Fable 3 is a power fantasy. It doesn’t shy away from showing you an easy, unchallenging Albion. It doesn’t shy away from giving you easy opt-outs from its mediocre moral dilemmas. It doesn’t shy away from failing to throw major obstacles in your path. It’s just easy.
And that’s at the heart of Fable 3’s problems. It’s a simplistic, unassuming, unthinking piece of entertainment. If it had hoped to reach for something more, then it failed.
You play as the Prince – or Princess – of a Kingdom that’s already experiencing an Ozymandian downfall. The Golden Age of Industry has come to Albion; alongside it are the choking cities, the long hours, and the grimness and the greyness of the soot and musk of dirty industry. People are whispering of change amidst protests and suppressing fire.
As the younger sibling, a harsh choice hits you early in the game, forcing you to leave your brother’s tightening grip. With the support of the old monarch’s advisor (Walter), and your personal butler (Jasper), the three of you disappear into the night. Your plan is simple: marshal your powers, cultivate what little Hero blood you have to potent effect, and rally an army that can oppose Logan.
It’s time to take down Albion.
As you go from place to place, you find people disenfranchised by the various policies Logan has contrived. From the beginning, you have a general idea of the suffering and mistakes your brother’s been making. On your journey, you see the specifics. You see how it’s affected people.
From place to place, you work hard to gain their trust. In return, they form a haphazard military force that seeks to take down your brother’s iron mantle.
And…well, it sorta works. Fable 3 is surprisingly unlike Fable 1 and 2. Whereas you fight against impossible odds in Fable 1 and 2, you’re told you’re facing impossible odds in Fable 3, but you don’t actually experience those odds. The game lavishes you with the pompous support of your regality, and while from place to place you’re praised or feared, you’re never really mocked.
The struggles of your hero (known as the Hero of Brightwall) aren’t really struggles – they’re small snippets, tales that don’t play and move at the right paces to fit the story. There’s not much of a challenge in anything at all. The hardest thing I came across was the shooting gallery, and that took no more than an hour and a half to complete. There’s no challenge, no puzzles, nothing. Just a half-cocked journey. You go from inconvenienced Prince or Princess to the Hero of Brightwall, but there’s never a moment where all things seem lost – never truly.
When you go to Aurora, Walter becomes blinded by the Darkness. In that moment, he begs you with frailty in his voice, “Leave me be! Leave me behind.” But no matter what you choose, the same relationship remains and the Aurorans rescue Walter. There’s no sense of loss.
In Fable 2, whether you help Oakfield or not determines whether it exists. Whether or not you invested in Barnum’s ventures determines the wellbeing of whole towns. There’s no such consequence in Fable 3. It all works out, one way or another.
And that sort of tempers the game’s arc word: Revolution. Revolution, revolution, revolution, revolution. That word is everywhere.
It’s splattered on the loading screens, it peppers the dialogue of NPCs, and it’s constantly on Walter’s tongue. Revolution. This kingdom needs a revolution. We need a full scale revolution. Let’s start this revolution.
But it isn’t one. Lionhead has a perfunctory understanding of a revolution at best. I can understand its intended imagery: the throngs of Dickensian suffering thrown down and cast aside by the benevolence of its new monarch. How glorious and bright is He (or She)! How compassionate!
But revolutions are dirty, filthy, hugely institutional things. They change not only the people and their rulership, but its very fabric. It’s a normative, transformative action that’s as literal as it is symbolic. Fable 3 seems to be evoking images of the French Revolution: that egalitarian, liberating, and fraternizing vibe of the everyman fighting together in the face of seemingly immutable oppression. But it forgets the guillotines and the wars and the jockeying for power that came as a result of that struggle.
A real revolution – a hard, harsh revolution – could have made Fable 3 a game with compelling and intricate moral complexity. It’s weird. Fable 3 cleanly transitions from one monarch to another, with the people of Albion hoping – desperately – that you’re not a screwup. It’s a bit of a simplification for a nation’s people, even if that nation is fictional. It undermines their intelligence as characters, and until Lionhead takes the people’s intelligence seriously, then it can’t progress Fable as an intelligent, serious piece of work.
Fable 3’s talk of revolution and changes could have been something quite profound, and the moral choices developed in Fable and Fable 2 could have been polished to a mirror shine here. Many games look at the role of a ruler as someone far away, watching the many mites of people scurrying about in their domains. In Fable 3, the ruler is upfront and accessible, with people asking you for your wisdom.
It’s a Solomon-esque set of dilemmas, and Fable 3 could have expanded upon that to show humanity as a threat in itself. For instance, if we look at the Dwellers, they could have been encroaching on the territory of Brightwall, or you could have found them wanting to take revenge against the bandits that wronged them. As the monarch, you could have ruled on the nature of the Dwellers and what they could and could not do, thereby changing the permissions or alignment of certain groups. But it doesn’t do that. It doesn’t do any of that.
In Fable 3, the source of these moral dilemmas could have been the very people you attempted to help, and these promises could become antagonists themselves. Rulership is all about the economical relationship inherent in power: someone is going to lose while another gains. Why espouse choice when you don’t want your players to make the hard ones, the difficult ones?
Instead, Lionhead focused on the Crawler. A snarling, Lovecraftian being of seemingly insurmountable ability, the Crawler twisted the sands of Aurora and murdered many of its inhabitants, only to set its sights upon Albion. As the new monarch, the plot reveals that your brother’s policies were to prepare for its arrival. Inheriting a legacy of catastrophe, you have the choice to continue his policies and militarize or to fulfill your promises to utter ruin. It teases at this Machiavellian dimension, but it’s so rudimentary in its treatment of power theory that its binary choices are unrealistic.
Why couldn’t I galvanize the people of Albion, told everyone that Logan did it because of the invasion, and these policies must continue only for a short period of time? It’s shortsighted and poorly written: my various advisors argue for their own benefit while speaking of the Darkness in the same breath. Nobody seems to know what they’re doing or how to prioritize in the face of a looming catastrophe.
It preaches this twisted, moralistic pontification, but it does so through its own limited dichotomy. Fable 3 makes judgments of your character and your character’s character, but it does so by pressuring you through choices only it approves. It’s the Mafia Hypothesis in a game’s moral system, saying that you have to do this or that with no other option, and then it chastises you for choosing either.
I understand why the Crawler exists: the game needs some sort of end. It needs to have a penultimate tribulation that ultimately must be bested for a satisfying denouement. But it didn’t have to be an dimensional horror. It could have been someone else, something else. It could have been Reaver if you’re too nice or Walter if you’re too evil.
Admittedly, I’m spitballing here. But Fable 3’s second half is just so primitive in its choice system when it had such an immense amount of potential.
And no matter what happens, there’s no major impact. Walter dies anyways, you become vindicated through the success of militarism or the ruinous opulence of kindness, and the game…well, just sort of ends. There’s quests you can still do, but since the game drives on a renown system that’s no longer necessary, it lacks direction and focus to keep players coming back. It’s small stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, but they don’t have clear meanings. They lack the tiny snippets of humanity from the previous two. Many of them are just references.
Fable 3, as I said earlier, is a power fantasy. It’s not here to critically evaluate moral choices or to recall the darkness of inhumanity through political struggle. It doesn’t challenge you with tougher gameplay or exciting puzzles. It holds your hand every step of the way, throwing out the easiest obstacles I’ve ever faced in a long time. It’s… just… not… challenging. It’s mindless, brainless fun, but it’s built upon this narrative and ludic framework that gives it the potential to become something much more clever and challenging.
Fable won me over because it was a commentary on the unrealistic moral idealisms of heroes. It undermines the label and the role of a hero. It takes these tropes ingrained in many cultures and makes a mockery of it. It challenges ideas of destiny, might, and purpose and embraces it in an awkward, albeit entertaining fashion.
Fable 2 has a peculiar charm. It’s a world no longer needing heroes, unknowing of their exploits. It speaks of lost time and challenges over the years, showing an Albion that’s different and arguably better because of its loss. Though incomplete, it looks at the small stories in Albion, telling tales of the centuries gone between the first and second Fable.
Fable 3 is about revolution. It’s about the fantastical idea of a monarchy that deserves to rule by blood, not on merit or by democratic vote. It’s about a changing of the guards and the crown while failing to address the issues that underline that change in the first place. It isn’t about Albion or Heroes at all. It’s about power and suffering, but doesn’t critically evaluate those themes. It’s got a lot of quirkiness to it, plenty of British whimsy, but doesn’t even balance that out with sobering doses of intelligence.
Fable 3 attempts to recreate the Sword of Damocles with a plastic sword. And, well, it’s noticeable.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Fable 3. It’s nevertheless a fun romp and it looks very nice. The design is a great blend of Lionhead’s general cartoonishness, there’s a lot of small, funny stories that are still there, and it’s evolved in its aesthetics from Fable 2. The world is still well designed, moving you from place to place at a good, comfortable piece. It moves the player from a variety of environments that range from generic to breathtaking.
A few of its story beats are still excellent: I’ve never had as much fun in a videogame as I have playing the quest The Game in Fable 3. A testament to Lionhead’s creative skill, the quest is a vivid juxtaposition between fictional Albion and the fourth wall it snidely challenges.
The Demon Doors remain excellent: they’re windows to other, strange dimensions. It suggests an Albion more complex than the one our characters manipulate.
The voice acting is stellar as ever. The music is soft, never-imposing, never in-your-face. Lushness defines its aesthetics, and it works.
But this is all window-dressing. These are all nice things built upon a simplistic, broken foundation. At the heart of it, this Albion is too easy, too gullible, too simple. It throws out this terrible calamity, but there’s no child’s moment in what it otherwise, quite starkly, an emperor’s new clothes. This Albion plays it straight; the procession continues.
And unfortunately, it’s an Albion I leave behind with disappointment.