Varicose veins ripple across my entire body. Seismic red cracks split my gray skin into continental shelves. A nuclear green glow pinpoints my toxic stare. And just in case no one gathering around me has gotten the point just yet, two horns have thoroughly twisted their way out of my skull. Not to mention the fact that my faithful canine companion – I named him “Dig Spot” in praise of his buried-treasure-finding ability – has devolved from having a nice chocolate coat and puppy-dog stare into something more of a blackened scruff with blood-red irises.
“You’re so well beyond salvation,” says a passing villager.
“Aaauuugh!” says another.
People can be so critical sometimes.
But I’ve persevered down Fable II’s particular road to Hell, despite the harsh but well-earned commentary, and it’s safe to say that none of that road was paved with good intentions. The choices that lend themselves to your personal fairy tale will rarely be ambiguous, yet they create personalized anecdotes in the way they present widely-divergent paths. The pendulous decisions between good and evil – which ultimately boil down to selfless and selfish – are always deceptively drawn up with only a thin line between them. Press right on the D-Pad to do a good thing. Press left to do a bad thing.
The little day-to-day decisions you make can be that simple. But chaining those little day-to-day decisions together eventually adds up to your final countenance. The summation of your behaviors, be they benevolent or malevolent, by accident or by design, for the greater good or for the lesser evil, will perceptibly take their toll or lend their blessings upon your physical appearance.
But who you are in the world is even more apparent in how people react to you. While it’s indeed rewarding to put another star’s worth of experience points into your physique, or speed, or inferno spell, the greater reward lies in citizens’ reactions to your presence. While you execute nothing more than a (sizeable and amusing) display of The Sims-like grunts, groans, and emotes, the non-playable characters you encounter will remark on absolutely anything and everything about you – the least of all being your physique, speed, or inferno-casting ability. No one will ever accuse Fable II’s denizens of keeping their opinion to themselves.
People will know if you’ve been an upstanding citizen, or if you were responsible for that slaughter in a neighboring village. And they’ll be sure to tell you about it. They’ll ask you to spruce yourself up if you’re wrapped in pauper’s rags, or gush over the magnificence of your magistrate robes. They’ll intuit if you’ve run into financial hard knocks, or if you’re sitting on a Scrooge McDuck pile of money. You’ll gain renown if you hold up trophies from your latest quest, or you’ll garner snickers if you run around in your underwear. Live the life of a do-gooder celebrity and you’ll find out what it’s like to have people fawn over you and follow you all over town. Live the life of a no-good villain and you’ll find out what it’s like to have people cower from you and sprint in the opposite direction if they see you coming.
But you operate on more than just a good and evil scale: Another slider deals with purity and corruption. The two are difficult to separate at first, but to illustrate: A corrupt landlord would raise a citizen’s rent, while an evil one might sacrifice the tenant at the Temple of Shadow.
That’s a bit cart-before-the-horse though. Let’s back up.
Fable II crochets a worthy tale of revenge (or compassion, depending on your bent) stemming around the nefarious Lucien. With your coming-of-age set during your childhood, Lucien takes something very dear from you although, as you’ll learn, it is similar to what was taken from him during his childhood. The parallels are drawn, and now it’s up to you to decide how you handle it. Lucien, though sharply-dressed and eloquently spoken, is a monster; a monster that seeks to extinguish the will of the people in order to impose his own law upon them. You, still, are capable of becoming much more: Either much more vile or much more noble. And while the final decision is life-changing for your character, the journey is lush and enduring.
Fable II’s full-bodied experience is far removed even from its own basic premise. Sure, it all begins innocently enough with a death in the family and a lifelong emotional scar. But as affecting as that singular death may be, you will bring death to many, many more before the final chapter is penned in your little tale. Surprisingly, the journal writings of your nemesis may very well prove to be an even more poignant collection of lamentations than your own. And your tale will weave through the lives, families, homes, cities, dungeons, and countryside drawn up by the best artists this side of Blizzard Entertainment.
There are craggy Oregon Coast-like beaches and cliffs, stands of pine indelibly tied to the rains and the high ground, scarecrow-patrolled rows of oak-dotted farmlands, and ruins steeped in watery shallows or perched on sun-blinding overlooks. The nooks and crannies carry the charm, while the daring vistas propel an unmistakable level of majesty.
Architecturally there are a stunning number of memorable locales: Brightly-colored gypsy camps, Lincoln Log hermitages backed into wild lands, tombstone-riddled roadways, places of ancient good and newly-cobbled evil, a multi-tiered arena carved out of a mountainside, and a castle fit for he who would be king.I’ve danced with cops, slapped aristocrats, tipped whores, married men and women, had sexually transmitted diseases, had children, sacrificed mothers at the Temple of Shadow, and had children’s services take my children away. I’ve tithed fortunes at the Temple of Light, signed autographs for tots, bought property, sold property, vandalized property, stolen from and fully furnished property. I’ve worked as a blacksmith, a woodcutter, and a bartender; adventured as a mage, a marksman, and a mercenary. I’ve dragged people into slavery, given them freedom, killed innocents, killed criminals, raised myself from the dead, begged money from a beggar, given gifts to a gift trader, drank with a potion seller, shot a pistol trader dead, and cut down a blacksmith with the sword he sold me. I’ve erected a pointing-and-laughing statue of myself in a countryside hamlet and then slaughtered the residents. I’ve paid fines for disorderly conduct, did community service for theft, resisted arrest for murder, and lived to tell about it all. That has been my fable. Anyone else’s, I can almost guarantee, will be different. None of my actions were critical to the main story arc. And yet, it was all completely critical to fully absorbing and experiencing the flora, fauna, peoples, and cultures.
When the soprano choir begins its ghostly chanting backed by curdling strings, or when sunlight and birds chirp through the treetops, or when a rattlesnake shaker serves as the sound of a death knell, or when there’s utter silence … the stage is impeccably set for one gorgeously-orchestrated moment after another.
While not the most heartbreaking tale this story tells, I would be remise not to mention the buggy peculiarities that have peppered my journey. In a game of this size, this scope, and this vision, it’s understandable that there are thousands upon thousands of variables to keep track of. But how so many slipped through the cracks of Quality Assurance at Lionhead Studios is disheartening.
I have (luckily) played a (relatively) un-buggy standard edition of Fable II, yet still: My dog once wandered away, tailed tucked between his legs, until he’d sauntered to the edge – and then off – the map. It took a reload to bring him back. I’ve frozen in midstride crossing a city’s town square. It took a reload to get me moving again. I’ve seen a man get stuck in the walls of a house, before he started sliding upwards in the architecture like he was on an elevator. I’m not sure if I ever saw him again. I went through one chapter of the game – The Tattered Spire – and had my physical appearance drastically altered without explanation.
Then in another example that I’m not 100 percent sure was a glitch, but didn’t necessarily make sense: I’d become a bigamist (and all-around jerk) when I married two people in one town and made them live as argumentative next door neighbors. When gay Tim the Villager decided he had enough and divorced me, my otherwise ecstatically-happy wife, Leyla the Whore, also did the slow “divorce march” out of town and out of my life, too. Despite this head-scratching scenario (Leyla found me all the more attractive when I’d yell at or frighten Tim), it’s hard not to chalk it up as one of the most personally memorable affairs I’ve experienced in gaming since playing The Sims (another game where the narrative is almost wholly player – and not developer – driven).
Therein lies the game’s true brilliance. Lionhead didn’t write out that above situation. There was no critical path of mission objectives for me to follow in order for that chain of events to have taken place. All Lionhead did – which is a massive undertaking, don’t get me wrong – was to provide me, the player, with the metaphorical pen and paper to write out that chapter for myself.
A coworker and fellow gamer, however, purchased the continually devolving limited edition, and his game-breaking bugs and subsequent paranoia forced him to create multiple saves on separate Xbox LIVE profiles – something no gamer should ever have to do. But it was necessary in his case since the overly-vague and only-one-saved-game-per-character system in Fable II forced his hand. More than once he had to reload a game from his secondary profile in order to keep playing. Was it something in the limited edition? Did his downloadable suit of Halo Master Chief armor break his game? The official Fable II forums are on fire with similar game-breaking stories. And while I can only review the game that I played (and not his), he’s now written off Peter Molyneux completely and has promised that he will not purchase a Fable III if there ever is one.
Of course, it still serves as a living testament to this extraordinary work of art as he continued to play, day in a day out, with all of these game-breaking bugs looming over his every move, and all of the other hot releases this fall also sitting on his shelf. He held off on Dead Space, held off on Far Cry 2, and held off on Fallout 3 in order to see Fable II through its bitter end. And though he found the ending dubious, I found it intriguing, and we both found that we were enthralled for every moment leading up to that closing chapter.