Fable is best remembered for the disastrous, over-the-top promises made by its designer Peter Molyneux. But maybe, Adam Goodall argues, we’re remembering it all wrong.
“There is something I have to say. And I have to say it because I love making games.” So opens an October 2004 post on the Lionhead Studios forum written by the studio’s Managing Director Peter Molyneux. Lionhead’s just released Fable, an ambitious roleplaying game for the Xbox, but there’s been a lot of anger online about the game being significantly less ambitious than what Lionhead – well, just Molyneux, really – had promised.
In this post-release forum post, Molyneux apologises for saying that Fable would have features that ultimately didn’t make it into the game. “For example,” he writes, “ three years ago I talked about trees growing as time past. [sic]” Specifically, Molyneux had infamously told the press that you’d be able to plant an acorn and, over the course of your game, watch it grow into a towering oak tree. The acorns didn’t make it into the finished game.
Molyneux was notorious for his hyperbole, for promising the world with every new game, but the acorns – and all the other ‘promises’ Molyneux had made in the lead-up to Fable – were the breaking point. Fans who had tolerated Molyneux’s blue-sky marketing strategy turned on him. “That one line then changed people’s perceptions of me,” Molyneux told Kotaku reporter Jason Schreier in a sympathetic-yet-skeptical 2014 profile titled ‘The Man Who Promised Too Much’. “I became someone who promised acorns that didn’t grow into trees.”
People turned on Fable too, and the acorns have long polluted our cultural memory of the series as a whole. Basically every piece about Fable ever written opens with the damn acorns. The acorns stood in for the gulf between ‘the game we were sold’ and ‘the game we bought’. Fable was going to be big: it was going to be a roleplaying game on a scale hitherto unheard of, spanning birth to death, mixing Molyneux’s love for life simulators with grand fantasy worldbuilding and adventure. We were sold a game with incredible scope, but the game we all bought was feeble and small. Or so the story goes.
That’s not how I remember Fable. I bought the game on release, fifteen years ago. I was fourteen years old and I promptly got lost in it. I meandered around the game’s little cul-de-sacs of everyday life, getting haircuts and getting married and becoming a landlord. I wandered down country lanes and forest tracks, these clean corridors carved out of distinctly English woods, saving random traders from wasps and bandits.
I couldn’t have been less interested in the comings and goings of the central story: the apocalyptic return of Jack of Blades, the grand prophecy with me at the centre, the moral choices I could make that would change the world. I was more interested in the little comedies on the margins: getting a silly moustache so I could marry Beardy Baldy’s daughter, farting on a bully so he’ll leave a homeless man alone. You know, that sophisticated, highbrow British humour we all love.
Fable’s charm lies not in its sprawl, but in its smallness. In contrast to other RPGS I played during those years, RPGs like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Fable is a pretty parochial fantasy. Albion is small and narrow and broken up by loading gates, turning each chunk of forest into a little dungeon to brawl your way through. Ruins, demon doors and statues of ancient heroes tower over you and take up massive amounts of space, dwarfing you on your journey.
These monuments tell you about histories and legends that seem utterly fantastical compared to the world you live in. They’re out of step with Albion, where even the biggest towns are small and everybody knows who you are, clapping or cowering or yelling “HE DOESN’T LOOK MUCH LIKE A CHICKEN CHASER TO ME” as you walk past. The game’s much-vaunted moral choices are entirely binary and, as Christian Donlan writes in his 2018 Fable retrospective for Eurogamer, wholly “aesthetic, even sartorial.” You get horns and people get scared of you or you get a nice holy aura and women get hearts above their heads for you.
Even so, when I played Fable I struggled to make evil choices. That’s because you don’t really spend a lot of time surrounded by serious heroes and grim villains, the kind of larger-than-life figures who make it easier to act out. Instead, you spend most of your time with the everyday townsfolk and the goofy-looking traders, and they all talk in sing-song Somerset accents about low-key problems like finding a teddy bear or falling in love or getting a beer with an umbrella in it. I never wanted to hurt these people. I would shoplift, break down doors and steal books from bookshelves, but I would never kill them on purpose.
(We’re going to skip over the time I killed everyone in Knothole Glade and bought all their houses so I could rent them at a massive profit to new residents, except to say that being a landlord is a terrible terrible drug and if you know a landlord, please stage an intervention.)
Albion is also pretty easy to get around. Fable simply isn’t interested in challenging you as you walk from town to town. Enemy encounters are signposted well in advance. Combat is a bunch of simple combos, dodges and combat multipliers. You can get a one-hit-kill headshot with any kind of bow, even Yew Longbow you get given by the Guildmaster. And if you need an extra edge, you can buy expensive late-game weapons as soon as you reach the first town… as long as you have fifteen minutes to play Card Pairs at the local tavern.
I returned to Fable the other day, 15 years later, and found myself back at that Card Pairs table: the Gamesmaster cheerily chanting “How about another game?” at the end of every round, the occasional lad turning up and pointing me out to his friend, “There’s that Chicken Chaser.” I’d spent ages at this table when I was a teenager, racking up money so I could decorate my Bowerstone home and buy a Master Longsword and get some new tattoos. It was cozy and charming and familiar – far more familiar to me than the journey of the Hero of Oakvale, the fraught moral choices and grand fantasy cliches delivered in a sober monotone.
I didn’t find Fable’s charm in the Arena or the Chamber of Fates or any of the other fate-of-the-world battlegrounds. I didn’t find excitement and life in its promise that you could mould the entire world in your image. Instead, I found those things at the Card Pairs table in the Bowerstone tavern, at the tattooist’s in Knothole Glade, by the lake in Orchard Farm, at the trader camp in Darkwood.
The wild ambition and painful hubris, the acorns that never grew into oak trees, are a fascinating part of the game’s history, but there’s more to Fable than that. Fable is charming and lively and exciting when it’s small and cozy and funny, when it lets you live a day-to-day fantasy life that’s personal to you. A decade and a half after everyone first got mad about acorns, that’s what sticks with me. That’s what stands the test of time.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.