From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Five Reasons You Should Be Playing Fable 2

Released on October 21st this year, Fable 2 is the sequel to Fable, the many-time award winning video game designed by Peter Molyneux. Like many other fans of the first game, I was anxiously awaiting the release for Fable 2 after the success of Fable on the original Xbox, many avid RPG players were eager to see what the developers would do with the considerably more ramped-up power behind the 360. As far as I’m concerned, after a solid play-through, Fable 2 is an awesome game for anyone who enjoys the fantasy genre–or even just a damn good story. Here are my top five reasons you should be playing this game:

#5: Style

You don’t need an Ivy League degree in Medieval Studies to recognize the standard setting for a low-fantasy story: agricultural townships, sprawling fields and foresty landscapes, and plenty of free-roaming livestock. And while the original Fable is more than guilty of all of these three stereotypes (chicken-kicking, anyone?) Fable 2 takes a healthy—if not huge—step away from the archetype.

While you still have cottages and cows walking about (more the cows than the cottages to be sure), Fable 2 has a setting that is more reminiscent of late-colonial, early-independence North America than feudal England. Pistols and blunderbusses come onto the ranged-weapon scene, something that the wanna-be cowboy gunslinger (or the singed, gunpowder-coated dwarf, respectively) in all of us can appreciate. There are still crossbows floating about for those of you who aren’t convinced that you’re playing a proper fantasy game if you’re pumping some poor bandit full of lead rather than skewering him with bolts.

Engineers in goggles and smocks lament about broken bridges in long sequences of pseudo-scientific jargon, while others occupy the most accessible alchemy stores. And though consuming something mixed in the basement by a guy wearing oversized gloves and several layers of dirt and grease might not sound properly medicinal, I can assure you that I’ve been no worse for wear. Really—I’m pretty sure the horns, grey skin, and glowing eyes are there because I’m pretty corrupt (read as: badass), not because I’ve been drinking the medieval fantasy equivalent of Drain-o!

Which brings us to reason number four…

#4: Morphology

'Evil' in Fable 2

When it comes to character morphology, the Fable title is leaps and bounds above the rest of the video game market; the only possible exception to this being Spore (and hey, I’m not entirely convinced that comparing it to a game where the main function is overseeing evolution on a grand scale isn’t, y’know, cheating somehow). In any case, during the era of PS2, XBOX, and GameCube, the original Fable reigned supreme in the field of character modification through gameplay, so much that it was central to the games advertising and marketing pitch. Molyneux and Lionhead once again deliver on that front.

In the original Fable, a character’s appearance depended most heavily on where he fell on the spectrum of Evil to Good. A player that enjoyed murdering (annoying) villagers (who deserved it) would find their character growing horns, or (my favorite) followed by an entourage of buzzing insects. On the other hand, someone who preferred to lend a helping hand (and was a complete sap) would acquire a halo. While Fable 2 retains this integral aspect of the battle between Good and Evil, other variables have also been introduced in the character alteration process, including a scale of Corruption-versus-Purity. This adds an important level of nuance to the game, which suggests that one might be ultimately good-natured but have an obsession with the kind of lovin’ that here in the States you can only get legally in Nevada, or, alternatively, that you’re a murderous sociopath who hates people but loves animals and is therefore a stringent vegan (in other words, play as a PETA activist!).

Another interesting mechanic concerning not just who you kill (or save, if you’re that boring) but how has also been introduced: your character’s appearance also depends on which of the three main combat areas you choose to develop. People who are into hacking and slashing and therefore obtain a lot of Strength abilities will be appropriately ripped from all that time swinging an axe that’s heavier than most NPCs. Those who rely on frying their opponents with electricity—which is decidedly less Sith-like than in the original game, an unexpected disappointment (what’s the point of being evil and using lightning if I can’t imagine that I’m Emperor Palpatine, really?)—and focus on their Will abilities obtain brightly glowing tattoos over their body. After all nothing says ‘I can kill you with my mind and some funny words’ than blue glow-in-the-dark swirlies etched into your flesh. As for the character modification associated with Skill (which is ranged, non-magical attacks, as well as speed), I’ll admit that I’m a little confused. Apparently shooting things and being quick on your feet makes you taller. The only possible reasoning I can come up with for this is that the more you pansy out and stand in the back trying not to actually fight anything, the more you become like a Lord of the Rings elf.

Other aspects from the first game, including weight loss or gain, tattoos, and hairstyles are also present in this installment. And much to my own vain, superficial delight, the age mechanic works differently. Aging is now dependent on major plot points in the story, rather than how many abilities you purchase with your experience points. No more pained decisions between whether you want to be able to kill every peasant in a big town in five minutes, or being youthful and pretty! Hooray!

#3: Humor

Generally speaking, video games are not in the business of trying to make you laugh. Some have funny parts, and many that are story-driven will have humorous characters or side-stories… but humor, as far as I’ve seen, is more of an afterthought in a game rather than something you sit down and try to create. The only recent exception to this that I’ve encountered in a story-driven game has been Grand Theft Auto IV, where the humor is definitely there, and definitely funny, but in a way that is more biting satire than just plain old good-time silliness. And when producers do try to put out something that is both funny and silly, they tend to just come up with cartoony adventures designed for young children. And the characters seem to always be strangely anthropomorphic, like a pedophiliac-furrie’s wet-dream.

Fable 2 is refreshing. For a long time when I was planning out this review, I had humor as the second best reason to play this game (and only after the last bit of main plotline was I convinced that I had to switch it with Story Building). While the original Fable certainly strived for humor in how your Hero interacted with the townspeople, their voices often were downright grating. Fable 2 seems to have a greater variety of voice-acting, as well as dialogue outlets. I laughed out loud—in spite of myself—the first few times that night fell while I was in a town, when the Town Crier would promptly bellow: “It is now, officially… BED time!”

The humor is effective without relying solely on satire. While it can be pretty lowbrow at times (you can extend your farts as an act of communication, and if you mess it up, you uh, really mess it up), mostly you can avoid that aspect (or, alternatively, revel in it—people have Disgust meters for a reason, after all!). Temples make a reappearance in this installment, featuring essentially a temple dedicated to goodness, and one to evilness. I of course joined the latter, and found it to be one of the best choices in the game—”Friday night,” you are assured by the head of the Temple, “is poker night.” Every time you bring in a sacrifice you get to spin a huge game-wheel which determines how the person is killed. More evil points are awarded if it’s your spouse, or a monk from the Temple of Light; much like how Wheel of Fortune should be played. (This was of course also incentive to bed the only non-celibate monk I could find.)

#2: The Story and the Consequences for your Actions

Fable 2, while highly enjoyable for its humor and its habit of not taking itself so seriously, embarks on a truly ambitious mission: delivering a main storyline that is fresh but also familiar in all the right places, as well as allowing the player have control not just over the mechanics of gameplay, but also building their Hero as a character. At several crucial points in the plotline (and also a few seemingly irrelevant points) the player makes decisions based on who they want their Hero to be—and while there is a basic, underlying duality between good and evil, there are more nuanced elements to that fundamental dynamic.

For example, without delving too far into spoiler-land, as a child you have an option of helping a local guardsman, or a local criminal. This decision affects whether or not the area, when you return as an adult, is prosperous, or a slum. In a less direct manner: having a husband or wife (and whether you’re childless or have enough youngsters to put Ghengis Khan to shame) also affects the some of the way the main story is presented later on. On a note that does not quite effect the central storyline but emphasizes the idea of actions leading to consequences, your character can become permanently scarred (and I’m not just talking in the emotional sense). When you’re reduced to zero health, and have no Resurrection Phials, you will be ‘knocked out’ for a short time before regaining consciousness and returning to the fight. Each time this happens, your character earns another set of scars. These don’t disappear after you’ve rested, and there is no cosmetic ‘cure’—while not a huge determinant for how the game can be played, little twists and turns like this help to give the story a feel of total, yet interactive, immersion.

On the subject of the story itself, I mentioned above that initially I ranked it the third best reason to play Fable 2. After reaching the final story arc, I couldn’t help but recalculate: at the risk of saying too much and giving anything away, I’ll err on the side of caution. The story for Fable 2 is exceedingly better than its predecessor—one of the main faults with Fable was that the story was overly generic. Even with the consideration that ‘fables’ indeed are often the type of story that has the same elements over and over, it was just too bland: the tragedy that shaped you was too typical (sole survivor of a bandit raid on an otherwise peaceful town), which meant too much emotional disconnect with your Hero.

Fable 2 retains the trappings for a good fairy-tale (uniting of other Heroes, daring rescues, evil embodied not just in a character but also in a severely badass tower in the distance…) and closes the gap between the player and his or her Hero. The writers (sadistic as writers are wont to be) demonstrate that they know both how to tickle you into laughter, and also grab a fistful of your heartstrings and give ’em a good wrench. And while the cutscene is still the primary vehicle for delivering that tear-jerking cheap-shot, the player isn’t directly lead by the nose through the tragedy. There is an entire section near the end of the story that is a deliberate psychological attack, something of the kind one expects from games like Silent Hill—and its effect is only rendered more potent by the fact that the rest of the game is decidedly less disturbing.

#1: You can be a GIRL

You Can Be A GirlI know what you’re thinking. Is this really number one? Are you kidding? What is this? Who am I?

The fact that protagonists in story-driven video games are decidedly male is rarely disputed. And while many justifications (ie: excuses) have been made for this phenomenon, there is nevertheless something very special about a game that goes out of its way to include women and girls in its representation of what it means to achieve greatness. The message inherently bound with this option is powerful—that being male isn’t a requirement for being a figure that can change the world.

This is even more important in a game like Fable 2, which emphasizes the choices between good or evil, kind or cruel, pure or corrupt. We see male video game protagonists across the entire spectrum of human personality, and with an increasing focus on complexity: while not as grounded in the fantasy genre, there is a reason that figures like Niko in Grand Theft Auto IV (withdrawn but generally polite, seeking a life outside of violence but still ready to kill, family-oriented and dedicated) are in higher demand than the more stereotypical archetypes of the past. However, as is with most media women are only allowed to progress at a much more stunted rate.

To be able to PLAY an evil female—rather than just waiting to fight her in some James Bond wanna-be final showdown—is something that one hardly ever sees in video games, even when we have murderous death-machines like Kratos heading plotlines in games like God of War. Major, player controlled female protagonists are by and large kept to the good-and-pure side of the spectrum (even when their clothing is probably meant to suggest something else). That’s not even getting started with the fact that you can be a fat female protagonist. Seriously though: a fat female protagonist with scars and horns? Fable 2 is in a league of its own.

Ultimately, this was my favorite reason for playing Fable 2. Representation is a deeply influential thing: it gives the audience a much better connection with the media, and allows them to take more away from it. Whether or not people want to write video games off as ‘just entertainment,’ much like they do with other bits of cultural dialogue, Molyneux isn’t just doing something fun. It’s doing something important.

While people are angrily disagreeing with my top reason for playing Fable 2 (or maybe even thoughtfully pondering it) I’ll slip in a couple things I think the game could have done better. Firstly, the main story (much like the original Fable) felt a bit on the shorter side. However, the available side-quests add in much more gameplay, and while I personally wouldn’t have minded another 20 hours of storyline, I do think that the length was appropriate for what Fable 2 was meant to accomplish. The designers have expressed explicitly that they were interested in creating a game that even the casual gamer could play all the way through—developing a definite character for their Hero in a relatively short amount of time—rather than making a sprawling epic of the kind that companies like Bethesda (and obsessive games like myself) are preoccupied with.

The only other issue I had was player collision in small areas. When twelve lovesick suitors following you around can unknowingly trap you into an alley more effectively than twelve NFL linebackers, things can get a bit frustrating. Weapons, magic, and bloodlust roars are pretty good crowd dispersers, at least.

Fable 2 builds on the ever-popular morphology aspects of the original Fable, while also establishing a much richer, and less stereotypical story. The style is fresh, and so is the humor. What problems there are with the game don’t stem from a lack of game-play or faulty plot decisions, but rather slight annoyances. The biggest disappointment about Fable 2 is that the story is so compelling many gamers (for example, those of us who’ve also succumbed to the allure of the ever-lasting games of MMORPGs, or the sort of sprawling behemoth tales that Bethesda releases) will wish there was more. But the main plotline is solid and is extremely well delivered.

Fable 2 is a title you should have within your gaming repertoire if your favored fare is in RPGs and story-driven games. If you’re only interested in racing games and the yearly release of Madden, then you’re beyond my help. This game is the ambitious fairy-tale’s response to the standard Tolkien epic: I can do what you do—it chirps happily—flashier, fancier, and in a tenth of the time!

And, of course, you can be a chick.

Fable 2Title: Fable 2
Developer and Publisher: Lionhead Studios; Microsoft Game Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: Mature (M)
Rent It @ GameFly
Buy It @ and Amazon

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