If you listen to The Inner Circle podcast then you may have heard several members of our team speculate on the future of the Fable franchise – a series of fantasy RPG games that are exclusive to the Xbox ecosystem. While it has not yet been officially announced, we know that the latest game in the series is in development; probably by one of Microsoft’s newer studios, Playground Games. Given the fact that this will be the first Fable to be produced since the closure of Lionhead Studios – the original creator of the series – longtime fans of the franchise and newer Xbox players alike are wondering if the trademark quirky humor will in fact be present in the remake. Indeed, a couple members on our own podcast team have expressed a desire for the more comical aspects of Fable to discarded in favor of a “darker” and “mature” storyline (whatever terms such as those mean in the context of video games).
I happen to disagree with my colleagues on this matter. Indeed, Fable must keep its British humor as it is a major part of its identity in my opinion.
A Meal Without Seasoning
Imagine sitting down to enjoy a heaping plate of your favorite meal. You have been looking forward to this meal all week and now you finally take a bite and realize it tastes quite bland. The cook then informs you that no seasonings or flavorings were used when preparing your meal. No garlic or cilantro or basil. No pepper. Not even a pinch of salt. Your meal may satisfy your hunger and it could even be nutritious. However, it just doesn’t have the flavor that you know could have been there.
Hansel and Gretel
If the food analogy doesn’t quite work then let us take a look at a very old story – Hansel and Gretel. I chose this story because prolific horror writer Stephen King one mentioned it when making a similar point regarding his novel The Stand and it applies to Fable as well. In the classic fairly tale the poor children Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their parents in the middle of a dense forest because the mother believes they cannot make it through a famine with extra mouths to feed. The children find their way back home the first time because Hansel had left a trail of pebbles that he and his sister could follow back home. Enraged at being thwarted, the mother demands that the children be taken into the forest again. This time Hansel grabs a piece of bread and leaves a trail of crumbs as he walks into the forest. Alas, the breadcrumbs were eaten by birds and the children have no path to follow this time.
As King points out, it was completely unnecessary for Hansel to leave the trail of breadcrumbs. After all, they were of no help to the children and had literally no impact on the story – it would have ended exactly the same way even if Hansel had never brought that piece of bread with him. However, this little detail adds texture to the world within the story. It shows how persistent Hansel is and details like these add immersion to the world.
In the Fable games, the world of Albion is filled with little details that do not impact the plot of the story. You can beat the game without kicking a single chicken or making a pub bet or even getting married. However, all of these activities add more texture to the world of Albion just as breeding flowers in Animal Crossing or harassing cuccos in several The Legend of Zelda games serve to flesh out those respective worlds. The Grand Theft Auto series is another fine example – those games typically have several activities a player can pursue even if they are not required to beat the game. You can become a taxi driver, a fire fighter or a crime fighter. You can work on car collections or scour the tiniest corners of the city in search of hidden items. If these small details were not present in the games they would still be quite enjoyable games just as Hansel and Gretel would be a perfectly serviceable story without the bread crumbs subplot but their respective worlds would lose some detail and texture and become a little more bland. Our immersion would be a little less than it could be.
The Importance of Levity
More than once I have heard members of The Inner Circle podcast express a desire for a Fable game with a “dark” and “mature” plot. I am somewhat puzzled by this as the original Fable game (spoiler warning!) had a story that wasn’t exactly cheerful and bright – a child who survives the destruction of his family and village, spends a lengthy amount of time as an imprisoned adult and whose mother was killed in a major battle. How those are not mature story elements is beyond me but I am assuming that by “dark” these people mean violence, dreary settings and miserable people who are just a hair’s breadth away from being beaten, raped or killed.
I actually have no objection to this. Many RPGs have similar dark elements within their respective stories. However, retaining the traditional British humour of Fable does not have to undermine the darker aspects of the game’s plot. Quite the opposite; as many writers know, adding levity to a grim story can help to make the darker plot points more accessible to the audience. As one writer puts it, “…if your stories are too dark, audiences will have no one to root for and nothing to hope for. If nearly everyone is horrible and we know that everything will end in misery and/or death, the only reason to keep watching is sheer morbid fascination – and that’s not going to hold many people.”
Life is not so extreme. In our most joyous moments there can be tragic elements and even when things are at their darkest we can often find something to laugh about. By creating a world with only “dark” elements that are there simply for the sake of being dark then that place becomes less believable and the game will suffer as a result.
Fable needs to keep its British humour as it is (and has always been) a vital element of the series. The more comedic aspects of the game do not take away from the dark elements but they add texture and detail to the world – vitally important things for an RPG. Without the humour, Fable becomes a lite copy of modern RPG games with a diminished sense of identity.