One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A couple of weeks ago I finished Fable III and have since been playing through a second time, largely to scratch my Achievement-whore itch (damn those Legendary Weapons!) but also to try to put a finer point on exactly why this latest excursion into Albion was both a huge disappointment for me, and not the sequel I had hoped for.

Needless to say, if you haven’t yet played Fable II and/or Fable III, this article contains huge plot spoilers for both games — you have been warned!

Don't look at me like that. The spoiler police are here for your benefit.

My Fable experience started in December 2008 when I was lucky enough to be bought an Xbox 360 with three games for Christmas, of which one was Fable II. As a devout Sony fanboy until that point, I hadn’t experienced the first game in the series but found its sequel to be accessible nonetheless and a superb adventure – well paced, compelling and with a few well-placed difficulty spikes that created the right amount of tension in the right places. As someone who is fascinated with narrative and storytelling, the plot of Fable II did not disappoint. It has a strong implied history, a world that’s rich and detailed and a superb villain in the form of Lucien. He’s a text book example of a great baddie; yes, he goes about his business in a somewhat evil fashion but his motives are sound and based on personal tragedy; though you don’t agree with him and his methods, you can still relate to him.

Lucien Fairfax – the text book villain (in a good way!) from Fable II

Fable II was very easy to pick up and, though not difficult to master by any means, kept me interested right through to its ending. With the game playing out over the course of 20-odd years and ticking more or less every box of the monomyth, your hero confronts and defeats Lucien moments before he fulfills a dark prophecy that will destroy the world. Yes – players spoiling for a fight were left disappointed (since there wasn’t one) but somehow it was a fitting end. Then came the superb cliff-hanger. Your guide, the very enigmatic and mystical Theresa, seemingly betrays you at the last second, claiming Lucien’s ultimate weapon for her own unknown purpose and expelling you from the Spire. To explain the magnitude of this twist, it would be like if Obi-Wan Kenobi gathered a team to storm the Death Star and, instead of destroying it as planned, he suddenly took control of the planet-destroying weapon and kicked everyone out.

Importantly, this last minute surprise made me hungry for the third game, to let me continue the story, to learn of Theresa’s true motives and what that meant for Albion. Sadly this was not to be.

When the TV show Lost was still in its prime, it was very common that episodes would flit between what I would term ‘killer’ and ‘filler’. A ‘killer’ episode would focus on a group of core characters, progressing what felt like the main storyline and ending with a cliff-hanger that made you begrudge the week’s wait to find out what happens next. Often though, you would actually have to wait a fortnight, with a ‘filler’ episode tiding you over; these would usually follow a different group of characters pursuing goals that seemed less important to the grand scheme of things. However annoying you may have found it though, you knew it was usually only another week’s wait before the plot turned the dial back up to ‘killer’. My point? A ‘filler’ episode is fine when you know a ‘killer’ episode is only a few more days away; if the wait was a few years instead, you’d likely be a little frustrated.

For me, Fable III was ‘filler’; while maintaining the production values the series is known for, it was nonetheless a side story of lesser significance occupied by less important characters; a handful of set-piece highlights punctuating an otherwise already-told experience – if it were a song it would be a B-side remix, instantly familiar but adding little that is new. Its narrative distance from its predecessor made it feel like an inferior alternative to Fable II rather than any sort of continuation. It had a high amount of recycled content, including much of the music, villager speech and most of the enemy types from its predecessor (or re-skinning them, like the Highwaymen of Fable II becoming the Sand Furies of  Fable III). They also trimmed out any moments or mechanics that required some skill, such as the troll encounters, the timed flit switches and the more challenging (or even impressive) boss encounters. With the notable exception of its distinctly improved gorgeous graphics, it felt like every aspect of Fable III was tuned to create a game even more accessible than its forebear at the expense of improvement or progression. For fans who had invested their time, money and interest in this superb franchise, that was a real pity and something of a missed opportunity.

The troll encounters were highlights in Fable II

Focusing on the story, the plot of Fable III casts you as the child of the previous game’s now-deceased hero, some 50 years after the events that unfolded in Fable II. After your older brother Logan, King of Albion, does some particularly nasty things you lead a revolution to overthrow him. On your journey to the throne you learn of an immensely powerful evil creature called the Crawler and its plan to attack Albion. Once you become King or Queen, you are tasked with preparing for the Crawler’s inevitable onslaught, which provides the setting for the climatic finale… and the anticlimactic final boss.

Just what is Theresa up to?

As you may have noticed, there was no mention of Theresa in the above paragraph because, apart from explaining the levelling system, summarising the ten main beats of the story and providing exposition when other characters would be unable, she is more or less absent from the game. Her base of operations, the Spire, is visible from some parts of Albion but is not accessible (unless forthcoming DLC deems otherwise), making it an unknown object to players who are new to the franchise – seemingly the target audience of the game and, I presume, the reason for it being so woefully easy.

The ease of the game also factors into its incongruous narrative; when it comes time to judge Logan for his crimes against the people of Albion, we learn that the reason he became such a tyrant was because he knew of the Crawler’s impending attack; apparently, by becoming a bastard to his people, he was preparing them for what was to come and strengthening Albion. If the final battle against the Crawler and its forces had even a shred of challenge, Logan’s words could perhaps ring true; as it happens, raising the funds required to raise an army and save your people is simply a matter of completing side quests and acquiring a small fortune as a landlord – only the overly impatient will struggle, since you can take as long as you want.

Likewise, the final battle against the Crawler is a walk in the park, albeit an impressive example of Lionhead’s audiovisual ability as Bowerstone is besieged for the second time in the game. Cutting through swathes of the shadowy beings under the Crawler’s command, you finally reach the demonic creature, bracing yourself for the encounter. This is it, you think, with each of the preceding weak boss fights within Fable III merely there to make this last fight all the more impressive in its scope, to end on an inventive high note…right? Wrong. Instead of facing you in its own monstrous form, the Crawler possesses your friend, mentor and advisor Walter, forcing you to slay him to save the day and supposedly kill the evil monster.

Walter wasn't best pleased when he read the script either

Had a single moment of being the ruler of Albion presented a significant challenge, perhaps Logan’s motives would have felt more understandable, making him a stronger character in the process. Had he put up a fight instead of simply surrendering to you, a huge amount of depth could have gone into your character’s relationship with him, with the damage you inflict upon him (possibly resulting in his death at your hands) a more dynamic and less binary spin and on Fable’s take on good and evil. The Crawler, meanwhile, appears fairly late into the story with no real foreshadowing, its only aim being the destruction of Albion for the sake of it, since it has no overtly apparent goal. If it had some kind of hold over you, some way of tapping into every significant dark deed you ever did in the game, exposing your true nature (for better or worse) to everyone who matters to your character – then the Crawler would have had a far more interesting reason to exist within the game. You never battle it directly, rendering it no more than a spooky commentator during its fleeting appearances. With videogame narrative, your eventual triumph is only as rewarding as the challenge to attain it, meaning that the weak antagonists of Fable III and the ease of conquering them is a genuine disappointment.

For all its faults, Fable III is a handsome devil
Despite its faults, Fable III is a handsome devil

That is not to say I had a bad time overall with Fable III – if it weren’t for the exceptional game that preceded it, or the sheer amount of recycled themes and content, it would be a great game instead of a good one. It looks fantastic, has a strong sense of humour, some superb voice acting and a handful of genuinely great moments, highlights being the creepy journey through the Crawler’s lair and the battles of Bowerstone, despite the simple combat. Ultimately, Albion is a superb creation, one that is a joy to explore and engage with.

But having had time to reflect on the game as a whole and its story in particular, I’m hoping Lionhead will really rethink things for the inevitable Fable IV, crafting a tale and an experience that rewards and challenges fans while welcoming newcomers; that reintroduces battles against formidable foes and that realises the immense potential of the franchise – just like Fable II did. That is when Fable II will have its true ‘killer’ sequel and one that, for this fan, cannot come soon enough.





One response to “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”

  1. Dean avatar

    Holy trouser snakes, I was so busy being disappointed with Fable 3’s moral simplicity and weak resolution that i completely forgot about Theresa. You’re right, they had a fantastic plot going in fable 2 and just dropped it to concentrate on what was instead a bit of a one trick pony. And surely having an ultimate evil as the villian of a game that attempts to be morally complex is a massive cop out?

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