Posted at July 25, 2020

Fable’s Mediocre Moralizing

A few days ago, I posted an article about moral choice systems in games. The next day Microsoft went ahead and announced a new Fable game is coming to the Xbox One X. I wish I could say this was evidence of my stunning foresight, but it honestly did not occur to me that Fable might be part of the stream.

If you are just joining us, Fable is a series of action RPGs originally developed by the UK based Lionhead Studios. A new installment is currently in development by Playground Games. The series is unique in many ways but was famous for two things more than anything else. The first was its humor, which was sublet in the first game, memorable in the second, and a bit overused in the third.

Fable’s other claim to fame was its “character morphing” system. This was a mechanic where the player’s action had a noticeable effect on their character’s appearance. Warriors build muscle, mages start to glow, and ranged characters get taller for some reason. The player character would also age over time and could gain or lose weight based on their diet. But the main attraction was the choice between good or evil. While a genuinely virtuous hero will get better looking and eventually sprout a halo, evil characters get progressively uglier and grow horns.

The morality system was such a big deal that it was represented on the box art of the three main games. The thing is, I’m not sure Fable’s morality system is actually very good.

Before I can explain why let’s look at two-game franchises that I believe did it well. Dishonored and Mass Effect both feature moral choices as an integral part of their storytelling. Each takes a different approach, although there is some overlap.

In Dishonored, the moral choices evolve naturally as a part of the gameplay. Do you rely on violence or stealth? Do you make a concerted effort to minimize casualties or sacrifice lives for the sake of expediency? It was also somewhat unusual in that even “good” Corvo is still an antihero at best. It’s more a question of if he’s seeking justice or revenge and whether or not he actually cares about what’s best for the city.

Mass Effect, on the other hand, is more traditional in terms of how choices are presented. In the first three games, the player had two options for how to interact with NPCs. Shepard could gain Paragon points by being understanding, persuasive, and willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Renegade characters, on the other hand, were harsher, threatening, and more likely to shoot a problem than try to make friends with it. It is somewhat similar to Dishonored in that Renegade actions were often framed as shortcuts. The moral conflict in Mass Effect was less a matter of good and evil than hero or antihero. There were even a few situations where the Renegade option turned out to be correct, even if it seemed heartless.

Fable isn’t quite as nuanced, although each of the three main games handles morality a little differently. The original game was by far the most morally black and white. Heroes save the helpless villagers. Villains kill the helpless villagers.

The weird thing about evil in Fable was that it was mostly for its own sake. Robbery and banditry were never profitable enough to make it worth it. Evil quests usually paid better but not so much to be a meaningful advantage. You can sacrifice villagers to the local god of evil, but the only reward is a fancy bow.

And the story is even worse. There are four choices spread across the main storyline with five more in the Lost Chapters expansion. Almost none of which matter in the grand scheme of things. Do you defend the farm or attack it? It doesn’t matter because it gets robbed either way. Do you spare the bandit king, or kill him? It doesn’t matter because someone sends assassins after you either way. Do your kill your rival, Whisper? It doesn’t matter because she is never mentioned again.  Even the final choice between using or destroying the legendary artifact of doom doesn’t make a difference. The Lost Chapters barely acknowledge it either way.

The expansion is a little better. It is possible to rationalize some of the evil choices as being more appealing or less complicated. But then again, most of them are relatively low stakes. One extra person living or dying. The story still precedes the same way regardless of what you have done up to that point.

Fable II mixes things up a little bit by augmenting its good versus evil conflict with what it calls purity and corruption. It covers things that are good and bad but in a much lower-stakes way. Evil characters commit murder. Corrupt characters drink too much and overcharge their customers.

Unlike the first game, Fable II understood that choices should have consequences. Completing or failing to complete certain quests can have a significant impact on the land of Albion. Not fate of the world consequences, but future of the municipality at least. But once again, it’s all for its own sake. Evil quests don’t offer any particular advantage or change the story until the final decision at the end of the game. Being evil doesn’t even pay better most of the time.

Fable III was probably the least bad in terms of moral choices. Oh, it’s by no means the best game in the series, but this is an aspect where it showed improvement. The first half was very much like the first game. There were relatively few big choices, most of them with low stakes, and none are ever brought up again.

Things get more complicated when you defeat your brother and take his throne. It turns out that leading a nation in wartime isn’t easy, and tyrannical decisions become a lot easier to justify when the kingdom’s safety is on the line. It’s also one of the few times in any Fable game that moral choices felt genuinely compelling.

Now don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of room for improvement. If this site existed in 2010, I could have written a whole other article just about why Fable III’s story didn’t quite stick the landing. Still, the problem was with the execution, not the intent.

So, what does all this mean a decade later? Well, modern Fable will be what it will be, but it has a chance to improve on this one aspect that the series has struggled with.

Moral choices should feel substantial and impact the plot in a meaningful way. Evil choices should feel like they give the player a significant advantage. Morally correct actions should be more challenging by comparison. There also need to be more cases like the second half of Fable III, where the player may do questionable things for good reasons.

Alternatively, they could always go in the complete opposite direction and let players engage in over the top cartoonish villainy. Fable could work with an absurdly evil villain protagonist. But the developers would still need to remember that the cardinal rule of choice in games is that they need to matter.

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