With the immediate closure UK based developer Lionhead and the cancellation of their latest project, the free to play Fable Legends, I thought I would pay my respects to the once venerable franchise and talk about my history with the series. Of course, Lionhead are more than just “the Fable team,” having worked on the Black and White series of god games and Hollywood simulator, The Movies. It is unfortunate that I should be unfamiliar with these titles, for they are no less worthy of remembrance, so I shall say only this: I would like to express my deepest condolences to those affected by this news and wish them much luck in finding work elsewhere. Lionhead was one of the giants of PC and console game development and its presence will be sorely missed by gamers around the world. For all that you have done and created, we thank you.
I was eleven years old when Fable released in September 2004 for the original Xbox. Like many who learned of its existence through pre-release magazine coverage and the Web, I had been promised quite a bit by Fable lead designer, Peter Molyneux. Of course, back then the game was simply known as Project Ego, a game where players could do what they wanted and the world would react to their actions; an ambitious undertaking to be sure and one that (infamously) didn’t meet all of its proposed goals. Project Ego was planned to take place over an entire lifetime (something that did make it into the game, albeit in limited form), and so small of acts of compassion or cruelty early on in the game could have small or large repercussions years later. An example that was given to IGN in 2002 (and which I read reprinted in an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly) was that if you were mean to a child and cut him with your sword, you could return decades later to find that same child all grown up and with a scar from your previous encounter with him. Of course, this feature did not make it into the final game—in fact, violence against children was removed entirely, and rightfully so, perhaps. Other features, such as proposed online play, would not make it into the final game either, although some would be implemented into later series entries.
So where did this leave Fable? When all was said and done the game never came close to its lofty expectations or many of the self-set goals its extended development had created. Billed as “the greatest RPG ever”—a quote which Molyneux later regretted—it resulted that Fable was a mix between an “okay” RPG and a “good” action-adventure game. This is not meant to disregard Fable’s high points, chief among them being the excellent art direction the series would become best known for and the brilliant music composition of Russell Shaw and Danny Elfman, who composed the game’s title theme. Audiences would agree, and within a week of its release the game had sold more than 375,000 units for a total of over 1.5 million units sold by September 2005. In that same month an extended version of the game, Fable: The Lost Chapters would be released. Having little else to play at the time, I bought The Lost Chapters and enjoyed it for what it was: a repackaging of the game with new quests, areas, weapons, enemies, and story elements. Any personal frustration of mine with the game’s inability to deliver on its original promises quickly faded into memory, although many other gamers would harbor discontent toward Molyneux and the franchise (and continue to do so).
Fable 2 was always going to try to make up for its predecessor’s shortcomings. This much was certain following the internet backlash against Molyneux and the “lies” he told leading up to Fable’s release. “I don’t think I was skillful enough as a designer to have made Fable 1 better, but I think I’ve learned so much from the mistakes in Fable 1,” Peter would later lament. It is understandable then that quite a bit of goodwill was riding on Fable 2 leading up to its October 2008 release. What’s more, it was releasing on next-gen hardware—the Xbox 360—so surely all that extra horsepower would finally enable the original vision for the franchise, right? Yes and no. True, the game did include a much larger open world than its predecessor and certain features such as online multiplayer did make their return, but accomplishing a truly reactive world that changed depending on player input proved elusive.