Developer: Lionhead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: Xbox 360
Peter Molyneux has earned a reputation for vastly overstating the emotional depth on offer in his Fable RPGs. Each time I wade a few hours into a new installment in the franchise, I feel like a kid who’s been promised his own personal moon landing, only to be taken for a spin in one of those coin-op space rockets that rumbles back and forth for 30 seconds before jerking to a halt. Molyneux promises a meaningful simulation of human interaction but forces us to communicate with NPC characters through wordless gestures such as muscle-flexing, belching, hand-shaking, etc. He promises we’ll have to make agonizing moral choices, but then trots out a series of binary, black-and-white dilemmas where he merely tips his hat to consequence by forcing us to sacrifice a bit of coin or villager approval if we opt for the dastardly course of action.
Fable III opens with the one of the more compelling moral dilemmas Molyneux has ever put to his audience. You play as either the prince or princess of the mythical kingdom of Albion. Your brother Logan sits the throne and has turned out to be a ruthless, unsympathetic tyrant. After you’ve spent several minutes cavorting around the castle grounds with your fiancé, your brother mocks your suitability as a potential ruler by abruptly forcing you to choose between sparing the life or your beloved or the instigators of a recent protest demonstration.
This scene feels designed to flummox people like myself who play moral choice games with all the unswerving righteousness of a Mormon boy scout. Because the choice could easily be recast as a decision between whom we’d prefer to kill. It’s the lifeboat condundrum, which of course has no winners, only survivors. When I spent too long mulling the decision, Logan began counting down to zero, informing me that indecision would mean both my fiancé and the group of anonymous protesters would face execution. Without telling you which party I ultimately spared, it was a dramatic moment, if only because Molyneux engineered the proposition to be a lose-lose.
Even though this twisted abuse of power reveals the full extent of Logan’s wickedness, sparking your flight from the castle and decision to mount a rebellion, I wanted my decision to matter more than it did. I wanted to feel my destiny shift in a manner that I could trace back to the specific party I spared. No such luck. The team at Lionhead could only be bothered demonstrating to players the anguish of condemning a straw man to death. To give the choice meaningful narrative resonance would require BioWare-style meticulousness in regard to plot branching. Molyneux and his team take the easy way out. Not just in this regard, but over and over throughout the course of Fable III.
Molyneux has spoken candidly about his desire to make Fable III accessible to a wider audience beyond the action-RPG enthusiast. I didn’t recoil upon hearing this. (I was too busy thanking God the game wasn’t being turned into a motion-control collection of sword-flailing minigames.) There are plenty of RPG gaming conventions that warrant a rethink. To the studio's credit, Lionhead addresses the clumsy menu navigation headaches of Fable II by reimagining the inventory menu in a visual manner. When you hit “start” on the controller, instead of being taken to a series of branching inventory lists, you’re taken to a place called "The Sanctuary” instead. This is basically the Fable version of Batman’s bat cave. Want to change your outfit? Walk into your closet. Want to look at your achievements? They’re displayed on the wall in your treasury like pieces of collected artwork.
Fable II's sparkly breadcrumb trail makes an encore appearance so you don’t have to slavishly consult your map when figuring out which way to go. Your trust canine companion barks to alert you to buried goodies and out-of-the-way treasure chests, dashing along at your heels and panting affectionately. These are all helpful tools that iron out potential grind from the experience. But Lionhead gets carried away in its mission to reduce complexity and doesn't quit until it's stripped all challenge from Fable III. The resulting game feels like playing chess against a drooling lobotomy patient. When you die in battle, you respawn instantly without missing a curtailed heartbeat, losing nothing more than a handful of guild seals (the game’s version of experience points) and sustaining a bit of facial scarring. If Demon’s Souls mercilessly spanks your ass with a belt every time you die, Fable III gives you a ginger tap on the back of the hand that barely even registers.
Unfortunately, by jettisoning risk, Fable III also eliminates the player’s sense of reward. Molyneux makes a fundamental miscalculation here. Overcoming stress is a vital component of the human experience. Standing by her side as my real-world bride labored in agony to deliver our son, I felt a love for her that I can’t adequately distill into words. The experience cemented a bond between her and our son, whom she had worked so hard to bring into the world. People run marathons and climb mountains for a sip of adrenaline this potent. If a piece of jewelry can be bought at a discount, we instinctively question its value. When kids have to do chores and save their allowance to buy something, they guard it with a vengeance. This is just human nature.
Fable III gives players the window dressing of an epic quest—dazzling the eye with Albion's laudably exquisite production values—but you don’t feel like you’ve had to overcome any significant difficulty on your hero's journey. Fable III is a story in which world-threatening conflict is always explained, but rarely felt. I started my quest feeling like a thrill-seeking tourist on an African safari, only to realize early on that I’d been duped and my safari guide was instead ushering me through a Disney theme park where all the lions and tigers are safely declawed and your safety is guaranteed due to invisible sonar fences.
Most games of Fable III’s ilk will at least force players to solve puzzles to progress through the game. I remember when I was a kid using a pencil and paper to map out the way through The Legend of Zelda’s dungeons, making careful note of which walls could be bombed to reveal hidden passageways. Some blocks could be pushed aside if you had the Strength Ring. Some walls could be walked through if you pressed against them for several seconds. Fable III offers no such challenges. You just follow the glowing trail until you reach your objective. You don't get the sense these achievements were ever locked to begin with; merely the equivalent of discarded nickels waiting to be picked up off the ground as you stroll past. Frankly I'd be embarrassed to own a Brady Games strategy guide for this title.
Occasionally Fable III will pepper some enemies into your path, but even this obstruction is little more than a nuisance. The baddies can be easily dispensed with a couple minutes of persistent button mashing. After securing your inevitable victory, you continue jogging along until you get to your objective. The environments are gorgeously rendered, but far too generic to keep your mind from drifting off to an upcoming dinner date with friends or how you must remember to pick up milk from the store. During one quest in which I ventured out into some desert ruins to recover a mythical diamond the size of my head, I remember thinking to myself, “How in bloody hell is this diamond still on its perch, unpilfered? This cave is only a 10-minute jog from the nearest city and I barely broke a sweat fighting my way through this cave, which didn’t even attempt to thwart my heist with a single booby trap.” Zero risk, negligible reward.
Molyneux gave us advance notice that taking back the throne would merely be the beginning; we’d then be tasked with ruling the kingdom. This was a terrific idea with huge creative potential. Unfortunately the experience of being Albion's supreme ruler is about as exciting as a babysitter settling disputes between bickering siblings. I found it telling that my character slouched in her royal throne, looking as bored and distracted as an ADD-afflicted school kid forced to watch a nature documentary on the migratory patterns of Canadian geese. In my chair in front of the television, I'd unwittingly assumed a mirror image of her posture.
Once again these royal decrees are binary coin-flippers. Press “A” to make the noble, popular decision that endears you to the populace but drains the treasury. Press “X” to make the hard, unpopular choice that increases the kingdom’s wealth. Lionhead tries to muddy these decisions by introducing a looming mortal threat that will require vast riches to confront. Will you choose to be a popular monarch, knowing that your decisions will cost the lives of many people? Or will you be shrewd and ruthless, knowing that doing so will save lives in the long run? As it turns out, provided you’ve bought up enough real estate to keep dividends rolling in, you don’t have to give a shit.
In a design flaw reminiscent of the ludonarrative dissonance Clint Hocking discusses in relation to BioShock, Fable III opens a loophole that leaks any accumulated tension like air from a whoopee cushion. On the surface you have some tough fiscal dilemmas to resolve, but then the game undermines this tension by letting you make unlimited transfers between your personal account and the kingdom treasury. Because I was filthy rich, I could make the popular, noble decision every single time, and then simply make a generous personal donation to cover the budget shortfall. Once I realized I could do this, I quit caring. One of my friends thinks this is a sly commentary on the super rich’s impunity to consequence. If you’ve got enough money, the rules by which the rest of society are forced to abide simply don’t apply to you (haha, hoi polloi suckers!). I'm not so sure.
I desperately wanted Fable III to make me care. I same-sex married one of the castle’s maid staff, just to rankle Albion's social conservatives. Marie and I had a royal wedding and were pronounced "wife and wife" to much fanfare. We bought a house together beside a placid lake. We made love (nothing to see here: the screen goes black, you hear a creaking bed frame and a bit of PG-13 banter.) Actually scratch that, my wife and I didn’t make love. We just had sex. The failure of Fable III is that it is systemically unable to create the emotional connection necessary for you to value your spouse. My wife was always an object. The game never once treated her like a person. How could I have cared about her like one?
It’s a damning critique that, even when you combine Moluneux’s dedication to emotional engagement with arguably the most intimate relationship available to humankind, Fable III is incapable of engaging the player's heart. I’d be tempted to see this as a failure on the part of the videogame medium, but I know better. The husband-wife relationship in Jason Rohrer’s simply constructed, five-minute game Passage made my eyes moist. You and your wife walk together side by side through a pixilated maze representing the journey of years. You find some treasure here and there, you grow old together. Eventually she dies and you walk on alone until your gravestone appears on the screen. Passage functions as the visual equivalent of poetry, not prose. Meaning is conveyed through impressionism, through symbols. But Fable III is far too lazy to do the hard work of crafting such poetry. If it didn’t boast the most impressive voice acting I’ve ever witnessed in a videogame (Ben Kingsley, Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg, John Cleese, et al), I'd accuse Fable III of being all mechanics, zero heart.
The most egregious example of Fable III’s laziness comes at the story’s conclusion when the dark forces of evil finally reach the shores of Albion. This final battle could be treated as a case study in anticlimax. We have no idea who this dark force is or where it originated. We have no idea why it’s trying to destroy Albion. Even the fact that its demonic foot soldiers are silhouettes proves that Lionhead’s designers couldn’t even be bothered to, you know, design the game’s central enemy! Just as Fable III doesn’t imbue your spouse with enough humanity to foster player affection, these dark forces are just tall weeds to chop your way through to get to the game’s sappy “don’t you die on me now!” conclusion.
The head of Fable’s development studio may roar with the ferocity of a lion, but the rest of the animal is a drowsy kitten that merely stares at the ball of yarn, admiring its tantalizing hues.