorable part of the entire game for me. I really wish Microsoft would port Fable 2 to PC.

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