Forced Politics in ‘Fable 3’

Last week I wrote about Fable 3 and the forced choices we’re faced with as we fight our way to the crown, this week I want to write about the forced choices that we’re faced with as king.

As king, the game presents you with a series of good and evil choices, so on the surface, it looks like you’re choosing whether to be a good or evil king: Choose between forcing child labor or building a school, building an orphanage or building a whorehouse, dumping sewage on the poor or building sewage plant. By this point in the game, you’ve probably already decided what kind of king you’re going to be, good or evil, so your answer to these binary options is obvious. You’ve probably already made the decision without even seeing the question.

But the game adds a twist to things: Everything costs money or at least all the “good” things cost money. The game seems to expect that you’ll be working with a limited amount of funds, since every time you spend money your butler talks as if it were a major financial undertaking. However, it’s easy to game the system: Earn lots of coin from real estate and then donate it all to the kingdom’s treasury. As if to fight against this loophole, Lionhead forces you to make a series of decisions in quick succession, while holding back as much information as possible until the last second.

For example, your first choice as king is whether or not to lower taxes. If you want to be a good king, you’ll lower the taxes because that’s the good option. This completely drains the treasury, and then you’re immediately asked to build a school. Of course, you can’t do that since you just drained the treasury. Even if you have millions in your personal account, that money isn’t in the treasury so it can’t be spent. The game then forces you to take the evil option and institute child labor.

Many future choices follow this structure, so the central conflict within each choice isn’t “good vs. evil,” it’s “good vs. money.” By not allowing you to refill the treasury between decisions, the game is trying to trick you into going broke. In this regard the game’s moral seems to be “trying to help everyone prevents you from helping anyone,” but it never fully explores this idea because it keeps throwing binary good/evil decisions at you. If you do go broke, it’s not enough for Lionhead that you can’t pick the good option, you must also pick the evil option. If you can’t be good you must be evil, there’s no in-between, and since the game constantly tries to trick you into going broke it also seems like it’s trying to trick you into being evil.

The game’s definition of evil is also problematic since it implies that defense spending is tyrannical. Choosing the evil options will let you save money for defense, but people will comment that you’re becoming like your brother, who was portrayed as the ultimate tyrant. This simplified definition of evil prevents the game from ever becoming a meaningful political simulator. Fable 3 thinks that the main conflict that you should face as king is deciding between spending on national defense and spending on social services, as evidenced by your butler’s insistence that you’ve doomed the populace every time that you spend money on a social service. But the game portrays defense spending in such an abstract way that the idea never fully becomes part of Fable 3’s thematic focus. The topic of Albion’s defense is never brought up when you’re making royal decrees, instead you’re just told that saving money somehow equals defense spending. The loading screen constantly tells you to save 6.5 million coins in order to save every citizen from the impending attack, and that’s the only time national defense is specifically mentioned in all your time as king.

The game needed to make this conflict more obvious. Instead of having me choose between building a school or forcing child labor, it should have made me choose between building a school or a military fort, between an orphanage or stronger guns. This change (in addition to getting rid of the binary morality) would encourage players to act on their own political ideology in determining the future of Albion since there’s no obvious right choice. Spend on defense and have the people hate you, or spend on services and have the people die?

The basic structure of Fable 3 is incompatible with its own ambitions as a political simulator. It relies too much on simple good/evil choices, which prevent it from being able to explore the morally grey realm of politics. This structure has worked for the Fable series in the past, but in this case, it seems that Lionhead bit off more than they were willing to chew.