Ruling Albion in ‘Fable 3’ is Terrible Gameplay and Worse Storytelling

This discussion of Fable 3 does contain spoilers.

It’s no spoiler to say that at a certain point in Fable 3, your character becomes monarch of Albion. The fact that you’ll get to make royal decisions and decrees and manage the kingdom was one of the features that Peter Molyneux was talking up from the beginning of its marketing. The other big selling point in the advertisement for the game was the concept of revolution. And, as advertised, the game’s story does center around you starting a revolution against your tyrannical brother, but it is a revolution that you have no control over. There are allies to be won, but you can’t choose them (with one exception, who doesn’t end up affecting the game or story at all). To win those allies, you have to make promises. You have to make them. The game won’t proceed unless you make the promises that it demands of you. And while there are sections that allow for broad freedom, during which you can pursue side quests as you please, at a certain point you have to go off on a foolhardy expedition that makes no sense at all. Though the plot clearly needs this expedition badly, you have no say in the matter. You don’t really even have the option to fail.

It’s an odd and frustrating decision, since in other areas of gameplay, Fable 3 floods you with choices. There are homes and businesses spread out through Albion’s towns and neighborhoods, and if you’ve got the cash, you can buy them all. You then can adjust rents and prices as you see fit and are responsible for the upkeep on the homes that you’re renting out. You can later sell pieces of your real estate empire back, hopefully at a profit. There’s also an ability to buy trade goods at low prices in one town and sell them elsewhere where demand is higher. None of this is central or even necessary to play the game and in some ways feels like a remnant from Fable 2, but having that passive income stream is useful, and I enjoyed becoming a property magnate in both games. I felt very much in control of both my personal wealth and my obligations to the community.

Fable 3 has earned my everlasting enmity for abandoning this level of choice and sophistication when I finally ascended to the throne, arguably the moment when it would have been most interesting. The “choice free” revolution complete, the game now presents a series of the most ridiculously binary decisions imaginable. Sure I can micromanage rents on houses, but the only options that I get for issuing a national tax policy are High, Low, or The Same. Of course, the same tax rate has to apply across the board, no progressive tax scheme here. Oh yeah, and I can only set it once, right at the beginning. I can turn a factory into a school or employ children to work in it. No offering those beggars jobs in it.

The game sets a one year clock on your reign, during which time you must raise a specific, very high amount of cash in order to ensure your kingdom’s maximal safety. After that, you’re left with a series of options, most of which boil down to be good and spend money or be bad and save money. But the bad options are so impossibly bad and the good options usually so clearly good that the choices never feel anything but absurd. It doesn’t help that you’re forced to have the evil industrialist Reaver as the head of your economy. This alone killed much of the pleasure of the game for me. While you get to choose life or death for your deposed brother, Reaver must live, despite his murderous, evil actions earlier in the game. The game doesn’t even address this issue, much less giving you an option to punish him. It’s a tremendous failing of storytelling on Fable 3‘s part, another body blow to any illusion of monarchical control that the game might have been trying to achieve.

The reason for the one year time limit is an impending danger, one that all the important people in your kingdom are aware of — in particular those to whom you were forced to make all those promises. Instead of rallying the country together in the face of doom like Winston Churchill facing the Nazis, you’re left unable to take any initiative at all. There’s no hint of taking war time economic measures or even of making any policy decisions that directly relate to the crisis at hand. With it’s annoying and puerile fixation on binary extremes, Fable 3 doesn’t simulate ruling a kingdom in the slightest. Instead it comes off as a poorly-made morality play or Choose Your Own Adventure book. It all boils down to a numbers game, and in the end, even that doesn’t really end up mattering or being expressed in anything but a few lines of dialog as the game wraps up.

And that wrap up comes suddenly and without warning. The one control that you do have over the economy is donating your personal wealth to the crown treasury. So, I was milking my holdings for all they were worth, planning to maximize profits and then sell everything off at the last moment so I could save the most citizens. I’ll bet others had the same strategy (because it just makes sense). However, there’s no predictability to the rate at which that last year ticks away. The story went from having 120 days left in the year straight to end of game with no warning or opportunity to do anything else. It was a terrible disappointment, ameliorated in the end only by the fact that it didn’t really seem to matter much how many people I save after all.

The addition of these ruling elements were supposed to be Fable 3‘s big innovation, and they have proven to be its biggest disappointment. The game sparkles and glows and offers many fine moments, but it fails most where it should have excelled.