Since the unfortunate news this month that Lionhead Studios is being closed and Fable Legends has been cancelled, it got me thinking about the Fable series as a whole and where it went wrong. I was a huge fan of the original Fable and even though it under delivered on Peter Molyneux’s promises, (go figure), it is still to this day in my top ten games.
So where did it all go wrong? Fable 1, (and its expansion The Lost Chapters), was a great game but does not hold up so well today in its mechanics. As such I can understand why people who didn’t play it originally would not like it. All the same though, it approached the RPG genre in a refreshing way. It was more of a fairytale setting than the more common high fantasy and relied heavily on its strong sense of British humour. It was also able to create the perfect balance between having a character that players can role-play to their whims while having a strong story, something that even modern games like Fallout 4 struggled with. There was revenge to be had and mysteries about your family to discover while the daunting villain of Jack of Blades always loomed on the horizon.
When number 2 came out I was disappointed. It felt like everything that had made its predecessor so good had been cast aside. The humour felt more childish and the setting was somehow less enchanting. So much time had passed between the two games’ stories and so much had changed that it didn’t feel like returning to the same world. Bowerstone had become a gritty city, the Heroes Guild had been completely destroyed and Oakvale was now a cursed swamp. It all felt dark yet the game’s tone didn’t reflect this. Lucien was an unimposing antagonist and the new areas and weapons were forgettable at best.
There was a strong foundation there though. The mechanics had been ironed out, not perfect but certainly an improvement. You could now play as a female and had the options to dye clothes in your preferred colours. Player customisation was massively expanded overall and a flawed yet interesting multiplayer element had been added. If the game had had a stronger story I feel like it really could have been great. The whole thing with the Shadow Court was something that could have made a great game after all. I could cast this disappointment off as a misstep or a poor choice of direction.
Then came Fable 3. This is the last Fable game that I played and I worked to get every achievement in it yet as I write this I’m struggling to remember details about it. Yes, the game was that good. Not exactly bad, just remarkably forgettable. The story was once again boring, there were no mentions of the only thing that caught my attention in 2 and the world in general was even less memorable than in the former. I could spend a long time explaining why it was the worst game in the series but I feel it would save time and effort just to link you to Angry Joe’s video “32 Reasons why Fable 3 Sucks!”.
Lionhead got caught up in gimmicks. Who thought that holding hands in a game was a unique selling point? Why replace the menus with a time-consuming hubworld? This is even more obvious when they went on and made the Kinnect only Fable Journey and then developed the asymmetrical multiplayer game Fable Legends. What exactly is Fable about on-rail gameplay or class based characters?
The main problem with Fable as a series is a clear loss of direction. Each game sets up a world and story only to scrap it for something different in the next instalment. Fable 1 was a medieval fairytale that set up a whole background based on The Court, a group of being from the Void who once ruled Albion. We fight the middling member of the Court, Jack of Blades, and presumably meet the human warrior who fought them, William Black, in the form of Scythe. None of this is overtly mentioned in number two. Instead we have the spire and the Shadow Court. Then in three it is The Darkness. It is only in Fable Journey that all of these story threads are tied together in hindsight and, let’s be honest, who played Journey? I only know about this long-play story arc because of researching it on the internet in preparation for writing this.
The overall story of Fable needs to be more streamlined. An evolving world is a cool concept but doesn’t really work when we see so little of the evolution. The fall of the guild and the sinking of Oakvale are little more than footnotes in 2 when they were the core of our attachments in 1, making all of the player’s actions feel meaningless. A game set during that time period would have been much more interesting both by our connection to the world and in the events taking place.
Can you imagine that? A Fable game where you are a hero in a time when the citizens you fight to protect turn against you. Do you defend your sibling heroes against those who you serve or allow everything to crumble rather than destroy the mob. THAT is a moral choice. Obvious good or evil decisions are not a good mechanic but forcing players to make decisions when there is no right answer adds a massive layer to the roleplaying and offers a strong connection with the characters. Your character would be vilified whatever your actions, creating a situation like in The Witcher series where you are hated but also needed. Where NPC have to weigh up their needs over their opinions of you.
Either way there would be fewer heroes who become scattered. Then Oakvale falls silent. You go to investigate and discover its population is dead and monsters roam the village. You and the remaining heroes try to hold back the effects of the curse, fighting an unwinnable battle until Oakvale is truly lost. This way the destruction of the player’s birthplace in the first game has meaning and can actively affect the player emotionally as a tragedy rather than the passive experience we are given in 2.
It also would mean that we can keep the cool armour and weapons yet see them become obsolete as the peasants begin to use guns, much like what happened in reality. Bullets would bypass armour value, making the ability to dodge much more favourable. Again we would see this shift of evolution gradually, feel the change first hand, actively affect our gameplay as guns become more prevalent as the game progresses, forcing our hand to change the way we play the game.
But yeah, these are just my initial thoughts on what would make a good Fable game. I feel I got distracted from my main point there. Given the chance I could pen a full Fable game. So to sum up my thoughts, Lionhead failed because they rushed their world and tried to rely on gimmicks rather than substance. They over-promised and under-delivered and got too carried away with the future rather than the present. They wanted a huge, rich world with lots of history and choice but did not put the work in to add the required pace.
They lost fan interest one to many times and now it is a sad fact that we will not see a new Fable game. It had so much potential but now is nothing more than tainted memories.