OPINION

And so our story begins | The Return of Fable

Thanks to Daniel “Knottian” Knott for helping research and write the article.

Fable is an iconic franchise in the history Xbox and holds its place as one of the best RPG series of the last decade. The main series ran its course when Fable released in 2004 through 2010 when Fable 3 released. There were also a few spinoff games that were not of much consequence, as well as the ill fated Fable Legends which was canceled in 2016.

The series was originally developed by Lionhead Studios, led by Peter Molyneux, a man who is well known for promising the world and never quite living up to expectations. While the series never lived up to what Molyneux promised, the games were still very good, offering elements that few games have been able to blend as successfully today. Some even consider the original Fable one of the best RPGs of all time.

The series primarily takes place in the fantasy world of Albion, a unique and fantastical take on England that set itself apart from other games in the genre. Beyond the traditional trappings of fantasy RPG, Fable leaned into a bevy of unique characteristics: its signature British humor, player driven choices, and unique renown system driven by the player’s progress and interactions with the world’s NPCs.

Also intertwined with the series’ player choice-driven narrative was its morality/alignment system. Whereas most games that offered morality mechanics rarely changed the outcome of events beyond the finale or a few points throughout the game, Fable’s morality systems extended well beyond that. The world’s population would revere or recoil if the player was good or evil. Spells and Legendary Weapons would only be attainable if the player was aligned properly (in the third game of the series, weapons would even morph based on the player’s alignment). Ultimately, the world itself would alter depending on the decisions of the player; parts of a town would flourish or flounder depending on those moral choices, for example. Fable is about choice, clearly, and while not everything that was promised of the series came to fruition, a lot of those promises did.

The series has been dormant for a long time and players have long been wanting go return to the world and see what the series would look like if it were modernized. Luckily, Xbox and the new developers Playground Games had the same idea.

What do we know about the new game?

Not much is known about the new entry in the series, but we do know it has been in development for a while. Before we get to the announcement trailer, we need to go back to January 17th of 2018.

On this day, Eurogamer published an article titled “Sources: Microsoft plots Fable return”. This article was the original source that would kick off a more than 2 year long cycle where rumors would swirl that Fable was coming back.

In the article, Eurogamer states that “We’ve heard the new Fable is planned as a story and character-focused open-world action RPG”. This confirms what most would expect, the new Fable will focus heavily on story and a player driven character.

The most interesting tidbit of that article comes later, where the author notes that “We’ve heard Microsoft’s rekindled interest in Fable was in part inspired by Sony’s phenomenal success with Guerrilla Games’ PlayStation 4-exclusive Horizon Zero Dawn”.

This makes sense, as Horizon was one of the most successful IPs of the last generation. Open world action RPGs are incredibly popular right now, and making a brand new, modern Fable will likely be very successful.

From the time of Eurogamer’s article until July 23rd of 2020, there was no news except speculation and rumors. It became an open secret that Playground was making Fable, but it hadn’t been confirmed until Xbox officially announced it earlier this year.

The announcement trailer was not much more than a teaser and it didn’t really give us concrete gameplay details. However, there are a lot of clues to unpack. Before we dive into the imagery of of trailer, I want to focus on the voice-over.

The world is filled with stories of legendary heroes and treacherous villains. Of fantastical creatures and wonderful places where nature and magic live in perfect harmony. Not all stories have happy endings. But yours has yet to be written.

This dialogue is very straight forward but we do get an overall sense of the world that Playground is building. We get a sense that there will once again be good versus evil, heroes and villains, which is an overarching theme of Fable.

We get a sense that this game will be filled with magic and fantastic creatures which may hint that the game is going to mirror the original Fable which had a heavier emphasis on magic.

The most important piece of dialogue may be at the end that says our story has yet to be written. This indicated that our characters will be blank slates and that we will be able to forge a path, similarly to the original games.

One of the first images from the new entry to the series

The trailer itself was a way to introduce us to the world Playground Games is trying to build without getting into much detail about what this new Fable will actually be. There are however many clues that longtime Fable fans will be able to pick out if they pay close enough attention.

The image above is one of the very first things we see in the trailer and it tells us a lot. The fairy may not seem like a big deal at first glance, but her presence indicates a lot. Fairy’s have never been in a Fable game before. The closest creature to a Fairy we have seen in a previous entry to the series were Nymphs in the original Fable.

Fairy’s being confirmed for Fable could indicate that the new game will return to its roots. The original Fable had a heavy emphasis on Magic, Fairy tales, folklore, etc. Fable 2 and 3 moved toward an industrious fantasy setting which didn’t capture what made the original game so unique.

Most fantasy games like Skyrim or Dragon Age follow the tropes of stories like The Lord of The Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. While Fable did use some of those tropes, they were inspired more by classic British Fairy tales and other stories.

Next to the Fairy, there is a sword that had the Heroes Guild symbol on the hilt?. This symbol represents the Heroes Guild, a fraternity of sorts that houses Heroes, who are special humans with powers who assisted the people of Albion at their choosing. Heroes are able to choose the path of good or evil at their own free will.

This Guild did not last forever. According to The Fable Wiki, the citizens of Albion grew weary of the guild.

One day a mob of villagers from nearby Bowerstone attacked the Guild. With the element of surprise, superior numbers, the newly invented guns from Samarkand, and the hesitation of most Heroes to attack the people they had sworn to protect, they managed to successfully destroy the Guild. The surviving Heroes fled into the woods and the Guild was no more.

The Heroes Guild is an incredibly important part of the Fable story. You play as the Hero of Oakvale in Fable 1. He or She is a very powerful Hero, and is able to explore the Guild. The Guild is not as central in Fable 2 or 3, but they exist on the peripherals.

The next image gives us more clues on where the next game takes place. The sword with the Guild Seal on the hilt is covered in moss, indicating that it has been there for quite some time. As we know, the Guild ceased to exist after the Heroes were forced to flee after being attacked by local villagers. Does this sword give us an indication that the game takes place long after the Guild was destroyed? It’s possible.

The ending of the trailer is the most important shot of the trailer. This is clearly Albion, the fictional country where Fable takes place. In the distance is likely Bowerstone, the largest and ever expanding city in Fable. The large castle in the background appears to be Fairfax castle which may give us an indication of when this game takes place.

Fairfax Castle exists during Fable 2 but is transformed into Bowerstone Castle during Fable 3. It could also just be an aesthetic change, but we will need to wait for confirmation.

That is all we really know about the new entry to Fable so far. A lot of it is heavy speculation, so we will not have any concrete information until Playground Games decides to share more.

What do we want from Fable?

Fable’s return should be a marriage of the series’ traditional roots with a flair of modernity. The new title will be launching in an entirely different gaming landscape than the original trilogy did; Western RPGs are more popular than ever and the space has become more varied than ever. In Fable’s absence however, whilst there have been plenty of high-fantasy offerings, the unique brand of Fable’s fantasy has seldom been seen.

Its blend of Brothers’ Grimm, Disney fantasy, and British humor is arguably the most important characteristics of the series, as it’s the foundation for which the series has been able to define itself. Luckily, the trailer released by Playground implies that this foundation is understood; showcasing the more fantastical elements of the world whilst simultaneously shying away from the gritty realism that has become so prevalent in fantasy games of today.

The new game will hopefully employ a more open-world that strikes the balance of Fable’s fine-crafted linear locales with the relative freedom of today’s open-world titles. Playground has shown they’re capable of making large expanses with meaningful activities, without being heavily reliant on filler material. This fits the world of Fable perfectly as it always felt a bit barren once the small batch of side quests were completed. Imagine a world that could represent an expansion of the ideas and systems introduced in the earlier entries. Playground could expand the Legendary Weapons from Fables of yore by making them more intertwined with the lore, introduce a more impactful and world-aware form of the realty meta-game, expand the jobs minigames, or any number of new systems and side activities to partake in. Perhaps they will do all of the above… so long as the Demon Doors make a comeback.

Another long-standing request from Fable fans is a return to the era of Albion prior to that of the encroaching industrial age. Fortunately, the trailer implies that a more medieval time period is back on the docket. Hopefully Playground will lean into the the more fantastical elements that the time period allows and expand on the mystery of the Heroes Guild, the source of magic in the world and the forces vying for its control.

Perhaps one of the greatest opportunities would be for Playground to reintroduce the aforementioned choice/alignment systems to have a greater impact on the world. With the hardware of modern computing systems and the new Xbox Series consoles, the resources available to AI systems are well beyond what was capable on the Xbox 360. Coupled with the machine-learning hardware present in the new consoles, and Microsoft’s investments in AI research (including an exclusive partnership with OpenAI and its GPT-3 language model), the series could benefit from greatly improved player-to-world interactions. Imagine a world full of NPCs that react to every single action by the player with realistic movements, awareness, or observations, instead of a few canned narrative markers or physical reactions. Obviously, where dialogue was required, those elements would need to be recorded, but so much of the physical and behavioral reactions could be expanded in a way not yet seen in a game.

This may sound ambitious, but what has made Fable so special is the impact of the player’s choice represented in the game world. While the games were never able to meet the dreams of Peter Molyneux, they often got very close. Many RPGs sell the player on creating their own character and making their own choices, but few have ever combined Fable’s player choice and world interactivity. The technological capabilities in Microsoft’s suite of tools, coupled with Playground’s pedigree, may provide fans of the series with the greatest chance to live those aforementioned dreams.

Will Playground go all out and attempt to make an incredibly ambitious RPG that expands the premise and promise of Fable? Or will they play it safe and make a by-the-numbers RPG that focuses less on interactivity and more on stats and quests; we are obviously hoping for the former. Regardless of what Playground has in store, their pedigree thus far is promising and their talent acquisition highlights a team capable of making those promises a reality.

Austin "Proven" Nelson

Writer and Host of "You Had Me At Halo Podcast" for XboxEra. Halo 3 apologist.

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