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What's Fable really all about?


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?

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To load up the first Fable is to lose Lionhead all over again. What an astonishing studio this was, so willing to follow its own instincts, so eager, seemingly, to trust in its own voice. (This magical stones joke is particularly good.)

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.

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Amongst other virtues, Fable’s world has always been progressive and diverse.

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.