For all the complaints about Microsoft’s lack of game announcements right now, alongside its intent to push the 4K-Ready Scorpio variant of the XBox One, I found myself coming back to a singular question. What would get me to pay attention to the Scorpio? What game could undo years of neglect and diminishing returns in the same way Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been doing for Nintendo in the last month? What does Microsoft have left for gamers like myself to even begin to remotely give one fraction of one iota of a toss?
And the answer kept coming back at me; Fable.
Fable, as a series, has always been troubled but for me the conceptual idea at the core of the series has never been the problem. Set in a ye-olde-worlde style variation of Britain, Albion is a charming place of heroes and magic, with warmth and wit and sharp humour underlining everything. As a game series, Fable has always been one of my favourites – but I’d be lying through my teeth if I said this was a perfect relationship.
Part of this was Lionhead Studios – or, to be more specific, Peter Molyneux. The man consistently oversold the Fable series, often with promised functions, features and freedoms that were never in a million years going to make their way into the final retail version we’d get our hands on. A little hype and promise is understandable; I understand that not every promised feature will make the final product as developers run out of time or budget or talent, but when it came to Peter Molyneux, he had a reputation of walking out on stage and reeling off proposed ideas and features that his development team hadn’t even considered, let alone started work on, and he kept doing this over and over again which undoubtedly had an impact on the Fable series. Once or twice would be fine, but that this consistently happened across his tenure and three games (not counting The Journey) certainly armed detractors of the series with plenty of ammunition.
The other problem was technical ambition. The Fable series always lacked polish – the first game was a bit rough but charming enough, the second was a bit woolen in spots but the third game in particular was just a mess – with an engine that was clearly struggling to run the game properly. This was a shame, because Lionhead Studios were never a bad studio, but such issues undoubtedly got them a bit of a reputation as high-concept dreamers who fell down on the basics of games development, like reliable cameras and frame rates dropping to a crawl.
Which is a shame, because where it matters, Fable has consistently been an enjoyable franchise.
The story is appealingly bonkers, the characters whimsical and crazy in the best possible way, Albion itself has always been an appealing world to get lost in too. The combat was always perfectly decent, and I always did like the dogs – sorry about that, actually no I’m not. With plenty of little things to do and a heaping handful of great little events – Jonathan Ross getting eaten by Balvarines ranks up there in my top ten gaming moments of all time – this has always been a series with the promise and potential for great things; it was just hampered by a development team that I’m not sure if they tried too hard or didn’t try hard enough at times.
Fable is a series that could be an absolute system seller.
Changing the series at this point isn’t a hope; it’s a necessity. After all, Nintendo’s absolutely astounding deconstruction of the Zelda series, rebuilding it as an open-world survival sandbox, has showcased with aplomb what an action RPG could be in the modern era – charming, open, experimental but above all else compelling and exciting. It took what was a linear, by-the-numbers franchise and reinvented it for an entirely new generation; no wonder then that this game has achieved the impossible and has a Switch attach rate of more than 100% (some people bought collectors editions and a base copy). Everything about Breath of the Wild is frankly astounding to behold and I applaud Nintendo for moving with the times and turning one of their most-loved series into one of their most forward-looking.
Fable would need a similar reinvention; with Breath of the Wild setting the mould, as it were, a Fable game in that style would be something rather special. Albion as an open-world sandbox, the freedom to go anywhere, do anything in its usual way, the moral ambiguity, the craziness and kookiness we all love married to a supporting cast every bit as charming and whimsical as the series has given us before – do I really at this point need to spell out to Phil Spencer how quickly this would sell? I mean come on Mr. XBox, Sonic the Hedgehog on an IV drip of Red Bull couldn’t print money fast enough!
With the power of the Scorpio, this would be an insane kind of game. Look at what Nintendo achieved on the modest (well, modest compared to what they’re promising with the Scorpio in any case) Switch and Wii U; a solid, beautiful open fantasy world (sorry not sorry Sony) where people are still finding quirky things to see and do within its vast, open landscape and impressive physics engines. A game of profound scope and depth, with an engaging story and an incredible detailed land with plenty of secrets to find. If Nintendo can do this on the modest hardware on the incredibly tiny Nintendo Switch, I’m guessing that a Fable game on the Scorpio, in the same vein, would be something rather special indeed.
Even if it doesn’t take huge pages from Nintendo’s big title, there’s plenty of scope to make this a fantastic RPG series once more. Fable remains a charming game and yes, we remember Peter Molyneux’s over-promising schtick, and we remember the technical disasters of Fable 3, but time has softened these rough edges and what remains for most of us is a charming place of wonderment. A new Fable RPG would be an inspiring kind of thing, and if they can make it work and keep themselves from doing a Molyneux, there’s no reason why Fable couldn’t and shouldn’t be an important franchise for Microsoft’s XBox division.
It’s a game we like – and a game series we could so easily and readily fall in love with. That’s always been the crime at the core of the Fable franchise; in the hands of most development studios, say, Nintendo or Platinum or FROM Software, Fable could easily be an absolute corker of a game. That it has always been caught under the thumb of a studio that never really could do the concept justice has to be one of the more heinous crimes that Microsoft allowed on its platform. How can you take a charming RPG concept with a dose of Monty Python-esque humour and so consistently, so readily and so habitually cock it up?
This is where a good new Fable would be the crowning glory. Not only because it’s a game we could all fall in love with, but because doing it justice and making it the damn fine, brilliant game it always wanted and needed to be would signify a commitment to undoing some of the bigger injustices of the past. Killer Instinct was a good start; but Fable is where they’d turn the corner and we’d all totally fall to our knees.
For me, Fable is the keystone for any future XBox success; this is a series that needs to be done right, done well and given the space and indeed, time to shine like the star it has always wanted to be. I like Fable. I like the cut of its jib. I like its slapstick moral ambiguity, it’s ridiculous romancing, it’s minigames, it’s story pacing and hell, in Fable 3 I liked the supporting cast that backed the game up – everyone from Walter Beck, Jasper, Page, Ben Finn, Barry Hatch, Reaver… that I still know these characters (and still love that Barry, voiced by Wossy, got eaten by balvarines yes I’m never letting that go it was GLORIOUS!) all these years later tells you something about what this game could be given the right developers and the right kind of RPG framework.
It’s a gamers-centric kind of franchise that would go a long way to patching relations up with most of us. It’s true I’ve not been kind to Microsoft this generation, not because they did much wrong aside the whole launch thing but largely because as a result, they kinda got lost and confused. I’d like to forgive and forget, but my take is that they’d need to right some real injustices on their part before we can move on, and again, one of their most heinous injustices was that Fable never really achieved the high stature it always deserved.
Make it right, and make it good, and no question I’d be there on day one handing over hundreds of pounds for this stuff Mr. Spencer. Fable is your weapon to get gamers back on side. It’s been your Achilles Heel – but it could so very easily be your saviour.
We’re waiting with bated breath…