Fable (Xbox) review
"What a fascinating failure Fable is. I don’t know exactly how long it was in development and I’m too lazy to find out, but I can tell you that I first heard about it when it was called Project Ego during the post-E3 launch craze of mid-2001, a year that inspires repeated use of the phrase “back when.” Back when Microsoft was clearly in over its head. Back when the Xbox was doomed to fade into history as another failed attempt by an inexperienced first party to dominate the console ..."
What a fascinating failure Fable is. I don’t know exactly how long it was in development and I’m too lazy to find out, but I can tell you that I first heard about it when it was called Project Ego during the post-E3 launch craze of mid-2001, a year that inspires repeated use of the phrase “back when.” Back when Microsoft was clearly in over its head. Back when the Xbox was doomed to fade into history as another failed attempt by an inexperienced first party to dominate the console market, especially considering its parallel release alongside the almighty powerhouse that was the GameCube. Back when the Xbox’s lineup was looking grim, and Peter Molyneux’s love child of an RPG would be its saving grace. Back when the idea of a game that gave you infinite freedom was hailed as a revolutionary concept.
I guess it would be unfair to say that I didn’t enjoy Fable purely because I was disappointed with it. Molyneux has a habit of overhyping his games anyway, and even if the finished product couldn’t possibly live up to the monumental expectations I had for it, well, I should still be able to enjoy it on its own merits, right? But Fable, more than other games, suffers from its own failed potential. You see things in Fable that you never expected to see before. Big, big ideas at play here. You get the sense, early on, that all of these ideas will amount to something extraordinary by the time the game is over. Next thing you know, the game is over, the opportunity is missed, and you’re left scratching your head and thinking, “What just happened?”
Timing is one thing, and over a year before Fable was released, we’d already walked the line between good and evil in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. That game did what Fable was supposed to do without even really trying: ACTUAL moral dilemmas, with the side of evil usually offering a more “rewarding” (at least in a strictly material sense) outcome while the path of the hero was more emotionally satisfying. And that game followed a fairly linear structure and straightforward narrative while still effectively highlighting the far-reaching consequences of every major decision you make. Fable should have been an expansion of this, allowing the player complete freedom on every level. Be the saintly hero or the rotten scoundrel, because the world of Albion is yours to do with as you please.
Fable offers moral dilemmas without ever giving them weight – they never amount to anything. Consider the game’s tagline: “For every choice, a consequence.” Um, no. Not unless you count the superficial effects, which by and large have no impact on how Fable is played. If you’re an evil bastard, your character’s eyes glow red, he’ll grow horns, and flies swarm around his gaunt figure. On the other hand, if you’re more the heroic type, you’ll eventually see a faint halo hanging over your warrior’s head, which attracts insects of an infinitely more pleasant nature – say, oh, butterflies. Your fame throughout the land of Albion grows as you complete more quests, and with it, your reputation as either a savior or a villain becomes widespread – a feature so underplayed that its long-term effects amount to whether the local children follow you around or flee in terror.
I’ll remind you that KOTOR – which I expect to be referring to quite a bit here – gave the player complete freedom over what his character said. Fable stresses actions over words, with a few scant yes-or-no questions making up the entirety of what comes out of your character’s mouth. Thing is, even when a particular mission throws a seemingly tricky dilemma at you, there’s rarely any long-winded effect. Your options are clear-cut good or evil. If you decide to spare the warlord you’ve beaten in battle, it’s not because you believe this will benefit you later on, because it won’t. It’s because you already made up your mind as to which path you wish to take when you started Fable.
The lack of impact each individual decision has doesn’t truly come to light until Fable’s final moments, when, after the final boss, you’re faced with one last major choice that will affect how the game ends. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you’ve been up to this point. This one final decision tells all. How can this be? Shouldn’t the ending of a game that stresses the consequences of actions be a culmination of every choice you’ve made thus far?
But perhaps I’m looking too far into this. The main issue with Fable’s good/evil mechanic is that, well, it’s broken. Your character’s alignment is determined by the points they receive for performing either heroic or evil deeds, which is fine, except that the rate at which they’re issued has been thrown horribly off balance. You’re awarded “hero points” (as we’ll call them) for every enemy you defeat. Think about that. Being a villain doesn’t stop the bees, bandits and trolls from attacking you, so what are supposed to do? Run past them? Either this is an inexcusable oversight by the Lionhead team, or it was simply their way of encouraging evil deeds, in order to balance things out – something I shouldn’t be told to do if evil really is the path I’ve chosen. Needless to say, going on random killing sprees gets tiring rather quickly, especially when everyone will forget all about my murderous tendencies if I wait a few days anyway. For every choice a consequence, my ass.
So where Fable is supposed to encourage the player to behave however he or she wants, this system doesn’t work since playing the good guy is infinitely more entertaining. I actually quite enjoyed Fable on my first run if only because I had chosen this route and was therefore playing the “good half” of the game. It wasn’t until my eventual rerun that I came to understand how unbalanced this system is, how the hero follows a relatively standard (albeit fun) RPG tale while the villain is forced to undergo periodic genocide to make up for the slaughtered foes who would’ve killed him if he hadn’t fought back.
Fable’s ten-minute introductory sequence is curiously misleading in that it correctly portrays exactly what Molyneux probably had in mind when he began work on the game. You’re told to buy a birthday present for your sister – yeah, yeah, I know, but keep listening. You’ve got to collect three pieces of gold in order to buy her something, and that money can be obtained however you like. A young farmer kindly asks you to watch over his crates while he runs off for a second, during which time a local troublemaker encourages you to help him smash what you’re been guarding. Either outcome reveals a reward; it’s how you GET that reward that draws the line between the messianic players and the satanic ones. Or you’ll see a kid getting harassed by a bully, at which point you can either fend off the perpetrator or join in on the action. I really loved the first ten minutes of Fable and kinda wish it ended there.
It goes downhill fast. First there’s the groan-inducing cliché of having the protagonist’s village destroyed and family killed. The rest of the plot is just as predictable, as not only do your choices have virtually no effect on it, but the whole thing’s so generic and hollow that you won’t really care anyway. One of the great things about KOTOR was that it drew you in with its deep plot, convincing characters and unexpected twists, and as a result, your moral status played a significant role because you felt you were truly involved in what was going on. Fable’s plot is so distant, and its twists and turns so easy to guess, that its big dilemmas feel pointless as a result.
I could probably write a book further elaborating on Fable’s “high concept, low result” execution, but I’ll settle for one more thing: Size. It’s not just that Fable can be completed in about ten hours, with barely enough additional content to stretch it out to fifteen. (You’d think a game like this would have a lot of side quests, right?) The game just feels small, enough so that the warp points almost seem irrelevant. The earlier trailers showcased enormous fields and such, and that’s the kind of environment a supposedly open-ended game like Fable needs. It needs scope. Fable always felt limited to me, which, correct me if I’m wrong, is the exact opposite of what Molyneux and his team were going for.
Like I said, I enjoyed Fable on my first run. You may too, but even if you can look past the hype, there’s that unavoidable sense that the game could have been so much more, that it’s hanging on a boatload of unfulfilled potential. I’ve beaten the game three times now and can confirm that this sad truth is impossible to overlook. Fable II comes out today, and from what I’ve heard the game is essentially what the original was supposed to be, which makes me kind of excited… but not really. The series’ two central themes – deep moral dilemmas and complete freedom – are no longer revolutionary by today’s standards; the former was perfected by Mass Effect (and I doubt Molyneux will ever improve upon that) and the latter has become something of a cliché: Do whatever you want! The nth power FTW! I can sympathize with Molyneux’s desire to right his wrongs, but what we really needed back in 2004 wasn’t Fable. What we needed was Project Ego. And you know what? He missed his chance.
That is Fable: One big missed opportunity.
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