[13 April 2010]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Fable 2 breaks tradition in the RPG genre by de-emphasizing combat to create a very robust play area for the player. The closest parallel that I can think of would be the Quest for Glory games, which layered a simplified RPG and character system onto the Sierra Online adventure game formula. Like the QfG games, Fable 2 is essentially driven by its story elements. The combat is an example of a simple but deep system that allows you to play just want to bash things with a store bought mace but adds enough that is interesting if you feel like coordinating weapons and magic. The story itself is a bit uneven because of the way that all of the sidequests are presented in an off beat or comical way while the main story has lots of tragedy and tear gushing moments, but then again, I just described the problem with every Western RPG of this generation. What makes Fable 2 interesting is how it grafts a simplified economy game into the usual combat and quests to blend together a full-scale hero simulation.
The basic principles of how Albion’s economy work goes like this: good economy = low cost and low rent, bad economy = high cost and high rent. The player is able to effect this in several ways. Buying goods from a store raises its value and the economy of the region, stealing from the shop or killing the owner lowers it. Just about every piece of property in the game can be purchased and the rates adjusted as the player sees fit. Houses and shops can be rented out to produce an annual income. Any extra terror or do-gooding that you add to the region also factors in. At the start of the game, you’re not going to have enough money to purchase anything except the cheaper stalls or gypsy wagons. You’re encouraged to just give it a try by buying one of these locations and then slowly noticing the benefits of rent being paid every 5 minutes. This is the basic foundation of the entire game and how you will be procuring goods until you hit the higher levels. You don’t harvest gold by killing monsters like you normally would in an RPG. Money can only be acquired by working a job, finding a chest, digging it up, selling crap, or through rent. So while at the beginning of the game you don’t really have to pay attention to anything except bashing stuff and grinding away as a Blacksmith, eventually you’re going to realize that it’s a lot more efficient to own property.
The reason this is a clever solution to an RPG economy is that it is substituting the traditional way of making money in an RPG (wanton slaughter) with one that operates in a passive manner. There’s no plausible reason why a random endangered animal would have a thousand bucks on it, but games do this because it makes fighting have multiple purposes outside of just leveling up. You’re getting items, you’re getting experience, and maybe some cash too. In Fable 2 when you own property you make money while dealing with the main story or side-quests just as much as you do looking for keys and treasure chests. Often in an RPG, a side quest that is frustrating or time consuming will seem like a waste because you’re not getting the same rewards that you’ve grown accustomed to. Final Fantasy mini-games like blitzball or the card game from VIII are a good example of RPGs changing things up, but they ask the player to drop everything and engage in a much less rewarding task. Although you eventually have to play these games to unlock people’s final weapons (or just get that guy with the cowboy hat decent bullets), they personally felt tedious and distracting when I played these games. The benefits of the economic system of Fable 2 come up the most with the job options that are made available to the player. Like the Final Fantasy mini-games, these don’t do anything except make the player some money. They all involve watching a white dot bounce around a U-bar as you try to land it on a small strip of green. It’s tedious, the reward is singular instead of accomplishing multiple goals at once, and it also requires you to stop progressing in other areas to do it. The game’s stacked rewards encourage the player to voluntarily engage with owning property because it’s the most efficient decision.
Once engaged with prices and maintaining a steady supply of gold, Fable 2 is really clever about building in a lot of money sinks (so that you need the cash) that also build back into multiple rewards and a sense of progress. In a blog post, Corvus Elrod highlights the way that fame and interacting with NPC’s work together, “To truly make an impact on the populace, and to reap the rewards of discounts at shops and frequent presents, you have to actually pay attention to, and manipulate, your public personae. A selfless hero might slay a cruel bandit and keep mum about it. People will be appreciative, but they won’t be quite so adoring–so shamelessly in awe. But spend time making a connection with them, or bragging to them, or intimidating them, and suddenly they’re deeply invested in your behaviors” (”Fable 2: Emotaphors”, Semionaut’s Notebook, 10 November 2008). To maximize your price advantage, when you meet a vendor you break out the expression wheel and brag about your past quests. As soon as you finish a big mission, it’s always a good idea to spread the word to get free items and deals. Money sinks like statues that spread your fame or paying bards to sing about you are all ways to get the player investing in themselves in ways beyond just leveling up.
Another example is the family system, in which the game allows you to get married and have children. Spouses must be placed in a home that you buy and be given an allowance to keep them happy and loving you. The same applies to your children, who will often complain about your house if it’s too shabby or will demand toys. Naturally you can choose to ignore all of this, but engaging with the complexity of finding a spouse and supporting them can cost you a fortune in gifts, dressing the part, and then paying for them on an allowance that hits with the same regularity as the rent being paid. The game makes sure that you’re going to be sinking money through a variety of methods but makes sure to leave many of these up to the player.
To make sure the economic system remains vibrant and engaging, the game has several freakishly long time gaps to allow for feedback to occur. You can see the changes that your actions have brought to Albion over a long period of time. Smash up Old Bowerstone as a kid and when you come back later, the town will fall into ruin. Help the business owners and local sheriff, and it will boast a profitable economy. After your extended vacation to the Spire, you can cause a similar effect in Westcliff if you invest money in the region through a side quest. All of this changes the quests you can find and how much property can be purchased in a region. The economic system is not something that you just fidget with to get more money, it bleeds into other areas of the game including the story itself.
Ultimately, trying to approach Fable 2 like an RPG is just going to leave a player disappointed. The game isn’t really about empowerment or becoming a hero in the traditional grind and reward sense. It’s about the concept of being a hero in relation to the land and people. The economic system of the game is well made through these alternative ways to accumulate money and power, but in the end, what it really does is get the player to interact with the world of Fable 2. Buying property and adjusting rates does more than just let you buy that Superior Mace, it has a direct impact on the people’s lives that will make them like you or hate you more. This isn’t just choosing between killing an NPC or helping them, you can overcharge them for rent, destroy their hometown’s economy, or choose to save it. As Shamus Young aptly puts it in a post on his blog, “Yes, the villagers are reduced to little generic clockwork automatons with their love/hate sliders, and you don’t take them seriously as people. Because they’re toys. But they’re fun toys, and rounding them up and making them laugh or scream or yell is an amusing way to spend your time” (”Fable: The Good Parts”, Twenty Sided, 10 February 2009). In a weird way, Fable 2 is an interesting RPG because it’s about the social aspects of being a hero instead of just being about killing things.