Fable: The Good Parts

 By Shamus Feb 10, 2009 36 comments
This part is (mostly) spoiler-free. You should be able to read it even if you had to abstain from the earlier posts.

If you skipped the earlier posts for fear of spoilers, then I will point out that Fable 2 won an award.
If you skipped the earlier posts for fear of spoilers, then I will point out that Fable 2 won an award.
So I’ve just spent four posts and seven thousand words excoriating the plot of Fable 2. It probably sounds like I hated the game, but the truth is I spent more time with Fable 2 than I did with Mass Effect. While comparing the story in Mass Effect to the story of Fable 2 is like comparing 2001: A Space Odyssey to the BJ and the Bear fanfiction Uwe Boll wrote in high school, the truth is that Fable 2 held my interest for longer because it had more gameplay and less filler. Yes, the plot is awful, but it’s also not a very large portion of the time you spend with the game.

There is a lot to do between plot points, and when it comes time to endure a little plot in order to open up the next playground you can comfort yourself with the fact that you can hold down a button to skip most of the dialog. I realize this sounds like heresy coming from a “story is king” gamer like myself, and I’m as surprised as anyone to find myself liking the thing.

I often talk about games having lots of “activities”. MMO games in particular. Fable 2 has many activities, and while a few of them exist for their own sake, most are interconnected in ways that lead you naturally from one activity to another. Doing trade runs leads to buying better clothing which leads to being more attractive which leads to flirting with villagers which leads to rounding up more expressions and emotes to use which leads to romance which leads to getting married which leads to buying a house which leads to getting involved in real estate which leads to redecorating houses to alter the local property values and economy which leads back to trading… etc. This is a playground with a lot of fun toys.

This game is <em>ridiculously</em> good looking. It's a breath of fresh air to see a title with strong art direction and stylized scenery. If I have to look at one more (attempted) photorealistic medieval fantasy setting I may never stop weeping.
This game is ridiculously good looking. It's a breath of fresh air to see a title with strong art direction and stylized scenery. If I have to look at one more (attempted) photorealistic medieval fantasy setting I may never stop weeping.
Yes, the villagers are reduced to little generic clockwork automatons with their love/hate sliders, and you don’t take them seriously as people. Because they’re toys. But they’re fun toys, and rounding them up an making them laugh or scream or yell is an amusing way to spend your time. I actually enjoyed playing evil in this game for once. I would wander through town, pelvic-thrusting the monks, flipping off children, kicking chickens, and directing my dog to pee on town guards. The lighthearted tone made it all absurd and funny instead of stupid and mean.

The freedom and choice Peter Molyneux promised us is here in the sidequests and gameplay mechanics. Yes, you can go on a murder rampage like in GTA. But unlike in GTA, your violence will have lasting consequences. Smash up and murder in one part of town, it it will become poorer. Or you can dump a bunch of money into a section of the city and watch it flourish. (In fact, it dips its toe into the ideas I talk about here.)

This is Gunslinger, my virtuous English gentleman. Other characters include Fearmonger, the exceedingly rude demon-man, and Conjurer, the morally flexible barefoot spellsword enchantress.  This game offers a lot of freedom to customize your character. (And yes you can be female this time.)  These are not fixed character classes, but simply character concepts I cooked up and was able to create using the mechanics provided.
This is Gunslinger, my virtuous English gentleman. Other characters include Fearmonger, the exceedingly rude demon-man, and Conjurer, the morally flexible barefoot spellsword enchantress. This game offers a lot of freedom to customize your character. (And yes you can be female this time.) These are not fixed character classes, but simply character concepts I cooked up and was able to create using the mechanics provided.
Combat is deeper than it seems at first. My first time through the game, I just assumed this was Fable 1 all over again. I mashed the attack button and ate food to heal myself. My poor little avatar was fat and covered in scars from my inept guidance. He was also penniless halfway through the game. I’ve been through the game four times now, and have accumulated a treasure trove of secrets and wisdom. My latest character is trim and fit, richer than Xerxes, and he’s never fallen in combat. (No scars. Never touched a resurrection phial, either.) He’s imbibed exactly one health potion during his career. This is not the result of a single trick or exploit, but the result of many accumulated bits of knowledge. The fun is in discovering those secrets and finding the ones that suit your play style and character concept.

The sad thing about the the plot is that it didn’t need to be this bad. In fact, I think the central problem with the plot is not the insulting simplicity or the fact that the entire work is perforated with plot holes, the problem with the story is that it just had the wrong tone.

Righty-o, let's give these undead blighters what-for! <em>And stop calling me Charlie!</em>
Righty-o, let's give these undead blighters what-for! And stop calling me Charlie!
“Finding Charlie” is one of my favorite sidequests in the game. An old woman tells you that her little grandson Charlie ran off into some tombs playing adventurer. You go to rescue the little guy, only to discover that little “Charlie” is really Charles – a grown man with a grandmother who is overprotective, overbearing, and slightly senile. Charles is styled after the classic Englishman adventurer, with cuffed sleeves, top hat, and a “tally-ho, good show old boy” attitude. (He sort of strikes me as a Girl Genius character.) It’s silly and fun, and a sly send-up of the classic “save my baby from the Balrog” type quests we usually get.

If the main plot had been in tune with this sort of thing this may well have been one of my all-time favorite games. Like Galaxy Quest, Mystery Men, Shrek, or Shaun of the Dead, the sidequests are not pure comedic spoofs as much as fun adventures that both embrace and mock the conventions of the genre. Yes, this is a little silly, but it’s fun, isn’t it? Then you hit the main plot and the game switches gears to get all dark and gritty, and suddenly the writer is railroading the player in order to force them to endure the next tragedy. The game becomes the very worst example of the stuff it just got done mocking. The sly satire is suddenly gone, and we’re left with ham-fisted injustice and dead innocents. (Imagine if Shrek came home to find Fiona and Donkey murdered. That is exactly the wrong note that Fable 2 keeps nailing over and over again. The sudden shift in tone is what kills the story.)

This game would have been a blast if they retained the exact same plot, but re-tuned the dialog so that it was done in a spirit of fun instead of spitefulness. Plot holes become a lot less important when they work as part of a joke. I don’t mean the plot needs to be Disney-esqe childish, it just needs to do its thing with a wink instead of a maniacal laugh. Theresa could have come off like The Sphinx from Mystery men: An idiot know-it-all who speaks in lame riddles and tautologies. Lucian could have been just as I portrayed him: A rampaging ass of a man with more malice than brains. Take out Reaver’s murder of Barnum and have him endure some humiliation at the end. Then take out the “I murdered your spouse and children” bit and give the player an unambiguously happy ending. Bingo. You’ve got Game of the Year.

That is not hyperbole. Ignoring the story, this is the best game Peter Molyneux has ever made. If you can ignore the story. This is crucial to your enjoyment of the game, and one of the reasons I provided the lengthy plot analysis. I would not dare send you in the direction of this game unprepared.

Lamentations over the plot aside, I feel compelled to give credit where it’s due. The gameplay here is a triumph, and a major step up from the original Fable. I have no doubt that even as I type this, someone at Lionhead is scrawling Fable 3 ideas on a dry-erase board. I am very curious what the result will be.


201636 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.


  1. Strangeite says:

    The people at Lionhead really do need to read these posts.

  2. Ben says:

    It sounds like the plot that this game needed was the plot of Stardust (a film I really enjoyed). And Neil Gaiman’s writing couldn’t hurt either.

  3. MintSkittle says:

    How very strange. I may just give this game a try when the price drops, though with used copies running only about $5 behind a new copy, it might be a while.

  4. Kel'Thuzad says:

    With all your characters, did you ever pick an ending other than the middle card? The “neutral” card?

  5. Alex says:

    The knothole island expansion download adds a ton of new fun stuff which adds to the time your ignoring the main quest. I was petering out of interest in fable 2, then i acquired the download, and wham, wholly opened the game for me again.

  6. Factoid says:

    “While comparing the story in Mass Effect to the story of Fable 2 is like comparing 2001: A Space Odyssey to the BJ and the Bear fanfiction Uwe Boll wrote in high school”

    That might be the best thing I’ve read all day.

  7. lebkin says:

    @Ben
    Neil Gaiman’s writing could improve just about anything. I recently learned he wrote the English screenplay for anime Princess Mononoke. Which is probably why its such a good movie, rather than being a poorly translated mess like alot of anime.

  8. Zanfib says:

    Shamus, I strongly recomend you try Overlord, it has one of the best stories I’ve seen in a video game (or any where else for that matter) in my recent memory and it’s just plain fun.

  9. Merle says:

    I have some trouble with the screenshots you’ve been showing…they all just seem to scream “BLOOOOOOM!” like a Pokemon coming down from an overdose of something-or-other.

    And if that doesn’t make much sense, I wrote this in the approximately one minute before my lunch hour at work expires, so it may be a bit rushed.

  10. Mordiceus says:

    Overlord is good, but I think The Witcher has one of the greatest RPG stories in years.

  11. Freebeema says:

    Funny thing is, at the end of the game, I didn’t have my family murdered, because I didn’t have a family. I didn’t realise Lucien murdered one’s family until I read these articles. Doh.

  12. Jos says:

    Yeah, I didn’t exactly play Overlord for the story either. The best you could say about it was that it was pretty neat excuse for unleashing your minions on whatever you wanted to unleash them on.

    Speaking of fun stories, Shamus, when are you going to get into the parts you loved about Mass Effect?

  13. Her Geek says:

    Woo-hoo! Girl Genius shoutout!

    Now, how cool would a Girl Genius RPG be?

  14. I’ve been through the game four times now, and have accumulated a treasure trove of secrets and wisom.

    Oops, I don’t think ‘wisom’ is a word, is it?

    *Checks dictionary.*

    Nope. Now you’re just making up words, Shamus!

    Leslee

  15. mneme says:

    Her Geek: One is in the pipeline — Kaja periodically mentions working on it. (using GURPS, which makes sense, given the great relationship the Foglios have with SJG–hell, Agatha first appeared in GURPS IOU).

  16. Shamus says:

    Leslee: “wisom” is fixed. Sorry, sometimes my argle biggo wingle zoowee.

  17. Her Geek says:

    mneme: I know about the P&P GG RPG (now how’s that for alphabet soup!) I was kind of thinking of the GG universe bought to life in a computer RPG.

    Funny story, I was at GenCon a number of years back talking to Kaja about GG and Xxxenophile, and I asked her about a GG RPG, and she kinda looked at me funny, and said they have been talking about possibly doing one, but they thought the market just wouldn’t support it, but that with open-minded adults it could be fun and interesting. Took me a few seconds to twig that she was talking about a Xxxenophile RPG!

  18. LintMan says:

    I really enjoyed the Witcher a lot, as well, but I had the benefit of playing the EE version and having read the Witcher novella (included with the game) first, which helps set the tone. (ie: He’s a “rough, reluctant hero, reviled by the people he helps”, rather than “greasy, dirty pervert” which IIRC was Shamus’ impression :) ). Possibly my higher graphics settings might have helped with the appearance part of that as well.

    Overlord was good fun, but didn’t seem to have that much story, to me.

  19. Chargone says:

    done right, a GG cRPG would be epic.
    done wrong, a disaster.

    this is true of most such things.
    none the less, i kinda want to see that now.

    especially if your character gets a Nice Hat.

  20. I also recommend Overlord. It’s also a very tongue-in-cheek game with a plot that grates a little because it doesn’t quite “fit”, but the “rest of it” makes up for the plot. Also, while you’re a conquering tyrant either way (it’s called Overlord for a reason), you can choose to be a psychopath or a benevolent tyrant.

    I like benevolence because it turns the humans and elves you help into bootlickers, your jester gets hilariously sarcastic (“Elf Lover!”), and you get the “nice” tower decorations.

    I think the PC retail version, which I have, is fully DRM-less. I think you can also get it on XBox 360.

    “done right, a GG cRPG would be epic.
    done wrong, a disaster.”

    Well they are supposedly working on a GURPS version.

  21. Nickless says:

    It feels like there’s just no way they could unintentionally make the story this bad. Surely there’s not a shortage of writers in the world, who, although average, could write something that would be infinitely better than this. Hell, I probably could.

  22. MelTorefas says:

    I would love to run the Fable 2 world/story for someone using 4th edition AD&D. My skill as a storyteller is in taking existing ideas and tweaking them and adding to them until I have something truly fun. I would relish the opportunity to take someone who played this game to the end through MY version of it and see what they thought. Whaddaya say, Shamus? Eh? Eh? XD

  23. Ravens_cry says:

    Those graphics sure do look dandy, but and this is coming from someone whose computer is so out of date it likely would take over a minute to render a single frame, so I am not all *hip* with modern gaming conventions, but dear lord, why, for the love of HADES is there all that bloom? Seriously, it’s like the light is BLEEDING. It sure makes my EYES bleed.

  24. Nick says:

    I’d recommend a little game called Dungeon Keeper, put out by Bullfrog games. The chatter between levels sets a hilarious mood, and the gameplay is excellent. It may be hard to find, or impossible to run on modern hardware. If so, try out it’s sequel, Dungeon Keeper 2, one of the few games that may be better then the original.

    It changes a few elements that I wouldn’t have, if I were to make a sequel, but there are others that improve it over the original.

    By the way, I’m not sure, but Overlord might have been a spiritual successor to the Dungeon Keeper series. There are certainly similarities in humor and monster types, but otherwise is totally different.

    Quote from the wiki article on Dungeon Keeper about it’s humor:
    Before starting a new level, the advisor will tell the player about the current region and its attributes. This has no significance on the level itself, but provides comedic effect as the advisor is unable to comprehend the good deeds of the population. For example: “This region of dreaming underlings is ruled by the beautiful Lady Catherine. She’s kind, and fair, and doesn’t imprison or torture her subjects…for some reason.” After completing a level, the advisor will talk about the “improvement” of the destroyed region. “The streets run with the blood of the slain. Screams of pain and howls of anguish rip the night air like a vengeful siren’s song. This really is somewhere you can take the kids for the weekend.”

  25. Avaz says:

    @24 Nick, Dungeon Keeper and its successor (IIRC) are both available at Good Old Games.

    http://www.gog.com

    A treasure trove of win.

  26. Arkmagius says:

    Nick (@24):

    Guess who made Dungeon Keeper? That’s right, Fable’s Peter Molyneux, back in his Bullfrog days.
    The day I heard there wouldn’t be a Dungeon Keeper 3, I died a little inside. I’m not really an RTS guy, but Dungeon Keeper’s combination of humor and careful balancing of a dungeon ecosystem kept me coming back years after the company was disbanded. It was also the first RTS I know of to incorporate RPG aspects (à la Warcraft III, but with every unit able to level up and learn new abilities) – if you wish, you can even possess a creature for some first person hack & slash action. I can only add my voice to those recommending it.

  27. acronix says:

    @8:
    Overlord´s plot is good because it´s a game full of jokes, and the story doesn´t take itself seriously. It doesn´t change the overall mood at every stinking opportunity. And when it does change, it does near the end and with an interesting plot twist. Also, the grim stuff it has around fits the gameworld, unlike the mood in the plot of Fable II.

    I can´t say the same about the expansion, though. It is very grim, with some jokes around, which doesn´t fit the mood of the original game.

  28. Rats says:

    Shamus,

    I too reccomend overlord, the story is simple yet entertaining, and very tongue in cheek. If you do pick it up, i reccomend buying it for the 360 rather than the PC.

    One of the mechanics is leading your minions around with either a thumbstick, or the mouse (while holding shift). the mouse is used for normal movement on the pc, while on the gamepad there is another thumbstick. Parts of the game are made much easier when you can lead minions around AND move around at the same time.

  29. Zanfib says:

    One of the reasons Overlord is so good, is because its written by Rhianna Pratchett. Yes as in that Pratchett.

  30. Ben N. says:

    I remember reading somewhere that Molyneux suggested they’d be going at it until they cannot possibly make any more Fables.

  31. Rats says:

    @zanfib

    I didn’t realise that. That actually explains a fair bit, thanks for the info, i shall keep an eye out for more stuff from her in future.

  32. You mentioned about the plot in fable should be less tragic, and I thought of the bards’ tale. Have you played that?
    The gameplay becomes repetetative after a wile and most of the levels are quite similiar and during the cutscenes my framerate would drop by 90%, but the story and the setting is quite humorous and the main character would always get in an arguement with the narrator.

    The first few minutes of gameplay can be seen here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-JVnbyIr04

  33. Nick says:

    @25 Avaz. I’m afraid I just checked. Neither one bring up any hits when searching GoG.

  34. I have to stand up to defend The Sphinx.

    Yes, he relied overly much on being “terribly mysterious” and overuse of antimetabole (“If you do not master your fears, your fears will master you! That’s what you were going to say, right?” “Perhaps.”).

    But: a) he could, in fact, cut guns in half by telekinesis, which, you know, is handy in a fight. And much more importantly, b) he actually knew what he was talking about. Not only did he instill the Mystery Men with the self-confidence that they needed, he gave them real no-kidding training in using their powers and skills more effectively. Both the Blue Raja and the Shoveller used techniques that they learned from the Sphinx in the final battle with Casanova Frankenstein to good effect.

    So he might have been a pompous teacher, but he really taught.

  35. Thunnokephalos says:

    The “Finding Charlie” sidequest is a definite high point in the game. I especially enjoyed it because it completely subverts one’s expectations of the usual escort mission: my favorite thing about it was that, unlike the escort missions in the original “Fable,” you wouldn’t have to keep restarting the mission if Charlie died–getting him killed was just as valid an outcome as keeping him alive. I wish the developers hadn’t been so hung up on binary moral choices and allowed for more consequential failures. That would increase the impact of the story, shaping the world with our failures just as much with our successes. And of course, for people who refuse to accept failure, reload.

  36. Fable III made me violently angry at Reaver, and I wasn’t even playing it.

Leave a Reply

Comments are moderated and may not be posted immediately. Required fields are marked *

*
*

Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun.

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darth_Vader">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!