Every writer has that major influence/inspiration that they forget about. As I’ve started my next novel and gotten into a good groove with these articles, I have come to realize that my influence isn’t the “Tolkein, Rothfuss, etc…” that many authors cite. No, it’s worse.
It’s Lionhead Studios.
Fable, a series of action rpgs that combine elements of the Sims, “moral choices”, and dog petting simulators, is one of those games that you either love or hate. For me, I’m of the love category. Over the years, Fable’s quirks, names, and other minor references have bubbled to the surface when I need a name like Teresa, for example, and you don’t remember them. But at the core, Fable is actually a well done fantasy setting.
Entrenched in the genre, but with enough self-awareness and mixture of tragedy and comedy, Fable is a wonderful setting with a veneer of quirky humor hiding what is actually dark setting.
At the core, the Fable series concerns the Black family’s (Not Sirius Black) struggles and tribulations over the centuries in a thinly veiled alternate United Kingdom. Fable mixes British, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh mythology in a traditional but unique context. Make no mistake, this is a classic fairy-tale in the vein of the Brothers Grimm. Don’t mistake the stylized art style.
Fable is dark.
Fable: The original 2004 game is as classic as it gets. You, a farm boy from the sleepy village of Oaksvale, are the only survivor of your hometown. From there, you join the Heroes’ Guild, a mercenary school for gifted humans where they either become heroes or villains, for some odd reason. The game is about your rise to fame, uncovering your family’s secret past, and fighting the equivalent of Satan in the setting. And you know what? It was awesome. The game was always self-aware, mocking its own traditions, the psychotic nature of adventurers, and the game’s own story.
Also, Jack of Blades is a great villain. The tapestry style narration, the surprisingly poignant endings about heroism, villainy, redemption, corruption, actually works well. And Fable is that…a fable.
Fable II: Underrated game. The second picks up 500 years later. Heroes are dead, after the general populace got fed up with their mercurial nature, and the term Hero is blacklisted. You, a street urchin, along with your sister Rose, live on the streets. A mysterious blind seer asks that you buy a music box (the Macguffin of the game), and sets in motion another revenge against the antagonist, Lucien Fairfax, a somewhat sympathetic anti-villain who goes nuclear by the end of the game, and the rebirth of Heroes. A dog, a marriage system, promises kept (kind of), also, it did the late 1700s/early 1800s setting long before A Darker Shade of Magic, the Thousand Names, etc. The game mixes guns and martial weapons. The game’s quirky humor shines through, the endings are meh but had potential, and it’s not that bad of a game.
Also, friggin Reaver. Stephen Fry is amazing as the token villain of your group.
Fable III: Set in a vaguely 1850s-1860s esque world where Heroes are dead, industry has arrived, and your father, the previous Hero/protagonist, is dead. Your brother, Lucien, has become a mad despot, attempts to kill you out of paranoia, and thus begins your counter-revolution to seize the throne of Albion along with your father’s “advisor”, Theresa, and a motley crew of soldiers, political activists, foreign mystics, and a particularly dashing man of industry (REAVERRRR). The game is ok. It expands the world, brings back elements of the previous story, and essentially ends the trilogy. There’s a lot of dangling plot threads. And Fable the Journey is just meh.
The highlights of the setting:
Theresa (Black): Forget Flemeth, Theresa is the original enigmatic video-game manipulator (Only Kreia does it better, and she’s in a league of her own). Sometimes your sister, sometimes your creepy ass grandaunt, and never quite on your side. Theresa is an amazing character. She’s snarky, erudite, doesn’t take shit from any of the characters, and legitimately terrorizes the greater villains/protagonists. She also gives a damn about her descendants and their well-being in her own way. She rarely judges you, rather, she is a classic mentor who guides you to do what you think is necessary/right. She’s pretty much the Devil’s Advocate. She’s influenced certain characters in my own work, and goddammit, bring her back.
Reaver: Ahh, Reaver. Stephen Fry does a great job bringing to life this backstabbing but utterly charming bastard of an ally/antagonist character. Both a threat and an ally at times, Reaver is an unrepentant narcissistic monster (he sacrifices people’s youth to maintain his own with a shady group called the Shadow Court). But he’s also utterly charming in his own demented way, pragmatic to a fault, and he is a badass. The guy can kill people with trickshots out of Equilibrium.
Humor: Fable always had a British sense of humor. Characters mock the more ridiculous elements of fantasy, while still playing many of them straight. The blend of tragedy with ridiculousness (You can run around in a chicken suit while fighting to save a village from a mad Balverine). The games very much feel like a homage/in-joke to tabletop. There’s even a sidequest where you play an 1850s version of DND. You fight flaming chickens, robotic dogs, and it’s all in good fun. Fable’s humor can be off-beat/offensive, but the game’s always taken things in stride.
Art Style: Fable always had its own style. The art team at Lionhead’s exaggerated realism, hint of character, and alternate United Kingdom/Earth had this darkly comedic tone to it. Characters had attitude, the world has certain symbology that bled into it over time. And it worked. I really loved the team’s approach to their world.
Lore: Despite Dark Souls’ item description lore being, Fable I-II did this years before, with a darkly comedic opposite angle. And Albion/the greater world does have a rich history. Much of it is off-key, regional sidestories, references to the Void, the Old Kingdom, the ancient Archons, Heroes, even why chickens are monsters. Miremoor, Samarakand, Albion, Aurora, the greater world existed and still does. Fable’s world is dark but often approached with a wink and a nod, while still retaining a sense of wonder/whimsy without going to ridiculous.
And the world changed. Monsters were driven underground, industrilization led to the irrelevance of Heroes, the old order died. I think Fable hit a roadblock by advancing too far from 1-2.
As Microsoft announces a new Fable, I’m hoping they bring on most of Lionhead’s senior staff or key personnel to help retain its identity. Fable needs modernization, a better combat system, but its core charm comes from its gestalt, not its individual parts.