FINALLY, FANTASY GROWS UP
Legend Has It Fables Is Almost Ready. XBN Tells The Tale
By Greg Orlando
Yuna. Rikku. Payne. The Final Fantasy X-2 women on PlayStation 2, literally, are the clothes they wear. Dress them up right and they’ll become thieves, sorcerers, gunslingers, or sword-wielding ass kickers. When they learn skills, they’re directly applicable to the outfits they’ve got on. When a heroine needs to switch her vocation—say, from wizardess to thief, all that’s required is a costume change and a smoothly rendered cut-scene.
That is not Fable. That is not Fable at all. In Fable, the game formerly known as Project: Ego, what you are is a reflection of what you’ve done in the world. Clothes, be they fancy or sackcloth, are just for wearing.
The final countdown for Fable, the oft-hyped but seldom-seen-in-motion Xbox RPG from Peter Molyneux and Simon and Dene Carter’s Big Blue Box Studios, has begun. Molyneux promises it will be finished and available this summer. Jokingly, he says he’s not saying which hemisphere’s summer Fable will be released in.
“It’s close,” he says, “but not quite finished.” He’s come from England to America’s Sin City to receive an award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences at the annual D.I.C.E. show and is using the opportunity to show off this, his first console title. A swank suite—publisher Microsoft is nothing if not possessed of deep pockets—at the Bellagio hotel plays host to the Fable festivities.
This time, Molyneux comes bearing box art for the game. Its central image is of a small, spikyhaired boy staring down in wonder at a pool of water. Gazing back from the pool is a reflection of an older, longer-haired, and decidedly more evillooking man. The man is smirking back at the boy. It is the smirk of a man who wants to sell you a time-share while simultaneously reaching into your pocket to steal your keys.
Kid, you’re going places!
There’s a great hero standing on the hill. He’s looking out, and people have come to see him. They’re waving and cheering…
Here’s how to shatter a kid’s perfectly good hero fantasy daydream: Remind him he’s still a child. Then tell him he’s got to go out and earn money to buy his sister a birthday present.
Out in town, a series of chores awaits. It’ll take three gold pieces to buy a present, and dad promises to give one coin for every job completed. But the great truth is that work sucks like a Hoover vacuum, and there are easier ways to earn some gold.
“Right from the very outset we want to pose this sort of moral choice,” Molyneux says. While it’s impossible to become wretchedly evil as a child, there are definite opportunities for nastiness: Characters can be blackmailed, promises made and then not kept, defenseless children pummeled. An alignment meter tracks the main character’s good and evil deeds; as an adult, it will be possible to tell a hero’s bent by looking at his face. Evil characters will grow horns and attract flies. Saintly ones will beam and may have butterflies hovering around their bodies.
In Fable, characters will age and mature, but players won’t have to wait for their heroes to grow into adulthood. Tragic circumstances leading to the disappearance of the main character’s parents thrust the story forward, and the adventure begins in earnest as players rejoin the action as a novice adventurer fresh from hero training.
A reputation as a great hero or villainous scum won’t carve itself out. A guild serves as the game’s central hub; it’s where quests, be they optional or plot advancing, can be selected. Completed quests mean a nice cash reward, and players can gamble that reward by making boasts. A hero can proclaim, say, that he’ll complete an escort mission without losing a single person under his care. Or, he can take the absurdist route and declare he’ll defeat all enemies using a frying pan. The more boasts he makes and successfully holds true to, the more his reputation grows.
Fable’s world breathes and pulses. Time passes. Children in town go to school in the morning, they play in the schoolyard in the afternoon, they go to bed at night. Forcibly removing bandits from a series of woods means wandering traders will be more likely to take up residence there. Wives will become cross when the great hero doesn’t bother to return home for a long time. Other heroes will come and go, perform great deeds, be cheered in the pubs and taverns.
As an adventurer, players can tackle Fable as they will. It’s possible to become a trader, toting goods across the land with the intent to buy low and sell high. Women can be wooed, children—ahem—produced. Stores and houses can be bought. It’s possible to become a land baron in the most evil way imaginable. “You can slaughter three-quarters of the population,” Molyneux says. “You can then buy a house in that area, and the house prices will have gone down because there’s loads of available realty. Then you can wait for the town to become repopulated, which raises house prices. Then you can get married as well, which raises the value of your house, and then get a bit more famous to further raise the property rate.”
It’s possible to do all those things, but at its core, Fable holds two things sacred: its combat system and the notion that a character’s actions determine the kind of hero he becomes.
A-beating we will go
“We really spent a long, long time—years—trying to get a combat system that is as simple as it could possibly be,” Molyneux says. “One of the design criterion I had was, imagine I walked into a room and I didn’t know anything about Fable and someone was halfway through the game: If I picked up a controller, I should be able to go into a fight and have a cool time.”
One button controls attacks in Fable, with the third successive hit unlocking a special flourish hit. Flourishes can be activated by a second button press and will vary depending on the hero—Molyneux’s warrior, a beefy, barbarian sort, performs an overhead-stab flourish move. A third button allows a hero to block incoming strikes, and it’ll be possible to switch between weapons by pressing the Xbox controller’s White button. Spells can be called up on the fly from a menu, and up to four enchantments can be mapped to hotkeys. In a fight, it’s possible to cut off someone’s head with a sword strike, then quickly use a timewarping spell that gorgeously turns everything but the main character black and white, switch to a bow, hold down the Attack button to increase the arrow’s power so that it goes through two targets, and then zap a final enemy with lightning bolts.
For dedicated players, Fable holds a combat multiplier enabling a hero to gain a lot of experience by stringing together successive hits, be it with a melee weapon, a ranged one, or magic spells. Molyneux says, “If you are really into being a great fighter, you are rewarded much, much more with the experience. But if you can’t be bothered to do that, you can just go in there and hack and slice.”
Accumulated experience can be used to buy skills and spells. Experience points are both general and specific: Use a lot of magic and you’ll gain experience that can then be put toward mastering the arcane arts. Three separate categories exist here: combat, skills, and pure (magic), and a hero’s appearance will change as these are emphasized or ignored. Warriors will become big and burly. Skillful heroes will become toned. Sorcerers will lose their hair but gain an aesthetically pleasing swirl of light around them.
If it moves, celebrate it
Known more for its ideas than its look, Fable nonetheless seems no graphical slouch. Its monsters, including a huge rock golem and the lithe, angular balverines (think werewolves) show off great detail, right down to the moss on the living boulder’s body. The game’s woods and winding paths, lit by a waning moon, are suitably dark and foreboding. Molyneux says, “We really wanted to start it off with this little pastoral English village and then have players realize the outside world’s a lot darker and scarier place.” Mission accomplished.
As the demonstration progresses, the hero shows off the expressions he’s learned in his travels, laughing at a poor peasant’s request for aid and then following it up with the nearuniversal symbol for ill will, the middle finger. Later, in the schoolyard, children will run screaming from the evil wretch. “I want to go home!” one child wails. One brave lad runs up to the main character—now clad only in his underwear—to kick his shins.
Time soon grows short, and Molyneux, in an attempt to get it all in, resorts to telling instead of showing: Players can buy titles and tattoos for their hero’s body There will be a prison scene requiring an escape without tools or weaponry; every successive failure ages the main character one year. Anyone in the game, if they trust the hero, will follow him on his adventures. “They’ll comment on things you do,” Molyneux says. “If you run away, they’ll laugh at you. If you’re going somewhere dark and scary, they’ll get scared.”
Players will have a big choice at the tale’s conclusion, Molyneux remarks cryptically, and the end of Fable will mark the end of its story, but not of the game itself. There will be a sequel, most likely, because, as everyone knows, the truly great tales never end.
30 MINUTES WITH FABLE
XBN’S GREG ORLANDO SPENDS QUALITY TIME WITH PETER MOLYNEUX AND HIS NEVERENDING STORY
Will Fable change everything? Fable will not dramatically change the landscape for games, nor will it shatter anyone’s perceptions of the way things should be. What Fable does, and does remarkably well, is promise players an experience that’s rather unique in console games. It really is, as Peter Molyneux says, a sort of personality quiz and psychology experiment set in a gorgeous medieval playground. It demands that a person make moral decisions and live with the consequences, but even more so, to bear witness—be it on their characters’ faces or on the game’s landscapes—to the effects of their choices.
0.01 Choose your own adventure
Peter Molyneux grins. “It’s close, but not quite finished,” he says about Fable. It’s slated to come out this summer, and already the game has been pared back: A multiplayer mode has been excised, at least until Fable 2. You play the role of a hero from young boy to adulthood and, Molyneux says, you’ll have lots of opportunities to be nice or nasty, buy tons of stuff (including houses, titles, and stores), get married, have kids, and become the greatest hero in the world—or a degenerate worm people would rather stab than deign to spit on.
0.05 The hero as a small boy
Even as a cute young boy, the protagonist in Fable will be posed with moral choices. He’s got to buy a present for his sister, but does he earn his money or swipe it? When he catches a man kissing a woman who’s most definitely not his wife, does he tattle or keep silent? If he keeps silent and earns a coin in the process, does he then run off to tell the man’s wife? Which side, if any, will he choose when he meets a bully who’s tormenting a small child, stealing the kid’s teddy bear in the process? And what happens when the sister in question turns out to be a jerk? Decisions, decisions
0.07 No good deed…
Things are not as simple as they seem. Sure, an alignment meter checks off a player’s good deeds against the foul ones, but what happens when the hero commits a crime, but no one’s there to see it? Or when does a good deed—defending a defenseless boy from an assault by a bully—become a bad one? As the hero becomes good or evil, his face will change, giving him an angelic glow or devil horns. Ingame characters will react to heroes depending on their level of fame and alignment. This evil chap, it seems, won’t be invited to any proms.
0.11 You’re the man now, dog!
As an adult, the hero can use magic, ranged or melee weapons, or his fists to brawl with such wretches as bandits, creepy werewolf-like balverines, and enormous rock golems (see that handsome chap above). Ranged weapons and spells can be charged by holding down the Attack button; hold down the button for the bow long enough and an arrow will be powerful enough to go through two enemies. Sixteen magic disciplines, each with four-to -seven different levels, will be available, some exclusive to evil or good sorcerers.
0.14 Skill or be killed
There’s no way around it, brawling makes up a lot of Fable’s gameplay, and it’s critical the game gets it right. “It has to be a really cool combat system,” Molyneux says. Simple to use, the combat system lets players shift between weapons and spells with one button. Melee attacks can be used with one button, too, but after three hits on a foe, special flourishes can be added for extra killing power. Some flourishes will involve decapitations, while others will have the hero leaping in the air to stab foes.
0.19 Follow me, I’m the Pied Piper
Wandering traders aren’t going to escort themselves to safety. A hero can choose his own quests and how he tackles them. Boasting allows him to gamble on the outcome of his challenges, and here he’s predicted he’ll complete his journey without a single trader losing his life. But why is the balverine in human form coming along? And wouldn’t it be nice to protect the traders only to kill them and steal their loot once they’ve reached a safe haven? Sometimes it’s quite good to be bad. And even better to be downright evil.
0.23 None more evil
Peter Molyneux pauses his demonstration to tell the delightful story of a hero who wooed a mayor’s lovely daughter, got in good with hizzoner himself, then lead his father-in-law out into the woods and—whoops!—one dead elected official. Then—whoops!—the daughter died, too, after being accidentally stabbed 27 times or so. It was a tragedy of unimaginable proportions leading to the hero accumulating a lot of wealth and power with a little bit—all right, a truckload—of applied evil. It can be done in Fable. And more…
0.30 In the Colosseum
There’s more. So much more. Heroes will get tossed in prison and will have to escape without tools or weapons. An arena fight will pit the main character against hordes of horrible enemies and, finally, against his friend. A torture chamber awaits for players who want to lure unsuspecting people into it. Competing heroes will try to steal a warrior’s thunder—and his gold. And yes, it will even be possible for the game’s main character to scare schoolchildren while wearing only a pair of Union Jack underwear.
An interesting psychological experiment
“I always said you can tell a lot about a person by how he plays Fable,” Peter Molyneux says. When Mark MacDonald, executive editor for Xbox Nation’s sister publication Electronic Gaming Monthly, opts to aid a small child being taunted by a bully in Fable’s early moments, Molyneux smiles broadly. He says, “There is this interesting psychological experiment I’ve found. American [journalists] always want to do good—absolutely, 100 percent of the time. German [journalists] always want to do the evil stuff; without any doubt at all, they would be beating up that little kid to a pulp now as we talk.”
Will Fable change everything?
Fable will not dramatically change the landscape for games, nor will it shatter anyone’s perceptions of the way things should be. What Fable does, and does remarkably well, is promise players an experience that’s rather unique in console games. It really is, as Peter Molyneux says, a sort of personality quiz and psychology experiment set in a gorgeous medieval playground. It demands that a person make moral decisions and live with the consequences, but even more so, to bear witness—be it on their characters’ faces or on the game’s landscapes—to the effects of their choices.