Plant a Seed and Watch It Grow: A Fable Series Retrospective

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.[divider] [/divider]

Fable-HypeI 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.
Fable1So 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).[divider] [/divider]

FABLE-2-AND-SECOND-CHANCESFable 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.

The driving creative idea behind Fable 2 focused instead on “player inclusion into the RPG genre” which manifested in the game’s minimal HUD and menu-light systems. Another controversial streamlining of the RPG formula was Fable 2’s “bread crumb trail,” which guided players toward objectives by way of a glowing path instead of providing them with a minimap. What’s more, the game eschewed traditional button combos for its combat in favor of a one-button “contextual” approach, which balanced spacing, timing, and the environment to produce its combat flow. Of course, no discussion about Fable 2 would be complete without some mention of the player’s canine companion, which was a large focus of Molyneux’s GDC 2007 talks. The dog was there to inject some emotional drama into the game, with the ultimate goal of creating a loving human/AI relationship. I mostly found the dog to be useful at spotting hidden treasure sites, but the intent and ambition behind its inclusion are admirable nonetheless.
Fable2For me, these changes were all welcome additions to the Fable formula, with the exception of the game’s removal of armor classes, which was meant to facilitate a more casual-friendly play experience devoid of potentially confusing stats. Needless to say, this response has never sat well with me. I have extremely fond memories of Fable 2, which is among my most played games of the last generation. The characters, quests, and story were particular highlights, even if the ending came to an unsatisfying close. Prior to today’s news I had been replaying the game through Xbox One backwards compatibility and was fully enjoying my time in Albion, the fictional setting of the Fable series. It is obvious that much love and attention went into the game’s creation; from its beautifully realized fantasy world to the colorful lines of emergent dialogue that its NPCs will occasionally speak, Fable 2 is brimming with great craftsmanship. Thankfully, Fable 2 arrived at the perfect time in the Xbox 360’s games lineup, between such RPG heavy-hitters as Mass Effect and Fallout 3, a fact which allowed it to carve out a respectable fan base—by March 2009 the game had sold over 2.6 million copies. Fable 2 was supported by two pieces of post-release content, “See the Future” and “Knothole Island,” which were delivered via Xbox Live and packed in with later boxed copies of the game.[divider] [/divider]

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FABL3-AND-THE-CLOSING-OF-A-TRILOGYReleased in October 2010, Fable 3 would be lead series designer Peter Molyneux’s last Fable game. Sharing much of the same DNA as its predecessor (Fable 3 kept the bread crumb trail, the minimalist HUD/menu systems, and many of the same combat mechanics from Fable 2, as well as the dog), the game was decidedly less innovative as what had come before. Indeed, the faster development turnaround likely accounts for this. Still, the game did make some moves towards what Molyneux envisioned as a game world without menus, which he hoped would attract more casual gamers to the franchise (and to gaming in general). Most notably, Fable 3 ditched the omnipresent “pause menu” for a virtual space where item and options management could be accessed. Called “The Sanctuary,” the move was a controversial one, with many gamers insisting it was no more user-friendly than a traditional pause/item screen and that it artificially lengthened end user game time. While the game was well received among critics, it was decisions such as this one that turned many gamers against the franchise.
Fable3Even so, the game did deliver much of the same humor and overall quality that I had come to expect from the series. The decision to make the player character King (or Queen) of Albion partway through the story was a natural extension of the morality systems that had been developed in the previous two games but on a much larger scale. In theory this would have forged a stronger connection between player action and the consequences of their decisions, but the choices that could be made as Albion’s ruler were much too binary to be anything but a gimmick. Additionally, Fable 3’s pacing was frontloaded with much of its content, leaving this section of the game feeling undercooked. Despite this and other issues (including a healthy dose of glitches) I have always felt the game was a good one, even if it did not reach the heights set forth by its more ambitious predecessor. Ultimately, Fable 3 felt more like a “sequel game” than a labor of love, a distinction I hope isn’t overly dismissive of all the effort that was no doubt put into the game’s production. Later interviews with Molyneux would show that the outspoken designer was also unhappy with how the game turned out; speaking to Develop in 2014, Molyneux even stated he felt Fable 3 was a “train wreck.”[divider] [/divider]

fable-kinectEven before Fable 3 released the team at Lionhead (Molyneux in particular) were hard at work exploring the gameplay possibilities of Microsoft’s Natal, a motion sensing peripheral which would later become the Kinect. One of the projects then in development at Lionhead was Project Milo. Unveiled at E3 2009, Milo was little more than a tech demo, but an attractive one at that. Players would interact with a virtual child (Milo or Millie, depending on their chosen sex) who was a study into experimental AI. Audiences were immediately skeptical of the technology (which you can see here and here) and it ultimately passed that Project Milo would not be released as a commercial game. A number of Milo‘s Kinect features would eventually be used for the studio’s next Fable project, Fable: The Journey, which released in October 2012.

As an early adopter (and fan) of Kinect, Fable: The Journey was high on my most anticipated list for 2012. I bought the game at launch and finished it the following day, the experience being a mostly positive one. For one, Fable: The Journey placed a larger emphasis on story and characters than previous series entries, which was understandable considering the linear design of the game. The game’s small cast of characters and simple premise allowed the storytelling to really shine, and to this day I contend that Fable: The Journey has the best-told narrative in the series with some genuinely emotional moments. That said, the game was destined to be a niche product by releasing for the Kinect and was bound to engender hostility from core gamers for “abandoning what made Fable great.” On the subject of The Journey‘s Kinect controls, I found them fairly responsive and intuitive, although many reviewers took issue with the accuracy of the game’s motion tracking—I can only guess why my end user experience was more favorable than others.
fable-kinectUnfortunately, Fable: The Journey would be the last released Fable game. As mentioned before, Lionhead had been working on the free to play Fable Legends, which would have taken the series in yet another direction. That game was first announced in 2013 and had been playable at the last two E3s, but after it passed Microsoft’s “greatest games line-up” last year it became clear that its development was troubled. An open beta was also scheduled to take place but never materialized. The reasons for the game’s cancellation are still unclear, as are the reasons for Lionhead’ shutdown, but a protracted development cycle and rising costs are likely candidates for explaining Legends’ demise. Although I was not particularly excited for Fable Legends I am saddened to see the end for one of my favorite franchises. I hope it can return someday with a fresh group of people who can reinvigorate the world of Albion with new ideas.