“Hello Salad Dodger”. Funny the things you remember. Your first kiss. Rio carnival 2007. Or that time the entire population of Albion fat-shamed you in a video game. So went my first impressions of Fable 2, and it’s fair to say I was hooked at first slight. With the renewal of Fable’s IP by publisher Microsoft, the memories come flooding back.
Not that I condone unrealistic body expectations, particularly in your preferred escapist habitat. Suffice to say that ended my first adventure, unable to watch my portly protagonist waddle into battle any longer. But I was hooked, and roughly 30 hours later my suitably swole warrior having slayed his last, the credits rolled on my second playthrough.
You see, that was the magic of Fable. It was the first time I had experience choice, and consequence in gaming. Actions your character undertakes in-game really do impact your experience. Complete heroic deeds and you get a cool nickname. Eat too much cheese, however, and you develop a paunch with calls of “salad dodger” haunting your dreams well into your 30s. Art imitating life a little too readily if you ask me. Just imagine that mechanic in Skyrim! Unthinkable.
Memories fade, but the magic remains
I don’t remember much else about the mechanics. There was a dedicated fart emote, a slathering of dubious English voice acting and a dog, I think. But none of that matters one jot. What I remember is how it made me feel. Back then no-scoping in COD was the limit of my digital imagination, a KD ninja seeking the perfect streak (yawn). But Fable opened my eyes to something richer, something almost meaningful in a game. As an introduction to Action RPG, it was a near-perfect first-time experience.
With the recent renewal of the Fable IP by Microsoft, I decided to don my RTX-tinted specs and cast my giddy mind back to those early, halcyon days and ask myself; where did it all go wrong for the Fable franchise? So strap yourself in. There are more ups and downs in this journey than my present-day relationship to salad.
And so, our story begins
Lionhead Studio first revealed the first Fable game in 2004, with the code name “Project Ego”. A suitable name indeed, perhaps the residing head of Lionhead Peter Molenyex had his crystal ball that day. It was a highly anticipated release, on the back of the critical acclaim of Black and White, and in no small part to Molenyex’s penchant for pizazz.
Despite the overzealous marketing, it hit the mark. With witty humour, British charm a dazzling soundtrack and the promise of real choice Fable launched to critical acclaim. Sales were through the roof. Over at Microsoft, gears were shifting ominously.
Microsoft acquires Lionhead
Following financial difficulty in 2005, Microsoft took its opportunity and acquired Lionhead, and as night follows day the sequel trailer for Fable 2 aired at E3 2006 to riotous applause. The release followed in 2008 on the Xbox 360, with the inimitable Russell Shaw once again providing the score.
Presented 500 years after the first game, Fable 2 took choice further still, boasting the option of raising a family, investing in property, earning money though jobs and playing pub games. The writing was stellar, the quests varied and rewarding all underpinned by that cheeky tone of voice that won hearts and minds four years earlier. 3.5 million copies sold, champagne was quaffed, handshakes all round. But dark clouds were gathering in Albion…
Three’s a crowd
Just one year later, drunk on success, Microsoft announced Fable 3 at Gamescom 2009. Queue the hype train. Choo choo, Molyneux, choo choo.
True to form, a slew of promises were made to fans that didn’t materialise, and this time it would need more than a golden acorn to save the title. Despite a decent critical reception, the failure to iterate on Fable 2, a tedious menu system and a very repetitive end-game fans were left wanting. Microsoft, ever the humanitarian publisher, did the only decent thing. The horse was dying, so the flogging began.
Things go from bad to worse. Enter Project Netal, aka Fable Kinect, which even Molyneux later described as a train wreck. Released as Fable “The Journey”, pairing with the disastrous Kinect meant that the game simply didn’t work, and that’s something not even a dedicated fart emote can salvage. Destructoid said at the time,
“Altogether it’s evident that Lionhead worked hard on this latest Fable adventure. That does not mean, however that it’s good. Far from it. As much as Lionhead may have tried its level best, the limitations of Kinect ensure, at every step, that The Journey is boring when it works and tear-educing when it doesn’t”.Destructoid, Oct 2012
Amidst mixed reviews (61 on metacritic) sales flopped. Things were not looking great.
Our adventure comes to a close
Despite the success of the original trilogy’s re-master in Fable Anniversary, released 2014, the worst was yet to come. Microsoft, desperate to capitalise on the growing popularity of Destiny and GTA online, pushed the studio to develop an all-online, asymmetric cooperative game, later named Fable Legends.
This is ambitious by today’s standards, and few have achieved the masterful balance required to nail that illusive formula. Lionhead was sadly ill-equipped, and the game never passed closed beta. In 2016 the towel was officially thrown in, and amidst a mass exodus of Lionhead employees citing Molyneux’s haphazard leadership, Microsoft closed the studio for good.
When all else is gone, hope alone remains
With the closure of the studio, all hope was lost of a return to the formula that had so enrapture imagination back in 2004. But the night is darkest just before the dawn. Hope for the hard-core fan, it seems, is a stubborn mistress.
Fast forward to 2018 and this deleted tweet by former Lionhead employee emerged,
“mmm Ok, having no inside information I totally know who’s building Fable 4 now. Interesting choice…”@donzaniod, Jan 6th 2018.
Suddenly, the Internet was abuzz with rumour and speculation, tugging desperately at the collective tendrils of hope still draped over the all but stone-cold corpse of Lionhead. From nowhere, Playground Games of Forza Horizon success posted a job listing, saying,
“You’ll join the team and the project at an early stage, giving you the rare opportunity to shape the future of an exciting, large scale open world action / RPG AAA title from the outset.”Playground Games, 2018
Soon followed by a number of enigmatic tweets by Phil Spencer enticing a now captive audience to believe, please believe in the franchise beyond Lionhead studios. Eurogamer followed in ravenous pursuit, claiming to have uncovered a new Fable project under the watchful stewardship of Playground. It said,
“This new fable is seen as something of a clean break, and while all Fable Legends assets were backed up after Lionhead shut down, the expectation is Playground is starting from scratch as it bids to revive the Xbox-exclusive franchise.”Eurogamer, Jan 2018
Rumours of the potential multiplayer surface on Reddit, and in September 2019 key writers from Arkham Knights renown were hired by Playground. Speculation that writers of that quality would unlikely turn their intellectual weight to a racing game, only one possibility remained; Fable 4 was well and truly on the way.
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it
Fast-forward to today, and as Microsoft renew the Fable IP it seems that Fable 4 may well be the worst kept secret in the industry. It’s important to note that publishers renewing IP is fairly standard practice. What is more telling is the addition of an “intent to use” tag on the renewal. Following the creation of a so far dormant Fable Twitter account back in March 2020, it seems that in the context of so much evidence, the obvious conclusion is hard to deny. We await the upcoming Xbox Live event this July at the very edge of our collective seat.
So Fable Four is coming, but what form it takes is still something of an unknown. With Microsoft’s acquisition of Playground, and with rife speculation of multiplayer, a dangerous pattern from a not so distant history emerges. Greedy ambition pushed Fable’s previous caretaker too far once, and like a modern-day Icarus, in soaring too close to the sun Lionhead’s wings were burnt.
This too is new territory for Playground, and a far cry from racing simulators.
A welcome return to form
With the ever increasing rise in popularity of single-player, action RPGs we hope that a return to the original, much loved formula is at the heart of the project.
But it’s been almost 10 years since the last, true Fable title, perhaps long enough to temper the disappointment felt by a once fiercely loyal fan base. True too that Fable has always been a softer take on the action RPG genre, and there’s a whole legion of new gamers come of beginning to tire of the ever decreasing dopamine feed from their FPS of choice. It worked for me early in the millennia, and perhaps one less COD player in the world isn’t such a bad thing.
So bring on the fart emote, line up your chickens (to kick), brush up on your cockney, and prepare to dodge some serious salad. It’s time to return to Albion once again. Probably.
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