Good and evil is barely the start of it, frankly. Fable is one of those rare, fascinating game series upon which nobody can really seem to agree about anything for very long. It’s a shallow RPG, or maybe it’s a canny and satirical examination of RPGs in general. It’s hilarious – oh, the burping! Or maybe it’s just juvenile. Let’s face it: Fable’s easy to the point of being obsequious, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s choosing to measure itself in ways that go beyond mere difficulty? It’s no surprise, then, that with all this discussion churning around it, the world of Albion is so often defined by a mechanic that it doesn’t even contain.
As a young child, the story once went, you will find an acorn. If you plant the acorn, green shoots will emerge from the earth. Years later, after a long life of consequence and heroism, you will return to the place that you planted that acorn and a huge oak tree will tower overhead. A lovely idea, isn’t it, that a game would be both so reactive and so poetic, that a game would really notice you and afford your presence a degree of lasting importance, that a game would see your involvement with it as a chance for it to grow? But of course there was no acorn in Fable. By extension, there was no oak tree that would have erupted from it. Or was there?
When I heard a few weeks back that a new Fable game was underway with a new developer attached, I experienced a rush of fond memories so vivid, playful, silly and heartfelt that I almost wobbled on my feet for a few seconds. I remembered setting off, barefoot, on a summer’s day to a distant island where a cog-driven door emerged from the side of a hill. I remembered the moon peering down through sickly grey murk above bogland, where a monster covered in bracken and moss stood up to his waist in mud. Most of all, I remembered a house I once bought where the previous owner, thanks to a brilliant glitch, lived on long after I had killed them, partially stuck in one of the upstairs walls. Then, I started to think about the task of bringing a series like this back to life with a new creative team and in a new era. In a game so full of moving parts, so driven by whimsy and – perhaps – by accident, what single piece of Fable is absolutely indispensable? In which part of Fable does Fable truly live?
And hidden within these questions is another. Why did Fable work so well in the first place?
None of these questions are easy to answer, and in the early days of 2018 they may be particularly tough. Given current tastes, Fable may linger retroactively in your memory as a kind of anti-Dark Souls RPG, a series that, from Fable 2 onwards, could have been marketed with the strapline, “YOU WILL NOT DIE”. But even to reduce the series to rote matters of accessibility is a surprisingly difficult trick to pull off. In truth, nothing about Fable is actually that easy. Conceptually, it is a thicket, albeit a lovely one. At times, it might seem like half the appeal of this series is the talk around it. PR froth, angry forum posts about missing acorns: it’s all part of what Fable is. It’s all part of what makes it so rich and so fascinating, and what allows a series about exploring cliches to become so singular.
When I think of Fable, as the roar of immediate memories recedes, I inevitably think of something that feels like two different, perhaps opposing, designs for games. There’s a straight-ahead fantasy adventure – albeit one with a story that I struggle to recall – and then there’s the billowing, picaresque cladding that surrounds it, full of optional quests, lavish in-jokes, haircuts, emotes, tattoos, one-button fighting that is really three-button fighting, moral choices and devastating consequences. How do these two designs fit together? The first element swiftly became so pared-back that, by the second game in the series, you could be pulled through the entire adventure by a single golden thread. The second element, meanwhile, the gleeful orgiastic clutter, reached out further and further in all directions, grasping for character customisation, marriage, children, home-ownership, business-ownership, saloon mini-games and, eventually, kingdom-ruling strategy.
Stop! Calm. Back at the very start of it all, Fable opens with childhood, and with Oakvale, a perfect place for a hero’s tale to take flight. Oakvale’s an idyllic village enjoying a hazy, bee-loud spring, with danger poised on the horizon. It’s enviably self-contained – most roads in Oakvale lead back to Oakvale – and it’s a place where you could grow up feeling things would never change, which is, of course, the perfect place for violence to teach you that things will never be the same again.
You are so young at the start of Fable, so impressionable. You have long dreamt of greatness, but you have no fixed feelings about whether you should be a saviour or a tyrant, and both impulses, held in balance, now surround you. You need to earn money to buy a birthday present for your sister. Your father urges hard work, but another villager tells you that, “being good is boring.” As you explore Oakvale you witness various scenarios that only you can resolve – and they’re scenarios that can be split right down the middle, a virtuous outcome and a villainous outcome, one or the other dropping into your hand like the juicy half of a freshly-cleaved orange.
I remember playing this for the first time, years back, somewhat dazzled by the bucolic wonder that the first Xbox was suddenly able to conjure. I was also paralysed for a few seconds, paralysed by the endless temptation of a world that, it was already clear, would reward me whatever I chose to do.
Do you want to leave your childhood behind? Playing Oakvale today, what’s fascinating about it is that it’s as pure a vertical slice as anything I’ve ever seen in a video game. This is not just a tutorial (in a surprising intersection of game design principles and liberal philosophy – and in a move that would drive Freud mad – you’re told that nothing that happens in Oakvale – that is, in childhood – will carry over into adult life), it’s a microcosm of everything that Fable is seeking to do.
And it now seems both ambitious and thoroughly muddled. The moral choices are small but far reaching – moral choices seemingly always are – and they’re also surprisingly thorny, and thorny in a way that the game, which is ultimately going to put a single mark in the good or evil column at each instant, cannot really handle. Take the adulterer, caught in the act behind a farm building. Tell on him to his wife or keep silent? I’m still not sure what I should have done in this situation, but Fable has to be, and to make peace with itself it has to stereotype the wife as well as the husband, meaning that the introduction of an explicit form of morality has actually removed nuance and insight and a sense of realism from the world.
Fable gets better at this moral stuff – it finds better ways to pose its questions – but long after the player has left Oakvale artifice remains a defining characteristic of Fable’s alleged big sell. As I played the first Fable again earlier this week, what stood out was both how little the moral dimension of the game works – and, much more importantly, how little it matters that it doesn’t really work. More than any game I can think of, the pleasure here comes from deciding that Fable does work anyway, in very consciously believing in the fiction of the morality system and its effects – presumably enrichening the world’s texture, dynamism and sense of consequence – as much as the reality. I love Fable, but I wonder if a big part of why I love Fable is because of its audacity in trying to be Fable in the first place. It wins players over by trying to do so much, and putting so much energy into it. Even now it is hard to resist.
The first Fable is still surprisingly playable, in fact, and it’s riddled with lovely ideas. I love the way that experience spills from defeated enemies like glowing marbles, and so you have to rush and scrabble to collect it before it’s gone for good. Not very heroic, that. I love the fact that magic is called Will Power and that the hub is a wonderful little mini-Hogwarts for you to explore at your leisure.
It is all gloriously strange and frequently self-defeating. Testify! The narrative is suitably twisty and filled with moments of rustic wit, but it’s saddled with a quest structure that pretty much hides it from view for long stretches of time, and it’s gripped by a certain giddiness in terms of the way it despatches you off on pleasant trifles. The more you see of it, the less clear even basic things become. Most notably, there’s this: despite the name, Fable, over time it becomes harder to argue that the first game is particularly interested in stories or morality or their intersection. So what is this series interested in? For once, it was the sequel that would answer this question.
I was surprised how much of what I associate with Fable 2 was already present in the original Fable, from the way that the game’s maps tend to become higgledy single pathways tangled through vistas of great natural beauty (kept at bay by a modest fence, a la Centre Parcs), to the manner in which the buckled roofs of cottages and townhouses are tugged forward to resemble the point of a witch’s hat. Fable 2 conjures so many classic Fable features from scratch, but it’s probably fairest to see it as a recalibration rather than a full-on reinvention.
In other words, Fable 2 comes along and does two things. First, it gives you richer character options: the chance to play as a woman instead of a man, more haircuts and better tattoos and clothes, and to top all of this a dog of your very own to knock about with! Alongside this, it really just streamlines everything. That pleasantly throwaway fantasy plot – greatness awaits, but oh god there’s a total wanker in your way – is now threaded onto a glowing breadcrumb path that will take you, with perhaps a single exception, from the first cut-scene to the last. Oh yes, and you can’t die in combat. In Fable 2, a game about being a hero is really a game about going where you’re told and hitting your marks. A vast majority of games about heroes have this disquieting theme lurking within them, but few are so winningly open about it. And being open about it is just so Fable! It suddenly makes total sense that your first heroic act in the first game is to defend a picnic area from wasps.
Fable 2 is a magical game – and it still is, after all this time – although it may not always sound like it. It’s magical because of great art design and animation, because of a generosity of wit and spirit – but also because it’s one of those rare titles where you see a developer in the process of truly understanding the appeal and complete potential of what they’re working on. Just talking about Fable 2 – about this business of doing what you’re told, going where you’re pointed, hitting your marks, looking good while you’re there – it’s tempting to say that this is actually a game about celebrity rather than heroism. And yet, while everyone has a wonderful story about delighting a growing crowd with belches, in truth Fable’s always at its flimsiest when it’s trying to make you feel popular. Its applause is sort of perversely humiliating. What Fable 2 really is – what this whole series is – is a celebration of self. It’s a game about the endless adventure of being who you are, while pondering what that entails and what you might ultimately become.
So forget the ancient prophecies and the whole Chosen One business. Forget the blind seeress – if only more video games had the good taste to cast Zoe Wanamaker – and the man in the big castle who deserves a terminal shoeing. All of that stuff recedes very quickly anyway once you’re choosing how to do your fringe. Instead, Fable’s true preoccupations are much closer to home. How much do you want to own? How many people do you want to marry? What do you want to spend your time on? What should you use to hit people? What do you want to look like?
This last one is crucial, in fact, because in Fable even moral choices are ultimately aesthetic, almost sartorial, choices. Good and evil – they end up looking different, and in a game so unwilling to curtail your fun that’s pretty much the end of it until the narrative reaches its final few minutes. Yes, there are other things at work: Albion reacts to you, its population reacts to you and even your dog reacts to you, but what is the common theme here? All these things are ultimately different sorts of mirrors allowing you to view yourself again and afresh and in entertaining ways.
Again, much of this is true of so many RPGs to some extent: RPGs are the genre of character change in increments, of slow-motion sculpting, of indulgent finessing. But Fable’s peculiar genius is to elevate this element to a position of prime importance. Everything is seen through the lens of self, and it always has been in Albion. Comparisons make this obvious: Skyrim gets going when you bust out of prison. Fable kicks off after asking you explicitly if you are ready to leave childhood behind. It is still a bit of a shock to see that question written out on the screen.
In service of this, Fable becomes a series of games that are intimately interested in the act of being seen. (Actually, they’re interested in the limitations of being seen too – ever since Oakvale, what you appear to have done is more important than what you really did, and don’t even raise the question of why you did it.) This, too, is everywhere, from the deliriously satisfying combat system in which special moves are not called ultras or criticals but flourishes, to the modifiers for quests in the first Fable, which are dressed up as boasts. I’m not going to just save the kingdom/travelling salesman/picnic, you can say, I’m going to save it without taking a single hit in return. I’m going to save it without using a sword. I’m going to save it naked.
And this may help explain why Fable games feel so lightweight at times, how lengthy sessions with them can bring on the queasiness that comes from prolonged indulgence, as if you’ve been sat at a lavish buffet where everything turns out to be made of meringue. Fable’s landscapes are beautiful, from the stark, relentless coastline of Rookridge to the glittering pools of Gemstone Grotto, but they do not easily fit together or convince as practical spaces, just as, while its names and language are gloriously British (Oakvale, Knothole Glade, the motley of regional accents, the lovely talk of “soggy” sunlight) they do not suggest a great coherent heft of lore behind them. Rather, they do as intended: they add a little aggregate to existing nostalgia for the parochial Britain of half-myth and convenient social and political amnesia.Taken as a whole Fable’s environment holds together just long enough for you to move through it, delighted with yourself. It reminds me, a little, of the way that 3D games save their energies by only drawing the parts of the world that are right in front of you.
Why should you need more? With no death and that golden breadcrumb trail, you are left as the centre of a game which has ensured that you really don’t have to think of anything other than yourself. And to think of yourself here is marvelous. I can’t remember the plot of Fable 2, but I can remember what it did to me: I can remember how I looked at the start of the game and how I looked at the end. And I remember that, on my first playthrough, I actually became evil by accident. That was the real thrill, in fact, discovering that the things I had done – the little things – had made me ugly and grim. Fable’s morality may be stagey and compromised but it clearly weaves a kind of spell nonetheless.
And this heavy emphasis on self might explain, certainly as much as the rushed development and question of changing tastes, why Fable 3 was a relative disappointment. Fable 3 is certainly not a bad game – when I replayed it this week I was left with plenty of memories of clever bits and pieces and things that only Lionhead could have made work so well – but when it strays from the idea of self it falters somewhat.
Crucially, I wonder if it may have picked the wrong story to tell. Fable 3 kicks you forward in time: the hero you were in Fable 2 is dead, and with his or her children in charge, Albion has gone awry. Playing as either a princess or a prince, your aim is to mount a revolution and reclaim the throne from your mad brother. And once that’s done, you must rule, and in doing so, navigate the various promises you made when you were fomenting insurrection in the first place, so that you can survive an apocalyptic invasion from overseas.
There are a handful of problems with all of this, ranging from the realisation that the shift from the early age of reason to the birth of industrialisation has weakened the bucolic charm of Albion somewhat, to the fact that the theme of rebellion is going to sit ill with a game about obediently following a golden thread from one objective to the next. When Fable 3 begins, it doesn’t help that you’re already a princess, albeit one who’s about to escape from the castle: maybe this is the dull second act of a vibrant life, the purposeful pop era.
The real problem, though, is that as the third act looms and you’re finally given the keys to the kingdom, Fable 3 has revealed itself as a game about work rather than self-actualisation, or even self-actualisation through work. It’s misunderstood the appeal that glimmered in the first Fable and erupted, completely formed, in Fable 2. You’ve always been Trump, perhaps. Well now you’re in the White House and it suddenly seems terribly cramped and confining.
Another way of saying this is that, if the series had struggled with creating a meaningful story before, it suddenly found itself a bit too good at it. There’s no time to stop and belch when there is an uprising to lead, and while Fable 3 has some genuinely affecting moments – such as leading a blinded ally to safety as he battles his own terror – they only serve to weaken the central fun somewhat. Narrative motivation deflects from character motivation here, and by the time you’re on the throne Fable is no longer a lark.
So it’s about leadership rather than being a hero? It’s about the consequences of being a hero? Clever stuff – and Fable 3 is a clever game for sure. But it’s not always a satisfying one. It struggles to properly dramatise the process of leading a country. It struggles to make governance dynamic. Once you’re in charge, it becomes hard to get a sense of what is at stake: Albion suddenly seems abstract and distant. In many ways, it’s tempting to see all these things as marks of accuracy – rather bleakly, Fable 3’s end-game mechanics seems to conclude that good governance is largely a question of having enough money in the first place; thanks for that – but the spark of Fable 2 seems to have flickered somewhat. Still, it’s nice to see a big budget game that finds time to discuss child benefit policy. What an odd shore to finally wash up on.
Step back. As I’ve been replaying Fable games over the last few weeks or so and wondering where the series might go next, I’ve also been exploring a strange new game which has seemed, as time has passed, to offer unexpected similarities. I am talking, of course, about Kim Kardashian Hollywood – brilliantly I’ve just discovered it’s not Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood, it really is Kim Kardashian Hollywood rendered with all the awkward bluntness of a childhood wish or incantation. Get this: here on my iPhone touchscreen is another surprisingly witty and engaging game about charting a rise to power. Here too, you could argue, is an RPG that’s been reworked to clever and surprising ends, as well as a game about clothes, about haircuts, about changing your wardrobe and your prospects, about the transformative power of being seen. Is it concerned with celebrity? Superficially, I would argue. Instead – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – every day in Kim Kardashian Hollywood you get to tweak the self, to see the self grow more defined, more coherent, more powerful, and also somehow more mysterious and more enticing.
There is a back and forth here, too. The self and selfies! Imagine how beautifully social media would slot into Fable’s world: retweets, followers, Likes! Just ponder the trajectories, from Beverly Hills shop assistant in Kim Kardashian Hollywood, and from Oakvale pre-teen in Fable.
And just think: maybe we were the golden acorn in the first place, and once planted – and tended – we grew.