Offroading in Albion (or How I Learned to Love Fable)

"I find your lack of humility disturbing, Peter."

When you think of infamous liars in history a few notable examples come to mind: Chicken Little, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, actually most politicians – but there’s one name that gets uttered in gaming circles with such utter contempt and cold cutting bitterness that only begins to hint at the deep and tramautizing scars that penetrate our broken gamer hearts: PETER @#$%ING MOLYNEUX. When the British coined the term “wanker” I can only assume it’s inspiration was to epitomize Molyneux’s callous soul.  People are so cynical when it comes to Peter’s sugar coated monstrosities that he calls ‘words’ that every time he is interviewed on a gaming site like 1up or Kotaku, the comment thread is spontaneously populated with pixelated cries of ‘Liar!’

And yet oddly enough, this man who has not once delivered on his boasts in full, is responsible for a number of games that I absolutely adore.  Black & White was one of the first games I owned for OS X, I spent hours attempting to train my demented God Monkey to pluck devout worshippers from the village and sacrifice them on a mighty blood altar to me (I was in high school and had no friends, I needed to get self esteem from somewhere.)  In college, I finally purchased an used original Xbox (a whole week and a half before the 360 launch), and after quickly growing bored with the cultural phenomenon known as the Halo series, I stumbled upon another one of Molyneux’s extremely truncated visions: Fable.

I got to play Fable without knowing the name or the reputation of ‘Peter Molyneux.’  I wouldn’t learn until later that he was responsible for Fable, Black & White and Populous (a game I rented once for the SNES, never figured out how to play, and quickly regretted spending my hard earned once-a-month rental on.) In other words, I was not familiar with how far the game had fallen from the proposed proverbial tree.  I didn’t know that there were once machinations of gangs seizing abandoned territories or flourishing villages in areas you claimed from the hands of evil and I had never heard claims of every choice having a consequence.  I simply found a fun adventure game that had some twists to it.  It was essentially a slightly varied take on the Zelda formula in my eyes and I ate it up.  Gathering armor, beating up bad guys, completing quests, and learning to woo a noble woman for the sole purpose of jacking a sword from her bedroom (Morals mean nothing when there are Legendary weapons to be had!) Overall the game was fun.  Pure fun.  But at the time it was beaten and bruised by gamers who had been promised some Valhalla of a sandbox by Molyneux.  People disliked the game so much that they verged on spitting whenever an utterance of its name was heard.  That is, until Fable 2 came out.

If you’re familiar with the concept of TV Tropes, you might have stumbled upon this one a few times: “They changed it, now it sucks.”  But how can it suck more than the original that no one apparently liked?  Well, now people LOVE the first one but only in comparison to the second one.  I’m exaggerating some here naturally, there were plenty of fans of Fable 1 that didn’t like Fable 2, there were probably people who didn’t like Fable 1 and LOVED Fable 2, but a cursory glance across the forums would not deliver the message of these people – Fable 1 was amazing now, and Fable 2 destroyed all those dreams that Molyneux, being Molyneux, had foolishly promised once more.  The story was short and ended badly, the mechanics are too streamlined, there’s not enough freedom, the emotion wheel is annoying, etc. etc.  Heck, this time my voice rang with some of them.  See this time I was subject the to Peter Molyneux gilded tongue of many sorrows, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated as I fired a single shot of my revolver and saw the final “boss” plummet.  I mean, yea, I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t what was promised.

Two mediocre DLC offerings later, news begins to trickle in about Fable 3.  Oh, you become king this time.  Oh, your decisions can shape the very face of Albion.  Oh, you can pass judgement or interact directly with people’s lives!  Oh! A context sensitive ‘touch’ system will allow you to take someone to safety and then allow you to either scold them or reassure them!  OH! This is all so very, very simplified in the actual game.  Yea, everything Peter promised made it in, in some grotesque Nick Jr. simplified form.  The much toted context sensitive touch system become “hold their hand.”  The UI became what some would call an ‘overly simplified’ version of Fable 2’s.  Then the cries of the internet formed as one cohesive amalgam, opened its vast toothless maw and shouted “Fable 2 was amazing and Fable 3 sucks!”

This is where I became jaded.  Not with Peter Molyneux, but with the internet.  So I sat down on my Xbox, popped in the Fable Trilogy once more and did the unthinkable – I learned to love all three.  I think the epiphany came in the form of noticing something about the games I had never given much thought to – the title. The name “Fable” became a moment of deep contemplation.  There was more behind that one word than some other games I had played.  “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” represent times and events in the narrative’s history, and don’t actually hold a lot of meaning in the actual games story – other than defining something that may have set all these things in motion.  Fable on the other hand, gave the games context.  Each game actually was a fable.  The narrative is told in a way that you could actually see being distilled into a bed time story for the youth of Albion.  Of heroes and villains in the long ago, who fought and did battle, and saved the land!  That was how it went into playing the games this time.  Not thinking about Molyneux’s promised vs. product delivered, not thinking about the game I personally would have made, but just the game for what it is – a game that embodies the sense of Robin Hood or a Grimm Fairy Tale.

Try telling me that if you saw this picture in a children's book you wouldn't buy it.

Oddly enough, the games became very fun at that point.  I stopped worrying about bosses, and min/maxing my characters. I explored and got lost in the world, the little details here or there, and of course, the story itself.  You didn’t need an epic boss fight at the end of Fable 2 – the trials were in reaching that point.  The loss of friends, the gathering of new ones, and all the sacrifices you made to get there.  Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz didn’t have an epic battle with the Wicked Witch of the West – her trial was in gathering the courage to get there, the brains to figure out to solve the obstacles before her, and the heart to help others instead of simply judging them.  What exactly you learned along that road is more so up to you: Vengeance? Redemption? Friends over power?  That sometimes you need to use people for the betterment of all?  There are a lot of things that can be taken away from Fable 2 depending on how you played through that game.  But in the end, the big baddy is nothing but the Wicked Witch.  A splash of water in the form of a bullet to the head (or the crotch if your a vindictive little punk like me) and you have fulfilled your destiny.  That’s right. Destiny.  This whole thing was set in stone by the wheels of fate the moment you survived the prologue, and foretold far before that.  For all your choices, for all your actions, this much was true: You were going to kill the villain.

Fable 3 was a very different kind of story, but it was a story.  It reminded me a bit of the Man in the Iron Mask actually.  The brother of the King is whisked away in the middle of the night to ultimately lead a rebellion and take his brothers place as the new king.  The twist is then you find out WHY your brother was so cruel and merciless, and what will you do now that you have inherited that burden?  Will you be just as cruel and break the promises made in order to serve the greater good?  Will you strive and work to pull of a miracle to keep your promises and save the kingdom?  If this were an actual bed time story, I can assure you that I would have the covers drawn tight around me, eyes wide to see if the young hero now king would be able to save his people!  Would he be cruel and this becomes a parable?  Would be amass the power and wealth to make that miracle true and the story ends a heroic tale?  Well, that parts up to us now isn’t it?  That’s the fun.  Not the boss fights, not the “touch system”, and not which weapons does 3 points of more damage during while in direct sunlight.

I may very well be completely alone on this one, but in the end with a simple change of perspective I went from agonizing over the smallest details and nit picking with “I would have done this” or “They should have done this” to simply sitting down and having fun with a game on its terms and its story (Also, Fable 3 has Simon Pegg. SIMON. PEGG.)  Just thought I’d share that little bit of a revelation with you all – and I’ve just gotten started.  Heck, I might just have to bust out the old video camera and do some retrospectives on some of the old games on my shelf.  If anything, I can deliver a mean rant on the Metal Gear Solid tetralogy. 🙂

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