The true non-fiction of history is paved millennia-long with myths and fables, passed down by daylight and firelight and lamplight. What began with words concluded with the novel, and what began with the novel ended in film. What, then, might film bring us? And what has it brought already?
These are questions that beg a closer look, hinting, however briefly, that our one common bond as citizens of this pale-blue rock is the simple love of a well-told story. Over the next few weeks, Cynamatic is going to devote itself to exploring some of these forms, but for the time being, we’d like to start out by having a little fun.
We here at MovieWeb might be a movie-loving bunch, for sure, but we’re also geeks in any number of other areas, as well. Me, I’m a gaming geek, and so in developing these next few installments, I was sure not to overlook gaming as an increasingly complex and provocative mode of story-telling. With its incredible scope, the gaming industry is dramatically re-defining the relationship between the story and its viewer, offering an ever-expanding level of interactivity and moral debate.
Enter our friends at Microsoft, wielding a copy of one of the decade’s most widely-discussed and hotly-anticipated games, Fable. Serving as the focus for the next, more-editorial Cynamatic, Fable is just too interesting a game to gloss over. And so, fellow film fans, we got ourselves a full-on MovieWeb Game Review!
Since its first mention nearly four years ago, Fable has managed to keep the media abuzz with its simple story, unique concept and one, near-impossible conceit: to be the best RPG ever. This, of course, is a powerful statement, and one which even the game’s designer, mastermind Peter Molyneux, admits might, perhaps, have been somewhat lofty. After all, one seldom walks onto a film before production and declares, “We’re making a movie to put The Godfather to shame.” But locked in a dead heat with Halo 2 for 2004’s Most-Lusted-After-Xbox-Title, Fable finally hit shelves earlier this month to a press whose hunger was nearly boundless.
Now, even the rabbit on the treadmill chasing the hanging carrot is bound, at the end of the day, to have an appetite that even the carrot couldn’t fulfill, and to this degree, many of Fable’s reviews have been tempered with such hunger-pangs. But in the end, Fable is one of the consoles best titles and certainly stands upright as a solid, top-ten RPG. That it’s one of the greats rather than THE great can hardly be considered a problem.
The tagline for the game reads like a film poster: For Every Choice...A Consequence, and in its design, Fable has all the elements to make this statement true. The concept of freedom, moral and otherwise, is present from the very beginning, scattered throughout your character's boyhood moments; being (or not being) a bully, telling (or not telling) the truth. And just as you are trying to get your adolescent moral bearings, your village is raided and your parents are killed. You're rescued and taken to the Hero's Guild, where you'll grow up and train to become the world's greatest Hero, ready for your inevitable revenge.
For the most part, none of this is terribly new, but Fable is a game not so much about the painting as much as the framework. Of course, the events in the game's opening moments would scar any young child, and consequently, one is asked to take on that broken mantle and decide just what kind of man this boy might become -- driven to battle evil, or drive to invite it. And in this sense, the game's greatest challenge is in asking the player to honestly submerse themselves into the game and all its characters.
As such, Fable’s ambitious claim to fame is just how free one feels in the game world of Albion – free to explore, make friends, make enemies, marry, buy property, become a trader, a thief, a warrior, to be selfish or saintly, cowardly or brave, but always, of course, a hero. The level of freedom and interactivity provided by the game is both its greatest success and its mildest drawback, eclipsing, in many ways, the game's larger story and yet never seeming integrated enough within the tale to be of any necessity. That one can own a home and have a wife, be a relentless killer or a mild-mannered trader, seemingly has no consequence on the story at large, though one might become so wrapped up in being or becoming these many things that the story gets left behind in the dust of one's meandering ambition. And that Fable begins to feel like the strange offspring of Zelda and The Sims isn't such an odd feeling after all.
And your morality does play a part here. Beat down a child, kick a chicken, slaughter your wife after a quickie divorce -- go right ahead, but beware those horns you'll see growing on your head. But save a life or help out the less fortunate and you just might earn yourself a halo and some pleasant backlighting. Villagers might run to or from you depending on how you lean, but that won't stop you from being the hero you were born to be. Choose your path and choose it well, but don't count on those paths being all that different.
While a world of marginally unlimited interactivity is a promising aspect, the sandbox nature of Fable wouldn't be nearly as fun without the basics, and it is here that Fable delivers.
Certainly, Fable is one of the better looking titles to be released on the Xbox since its inception, creating a world of truly inviting detail to admire. With sunbeams and shadows, autumn forests and midnight marshes, the world of Albion is littered with fascinating areas to explore. And with a fair amount of creative creatures, hidden chests, pilfered keys and magical, talking doors to encounter along the way, exploration aside from the main quests is one element likely to push this 20-hour game easily into the 30 or 40 hour mark. The attention paid to art design and modeling creates a rich, convincing feel for each individual area, drawing the player ever deeper into Fable's well-populated world.
And well-populated it is -- though with only a handful of character and creatures models on display. Walking around the towns in Albion, one gets the distinct feeling of having seen everybody before, either in other towns or in distant sections of the village you may be currently be exploring. It is not impossible to have multiple wives of the same appearance, as there are only four of five various female models in the entire game. The same applies to the creatures in Fable, as well, cleverly-designed though they are, with only a laundry list of bad-guys ranging from balvarines and bandits, to water-nymphs and hobbes.
But battling these creatures is where Fable really excels, with an accessible combat system that makes spell casting and swordplay relatively easy even for the novice gamer. With any number of upgradeable weapons and armor (each of which alter your basic appearance traits, such as attractiveness and scariness), the player is invited to create the warrior they've always wanted, with no single weapon or armor combination being necessarily better than any other.
Earning experience is based on a clever system referred to as a "combat multiplier" which, given the title, multiply your earned experience based upon how many enemies you've struck without being struck yourself. Decide to take on a horde of vicious hobbes and never take a hit...expect to have a decent multiplier when you collect the fallen experience orbs. And as with any other RPG, experience is used to enhance any one of the game's three basic attributes: Strength, Skill and Will (this being Fable's version of magic). The only great weakness of the game's combat system is the targeting mechanism, which proves somewhat difficult when surrounded by multiple enemies -- which you'll be. A lot. Best to invest in a force-push spell early on.
An additional nice touch of the battle system is that your injuries are occasionally reflected on any visible appendage, meaning that if you take a good hit to the face, you might carry that scar around with you for the rest of the game. Between this, your clothing, your hair, your tattoos, your weaponry and your moral leanings, no one gamer's character is likely to look like another's at the game's conclusion.
As mentioned above, Fable's only real weak-point is the relationship between its free-wheeling, live-free-or-die world and the story that it tries half-heartedly to convey. One never weighs appropriately on the other, and while there are two or three various endings depending on your basic morality, the game unfolds relatively the same, regardless. Sure you might kill the trader rather than rescue him, but you can be sure that your choice will seldom impact or change later events. In fact, the game makes it impossible to kill or otherwise maim story-important characters, despite the fact that everyone else is fair game. It would have been nice had the story branched more toward the center, rather than the end, but given the effort put into creating what is already there, one can hardly complain that much.
Overall, Fable is an engrossing, if not experimental, role-playing game, and while not the best, it's certainly among some truly extraordinary company.
Stay tuned to the next installment of Cynamatic, where we'll discuss the ever-deepening relationship between gaming and film, and focus a lot more on how games such as Fable serve to bridge that gap.