Fable fumbles toward excellence. There has rarely been such an obvious and concrete example of a genre’s awkward adolescence. It takes concepts other games have explored, serves them up in a new light, and hopes to be noticed and loved despite its spots and cracking voice. Fable is not a bold evolution of the genre so much as a necessary growth spurt.
I was the first person in the world who was permitted to review Fable. This is the final paragraph of the Fable review I wrote in 2004.
Some things never change: Fable is still very, very awkward.
In fact, right now, we’re in the most awkward part of the the Fable cycle — where the prior entry in the series has left us with disappointing memories (“The real dream… The feeling that you’re going through the game at your own pace, but having to make these tough choices, was never actually realized”) and the newest entry is represented only by fulsome promises (“[The addition of a horse to Fable 4] is going to have so much feeling for you. Just taking care of him, grooming him, and healing him, he’s going to be like nothing you’ve seen in games before.”)
With that in mind, it’s easy to forget that at one point, Fable seemed like it quite possibly might be the future of RPGs. This is something I believed in 2004.
It is, in pure point of fact, incredibly easy to forget that people once felt this way about the series. I had forgotten it utterly until just recently — and a direct and meaningful experience with the phenomenon was the centerpiece of one phase of my career.
Not only is the series seemingly not at all influential to other developers, but as far as I can tell (I haven’t sat down with an entry past the first) it has also consistently failed to hit the mark again and again.
This is why I haven’t ever played another Fable game: By the time I get around to feeling like playing one, people are already slagging it off… Chief among them Peter Molyneux himself, of course.
But think back…
While I’ll happily admit that I once hoped Fable might reshape the genre, I certainly wasn’t naive enough to assume that it would. This is good, because as I sat in that conference room 45 minutes from London plugging away at Fable for as long as they’d let me play it — which wasn’t all that long — I couldn’t find much evidence it would. If I had hung my hopes on that, I would have become despondent pretty quickly.
For two days, I sat in an uncomfortable conference room and played the game. I asked if I could stay and play after office hours, and was told there was simply no way to accommodate that. After dinner, for two nights, I sat bored in my hotel room and wished I could get back into the Lionhead offices and play more Fable instead of reading Q and Retro Gamer and watching BBC News 24 and darts on Sky Sports.
So when I was in the conference room for those few days, I did my best to try and mine as much as I could from the game. I remember being really, really confused that I could not seem to discover the kind of fantastic, emergent scenarios that had been hinted at in the press. I was frustrated that story characters were absent from the game world except when required. The game was clumsy, complicated, yet … simple. It was broken into components, not joyous and whole.
Yeah, I know. Games are like that. Maybe I was a little naive.
Peter Molyneux came into the room a few times to check my progress (and to his credit, pretty much kept his mouth shut about it.) The PAL TV flickered horribly when anything white was on screen. I kept plugging away at the game, eventually aware that my attempts to wring everything out of the simulation systems meant that I wasn’t going to make it to the end of the story, though I nearly did.
At one point someone walked by with a printout of the design doc for the PC version of Fable, which hadn’t been announced yet, and it seemed almost like it had to have been orchestrated for my benefit.
Of all the developers I spoke with, I found it by far easiest to chat with Dene Carter, of Big Blue Box — which was the developer of Fable and was, at the time, purported to be an independent studio, but which seems simply to have been just a tendril of Lionhead, and which also seems to have ceased to exist after Fable was released.
Dene now makes iPhone games, of course. Nice guy.
I also spoke with Chris Millar, an American who’d just joined the company. He used to work at Blizzard on Warcraft, and he worked on Black & White 2 at Lionhead. I asked him what the hell had been up with the briefly resurgent U.S. arm of Jaleco, for which he’d developed Goblin Commander: Unleash the Horde, and I pretty much forget what he had to say.
The next time I spoke to him was when he was working on Fat Princess. I asked him what the hell had been up with Lionhead, and I pretty much forget what he had to say.
The main reason Fable is on my mind lately is because about a little while ago Gamasutra published my latest interview with Peter, and that interested me in revisiting my first: a two page spread in GMR, the magazine I worked at from spring to late fall 2004, when it ceased publication, and which I flew to England to review the game on behalf of.
I spoke to Peter at great length. I remember the excitement of being, finally, invited into the large conference room. His personal assistant made us strong coffee with a French press, and we sat down to chat. It was my first truly major developer one-on-one, in conjunction my first major exclusive review — my first cover story.
I wish I had the rest of it. It wouldn’t all fit in the magazine, so I gave the remainder to 1UP, which later lost it in a redesign. It’s all but certainly long gone now, unless I have the audio somewhere.
Of course, that silly quote about Fable: The Journey above, and the article it’s from, also has Fable in my mind. To be frank, I think Peter Molyneux has the wrong idea about what to do with this series, though I guess I can’t fault him for trying it — not least because he’s the creative director of Microsoft Games Studios Europe and every game the company publishes is now mandated to use Kinect. I’m not sure there’s any way back for him. Moreover, I’m guessing he wouldn’t take it if there were. It does not, to be fair, seem like his style.
That said, I don’t think games at large are really going a direction in which casual players will be enticed into getting interested in a $60 single player RPG, no matter how much you try to shoehorn motion control or Nintendogs into it, and I also don’t think that continually chasing a moving target is ever going to turn Fable into anything that gamers really want.
I think that sitting down and thinking about what’s important, scoping for that, and producing a highly polished version of that will, of course, not be broadly innovative, but would probably result in the best-loved and quite possibly also most commercially successful iteration of the franchise.
And frankly, I think it would also result in the best iteration of the franchise.
Peter Molyneux is a smart, ambitious, and very charismatic person. When he told me that, as far as his job goes these days, “of course, all I do, really, is inspire people,” in that last interview, I wasn’t surprised in the least to hear it. I don’t know about you, but as a dreamer and an idealist I take energy from other people’s words, and work so much better with encouragement.
I believe he has the power to lead. But then he turns around and says this: “The only thing that I, as a game designer, can see about you is your two thumbs. And that’s a big problem. Getting your emotion from just these two thumbs isn’t really what I, as a designer, imagine. I want you to be on the edge of your seat, I want you to cry, I want you to have a lump in your throat, I want you to remember this experience for the rest of your life.”
So I can see him fitting into the the role of a leader and an inspiration, just as easily I can see him frustrating the hell out of anybody whose job it is to translate his ambitions into workable game mechanics, mediated by unwieldy technology, which anybody might be interested in repeating for 20 hours. When I first read that quote, I cursed under my breath, and I don’t even work for the man.
The reason is this. Whether we wave our arms about or simply flick our thumbs is irrelevant. Video games, like all creative media, happen in our brains and — if and only if the creators are skilled and achieve some significant portion of their ambitions — move to our heart.
By Molyneux’s own estimation, Fable has yet to truly achieve that.
- Christian Nutt would do it differently this time.