Midnight in the RPG of Good and Evil
We are born and that ought to be enough,
we ought to be able to carry on from that
but one must learn about evil,
learn what is subhuman,
learn how the blood pops out like a scream,
one must see the night
before one can realize the day.
—Anne Sexton, “The Evil Seekers”
The beauty of pen-and-paper role-playing games like D&D lies in their inherent open-endedness. Anything can happen in a role-playing game, the possibilities limited only by the imaginations—and patience—of the gamemaster and players. Your characters can dutifully trudge through the prepared scenario, or they can chuck the whole thing and spend the evening hanging out at the local tavern, wooing the barmaids. One GM I played D&D with as a youth would periodically arm his Orcs with Uzis (via a wacky plot contrivance involving time travel and planes of existence). Nonsensical? Sure, but therein lies the genius of the game—the ability to play out any scenario, to fully inhabit a fictional realm and participate actively in the creation of the game’s narrative.
While RPG-styled video games have a long way to go before they can match the openness of their pen-and-paper counterparts, at their best they’re able to balance the demands of narrative with the freedom to play outside the boundaries of the script. Like 2002’s sprawling Morrowind, with its dizzying array of side quests and character-building options, Fable, originally released for Xbox in 2004, takes role-playing to a new level. While it includes all the requisite fantasy RPG elements—monsters, spells, gold—characters are defined not by skills and classes, but by deeds and moral choices.
The ability to play good and evil characters is hardly new to RPGs, but I can’t think of a game in which morality is as central to the gaming experience as in Fable. Your good and evil actions aren’t merely gauged on a meter (though there is one), but are manifested in your character’s appearance—shiny halo and butterflies, or devil horns and noxious aura—and your interactions with non-player characters. While this isn’t exactly true to life (would that our political leaders displayed their spiritual condition so outwardly), it expands the game considerably beyond the mindless hack-and-slash routine of many action RPGs.
True to its title, Fable unfolds like a medieval fairy tale, complete with an appropriately British-accented narrator and cutscenes that look like illuminated manuscripts. Set in the fantasy world of Albion, the tale begins with your unnamed hero as a child in the backwater village of Oakvale. Doubling as prologue and tutorial, the scene allows you to explore the village and interact with the locals, performing some simple quests and collecting a few gold pieces as you learn the basic controls. From the beginning, though, you’re confronted with moral choices: do you defend the hapless kid from the bully, or do you join in his torment? Do you stand watch over the farmer’s barrels while he goes to answer the call of nature, or do you smash the barrels and collect the loot? In most RPGs, barrels and crates are only there for smashing; it’s disconcerting to play a game where you’re asked to refrain from doing so. You’re allowed to do the wrong thing, but it colors the way other characters respond to you. Commit bad deeds, and your father’s attitude changes from warm and benevolent to disapproving and concerned.
Soon enough, though, the story lurches forward. Oakvale is set upon by malign forces, your father is killed, your mother and sister kidnapped, and you’re left alone among burning houses, weeping over your father’s corpse. A mysterious figure, Maze, appears and whisks you away to the Heroes’ Guild where you will become an apprentice and, eventually, a full-fledged Hero of Albion. As a hero, you’ll take on quests ranging from escorting traders through monster-infested wilderness to defending (or attacking, depending on your inclinations) a village beset by bandits. There’s an overarching narrative, in which you discover your grand destiny and oppose the dark designs of the story’s arch-villain, the impish but deadly Jack of Blades. Along the way, you’re given opportunities to align your character along the spectrum of good and evil, culminating in a devastating final choice between heroism and ultimate power.
For the type of gamer who lures their sims into swimming pools and drowns them by deleting the ladder, Fable presents a nearly limitless potential for evil deeds. Unlike Champions of Norrath, which only allows you attack the things you’re “supposed” to attack, in Fable you can slay pretty much anybody who crosses your path. Including people you’ve just rescued. You can sneak into villagers’ houses and ransack them. You can kill wandering traders and take their gold. You can steal from shop owners. (One particularly delightful evil pastime is to shoplift items from a store and then sell them back to the merchant.)
Aside from delving into the darkest recesses of your soul, you’re also free to engage in activities unrelated to the main storyline. You can become a trader, or settle down with a comely village lass, or wander Albion like Caine in Kung Fu. It’s up to you.
Although the temptation to indulge in the freedom of evil is considerable—even the noblest of players will likely try the evil path at least once—the most interesting aspect of Fable is the opportunity to explore the decisions and consequences of both good and evil. Wanton cruelty and greed result in the opprobrium of outraged civilians and the wrath of town guards; acts of generosity and heroism win you adoration and love (as well as the romantic advances of women and, occasionally, men), but at the price of giving up some money and power. Depending on your level of engagement with the game, these choices can have a profound effect on your experience. (Your attempts at social interaction are met with fearful evasion should you choose the patch of evil.)
It’s fun, at first, to see the poor villagers drop boxes they’re carrying out of fright at your approach, but after a while a deep sense of aloneness creeps in. Playing both good and evil characters, I was startled by how profoundly my actions shaped my emotional response to the game. As a villain, being shunned by others spurred me to ever more heinous atrocities as I saw my own inhumanity reflected in everyone around me. As a hero, I couldn’t bear to harm the people who bathed me in warmth and adulation. Yeah, “it’s only a game” and can be if that’s all you want from it. Approached as a morality tale played out in real time, however, with the player immersed in the character, Fable can become a surprisingly insightful, first-hand glimpse into the motivations and impulses that comprise our moral and ethical identities. At its best, Fable can be like an interactive fantasy novel. It can become a heroic tale, a tragedy, or something in between. It all depends on your choices. If there’s a message the game conveys, it’s that character is determined by actions and choices, rather than inherent traits; villains are created, not born.
This expanded edition of Fable, subtitled The Lost Chapters, adds significantly to the original game’s length and variety of weapons and items. Aside from extra quests (and a newly-accessible area on the game map), there are some new cutscenes that help flesh out the story and provide more background on key characters. Although the changes, for the most part, don’t radically affect the original experience of the game, there are a couple of key alterations that dilute the power of the previous edition. One is the replacement of the original voice for uber-villain Jack of Blades—previously a creepy, almost effeminate voice—with a deeper, more conventional “villain” voice. I’m not sure what motivated this change, but the earlier iteration of Jack was far more unsettling and made for a more original bad guy; here, he seems like just another Fantasy Game Final Boss.
More critically—and those wishing to remain completely unspoiled should skip this paragraph—the new version of the story weakens the ending for the sake of game balance. The original Fable is a long journey towards a final choice: nearly limitless power, but at the cost of your soul. It’s a fascinating turn in the story, which can be appreciated or completely disregarded depending, again, on your emotional investment in the game. If you choose ultimate power and continue playing after the end credits roll (tip: to keep playing beyond the end, let the end credits run uninterrupted), you become essentially invincible—but must live with the consequences of your evil act. Choose good and you give up that power, but enable yourself to sleep peacefully that night. In Fable: The Lost Chapters, however, you can have it both ways, and neither; you’re rewarded no matter which way you choose, but the reward is watered down in a way that diminishes the original game’s impact.
The first and only version of Fable for the Windows platform, Fable: The Lost Chapters looks terrific, perhaps better than its Xbox counterpart. The richly detailed, autumnal landscapes and gorgeous artwork draw you effortlessly into the world of Albion. For those accustomed to the Xbox controls, the complex interface may take some getting used to, but is in some ways easier to navigate.
More than any RPG I’ve played to date, Fable excels at the crucial role-playing element that’s curiously missing from so many games in the genre. Designer Peter Molyneux, whose games can be visionary but wildly uneven (and which usually fall short of the pre-release hype), has created a game of depth rather than breadth. What it lacks in the vast openness of a game like Morrowind, it makes up for in its potential to capture some of the emotional experience of a pen-and-paper RPG. The hack-and-slash is there for the action fan (who can hack, slash, zap, and pierce his way through the game in a matter of days), but, for those interested in a deeper narrative, Fable offers a significant step forward in the evolution of the form.