It isn’t often that one can describe something as “whimsical.” Maybe the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” scene from Mary Poppins (well, maybe the whole movie) or maybe something from a soundtrack written by Danny Elfman. Perhaps, there is a magical formula for generating whimsy locked in some secret vault at the Disney or Pixar Studios, but there are few artists able to walk the line between heart warming and insipid to find that sweet spot that is the whimsical or the enchanting.
Peter Molyneaux has been lauded for his innovations in game design. Often credited as the creator of the “god game” as well as admired for his ability to layer simulation upon simulation upon simulation in the Fable series, the man is a remarkable game designer. What his team at Lionhead Studios has been able to do beyond merely design unique and innovative titles, though, is to generate a world in the Fable series that is not only ambitious in terms of design but is also able to produce that “lightening in a bottle” quality that one doesn’t usually see except in really masterfully crafted material targeted at younger audiences. Put simply, Albion is uncompromisingly whimsical.
Like determining the proper ratio of an alchemical formula (say the ratio of Julie Andrews’s mellifluous voice to Dick Van Dyke’s uncanny facial expressions), it is hard to put a finger on what qualities add up to evoking a tone like whimsy in a world. In Albion, this formula seems to consist in part of Russell Shaw’s sometimes haunting, but always enchanting, soundtrack, an overall commitment to a cartoonish aesthetic in character design, some roundly bizarre but always effervescent social animations . . . oh, and toss in a faithful doggy companion. And John Cleese.
The other strange element of Albion’s whimsical tone is that the game is rated M for Mature, and despite all of its enchanting music, amusing social interactions, and the ability to tussle and romp with a doggy, it really is a game made for adults. Within its whimsical borders, Albion is a place with very adult themes. Prostitution, adultery, and even starvation are all social issues presented as the ugly truth in the fantastic world of Albion. Yet, these serious topics remain oddly cartoonish even as they maintain legitimate dramatic weight and provoke pathos. If a Disney film were to feature a brothel, that brothel would surely resemble one from Fable III, and Albion’s version of a red light district, like a classic Disney picture might handle more serious themes and subject matter, would still allow scenes of pathos to emerge, despite the presence of, say, seven dwarfs or a talking jungle bear.
Playing Fable III, one can’t help but be caught up in its light hearted tones, as the Prince or Princess that the player inhabits attempts to foment revolution with a populace that they gain the trust of by twirling around during an elegant little bit of ballroom or by engaging in a thoroughly rollicking good game of patty cake. Yet, villainy done to this seemingly cartoon populace still has resonance. The initial sequence introducing the player to this latest iteration of Albion and its current despot (the brother of the protagonist) features a chilling and difficult choice for the player between two great evils. Being forced to choose between the execution of a group of innocent villagers and the Prince or Princess’s beloved is a difficult one that provokes both guilt and outrage, both of which motivate the player’s quest to wrest control from his or her dictatorial sibling. The haunting qualities of choices made do not dissolve in scenes featuring ghostly jamborees or a brief, quiet moment with the hero’s dog, instead, they remain as echoes in a world that is grotesquely beautiful and grotesquely wicked.
Making exaggeration into something that an audience legitimately cares about is no mean feat. It might seem hard to relate to characters whose world allows a belch or fart to have larger political consequences in the grander scheme of things. The whimsy on display in Albion seems often to revolve around the silly and the banal, and yet, perhaps that is exactly why its exaggerations work; the silly and the banal may really be the most enchanting elements of simply being human. It is that humanity, silly as it might seem (actually because of how silly humanity seems at times), that could be the most relatable quality of the characters that inhabit Albion. They are cartoons that reflect a sense of the essential baseness of humanity and that also reflects the serious necessity of whimsy in embracing that frailty.