We all have favorite games, and sometimes those games are timeless classics. And sometimes, those games are games of their time, providing the shoulders for other games to stand upon. Whether a game is one or another is always in the eye of the person holding the controller.
Recently, Kim from Later Levels and I did a game swap. After hearing each other chat up our respective favorite series, we decided to jump in and do a bit of a trade. Kim’s Fable had been passively on my backlog, so I was excited to jump in, especially because it was a recommendation from a friend, too.
If you’re wondering, I subjected Kim to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and you can read about her experience with that game here.
Fable fell into my life at an interesting point. I began the game in June, two-and-a-half months into quarantine and ten weeks into stressing about work, my paycheck, my health, and the health of MombiGaming.
Yes, this context is important.
Other important context is that my friend Shelby from Falcon Game Reviews and I talked briefly about playing Fable, and he gave it the very glowing recommendation of (paraphrased) “Well, it doesn’t have much of a story, and the controls aren’t that great, but you’ll probably have fun.”
And so I plugged my new-to-me Xbox 360 into my capture device, set up my Twitch and settled in for some RPG goodness.
My first reaction to turning on the game was, “Whoa I remember graphics looking like this,” followed by a much-welcome wave of nostalgia for the many hours I spent on my Playstation and Playstation 2, marveling at how good the graphics were.
Nostalgia aside, Fable looks like a game of its time. It was released in 2004, which was an eclectic year for graphics, boasting games like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and also Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. So while we’re putting nostalgia aside, the nostalgia was also very real.
The story was simple: the bad guy did bad things to the main character’s family, and now the main character needs to go and make the bad guy pay for the bad things and save his family.
The controls…. Man I wish I had a counter for how many times I grumped at the game for its inconsistent aiming, randomly-changing item mapping for the D-pad, or just general wonkiness that would leave me fumbling more than I could really say was due to the new-to-me controller or general user error.
The plot was predictable, the bosses were predictable, and the morality meter was sort of forgettable. It left me fumbling for what anyone could have seen in this game.
But then, something amazing happened.
Finding the Story
I was in Snowspire Village, one of the villages you come across later in the game, and I noticed that when my character walked by, some of the NPCs would suddenly have hearts above their heads. The main character is male, and I was interested to see that both female and male NPCs showed an interest.
I knew there were romance options in the game, but I hadn’t expected a game from 2004 to be so progressive in that area.
Don’t worry, this does relate to the story.
After beckoning at a number of the people (male and female) to follow my character, my harem and I wandered around the town. I got it into my head that I wanted the largest harem possible. At some point, I wandered past a house and saw it was for sale (although I sadly didn’t have enough coin to purchase it).
It was then that I realized that I had been playing the game very wrong. In fact, it reminded me of another game, played during another time.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has sold over 30 million copies as of 2016, and has had a total of nine different ports since it was released in 2011. To judge from message boards, people dump hundreds of hours into it, beyond the approximate 230 hours it takes to do a “completionist” run of the game.
But, funnily enough, Skyrim is a game that, like Fable, has very little plot, pretty straightforward mechanics, and a lot of wandering around.
The fun of Skyrim comes from making your own story and building a life for the character you create. When I played as Ra’zirr, I played him as a lawful evil character, mostly selfish and wanting power for himself, who was loyal to Lydia because she followed him, and intolerant of stupid fetch quests, children, and people he generally deemed to be inferior to him. He was motivated, therefore, to rise through the ranks of the soldiers, and make friends with people in high places. He had ambitions, and a goal, and he and I worked hard to get to those goals.
Goals that the game didn’t give me, over the course of a story that I was creating in my head.
Fable is like this, too. The purpose is to build a life with the main character. He can get married, change his hair and clothing, buy a house and settle down, and interact with as many or as few NPCs as he sees fit. It’s a blank page, waiting for the player to give it color and context.
After talking to Kim and getting a little more perspective on the game, it was really quite remarkable what Fable did. There was nothing like it on the market at the time, and it paved the way for other open-world, loose-storied games like The Elder Scrolls to build on and improve.
It might be a game from its time, but it was a giant that other games benefitted from.
Looking Forward and Back
I said this game came to me in a strange time. I’ve mentioned in other posts that we sometimes use games to find equilibrium again especially when feeling stressed. Sometimes we reach for new games, sometimes for old, and sometimes we’re looking for something familiar, even if it’s simply a new outfit on a familiar hangar (looking at you, GreedFall).
I didn’t fully appreciate the “make your own story” aspect of Fable before beginning it. Coming off of RPGs like the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, and even The Witcher 3, I was expecting some more story structure, even if there was room to interpret and fill in one’s own headcanon.
I like an RPG that has story when I want it, but room to make my own fun when I don’t. Anyone who is following my jaunty hat obsession in GreedFall has had a taste of this already.
I think if I had better appreciated that Fable was a game that was meant for the player to wander, get lost, and make their own fun, I might have been less aggravated by the seemingly endless “beat the bad guys because it’s the game” pattern I felt like I had fallen into.
Having said that, I think Fable has a lot to offer to a player willing to sit with it. The humor is very Monty Python-esque, and I had quite a bit of fun wondering what code I was supposed to spell with the letters T S I H (pro tip: it’s not the potty word that immediately came to mind).
There is a bit of resource management, although whether that was planned, or due to me compensating for the controls/my lack of ability, I’m not sure. The character’s hair, beard, tattoos, and clothes have lots of opportunities for customization throughout the game, and you can set your sights on any number of eligible individuals of your preferred gender, and you have a shot as long as you are the kind of person they prefer (just like the physical world). The weapons are overall satisfying to use, and the game allowed for a variety of tactics, including hiding and taking shots at enemies to chisel down their health over epic 45 minute boss battles, in the way that only early-2000s games can.
And, to the game’s credit, by the time I reached the final boss I was so aggravated at him that I, the player, was ready to high five his face with the pointy end of a sword, so you can take from that what you will.
To Play, or Not to Play?
Honestly, I think if you’re looking for a game to pick up and fool around with, especially if you’re interested in retro games or want to see what Skyrim would have looked like before, well, Skyrim came out, Fable would scratch that particular itch.
I haven’t played Fable 2 yet, but from reviews and personal attestations, it seems that the sequel improved on many of the issues I had with my original playthrough. I’m taking a break from the series for now, but I do plan on revisiting it and completing the trilogy.
And you can bet that this time, I’ll be ready to wander with the main character and see what kind of life we can build.
What do you think? Have you played Fable? Do you think it impacted the development of future RPGs? Are “games of their time” good games to revisit, or should they be left in the past? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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