"Albion rose from where he labour'd at the Mill with Slaves.
Giving himself for the Nations he danc'd the dance of Eternal Death."
--William Blake, The Dance of Albion
"Oh Albion remains, sleeping now to rise again."
--Led Zeppelin, Achilles Last Stand
In Fable 2, Peter Molyneux's Albion is a lush snow-globe vision of Great Britain that weaves together an eccentric melange of storybook tales and fantasy adventure - with plenty of sexual escapades and political intrigue to spice things up. Set in a wildly anachronistic blend of medieval, renaissance, and 18th century England, it's a greatest-hits mix of English culture ala popular literature and film, with a healthy blend of subversive Swift and scatological Monty Python.
The wonder of Fable 2 is that it all works. Unlike its predecessor, which offered the promise of a meaningful experience it couldn't deliver, Fable 2's towns, countrysides and highways are full of landmarks, characters and situations worth stopping for.
It's a testament to the richness of the game's environments that no matter how intently I try to stick to the main storyline, something always draws me away. In other games (e.g. Fallout 3) it's usually an interesting side-mission or character-request that pulls me away; but in Fable 2 it's nearly always the world itself that diverts me: a mysterious path leading away from the golden trail, a curious object on the horizon, the voice of a gargoyle insulting me.
I'll save the role-playing elements of Fable 2 for another post - and I highly recommend Corvus Elrod's recent posts on his experiences with the game - but an undeniably defining feature of great RPGs is the vivid worlds they present to the player. I've been thinking about how this works (when it works), and it seems to me we can identify certain key features that tend to distinguish successful RPGs when it comes to creating and delivering a coherent and satisfying world to the player.
So here's a stab at a feature list of features, so to speak, and how they tend to work in Fable 2. If I've forgotten something (as I'm sure I have), please feel free to jump in and fill the gaps.
- A world that stimulates my imagination
Molyneux's Albion is a sumptuous and stylized visual feast that somehow manages to make sense of all its parts. It makes no effort to logically explain why traveling bards, rifles, and magical energy swords all belong in this world, but they do. Albion is a fun (and often funny) place to be, but it also contains a dark side that sneaks up on you when you least expect it. I've had two dreams set in Albion since I started playing Fable 2, so I guess I can safely say: imagination stimulated.
- A world that rewards exploration
Much has been made of the dog who functions as your sidekick throughout the game. He is a terrific addition to be sure, only partly because he sniffs out treasures. But Albion offers a tremendous wealth of content - side-quests, off-the-beaten-path locations, mini-games, and assorted nutty characters - all of which feel like valuable, worthwhile in-game events. You explore Albion not simply to extend your play-time. Navigating this world delivers experiences that deepen and contextualize your character's journey through the story. Taking on the game's many challenges nearly always results in something more interesting than an EXP boost.
- A world populated by distinctive characters
Fable 2 has extraordinarily high production values (thanks Microsoft!), and nowhere is this more obvious than in the broad range of singular characterizations voiced by a talented cast of English actors, including Stephen Fry, Oliver Cotton, and Zoë Wanamaker. I can't think of another video game with quite the gallery of fully-voiced miscreants, sad-sacks, hucksters, and self-deluded suitors. Clever and genuinely funny writing permeates the game from beginning to end, and you will never forget a particular heroine nicknamed Hammer who simply will not or cannot stop talking.
- A world that responds to my actions and decisions
I won't say much about this here because to do so would involve much spoilage. Suffice it to say that Fable 2 significantly revises the binary Good/Evil formula that so limited the original Fable. Your choices really do matter in Fable 2, but not always in the ways you might expect. To me, one sure sign of successful game design is my desire, upon completion, to immediately play the game again in a different way. If only Fallout 3 and Little Big Planet weren't staring at me so forlornly...
- A world that provokes me to ask "What if...?"
Gamers love exploring the margins of games, testing the limits of design, and generally trying to figure out what they can get away with. Fable 2 responds to this kind of gameplay reasonably well. While it's no Fallout 3 (more on that soon), the game leaves room for plenty of "what if" choices (without the multi-game save function crutch of Fallout 3). Fable 2 defaults to a "safety on" setting that prevents you from killing innocent people by mistake. But you can turn this off, and when you do all sorts of "what if" possibilities emerge.
- A world that makes me reflect on my own
Fable 2 was assigned an "M" (Mature) rating by the ESRB, a rating I consider appropriate. I mention this only to point out an interesting fact. In nearly every conversation I've had with gamers considering purchasing the game, not a single person was aware of this. On a hunch, I spoke with the manager of my near-local EB Games store, and he told me, "You have no idea how many underage people we've turned away on Fable 2. I'd say at least a hundred, including phone calls."
Molyneux and company seem to have understood that Fable 2 must open up a world of gameplay choices, characters, and situations that speak to modern gamers in ways that go beyond the typical RPG tropes and good vs evil formulas. Homosexuality and same-sex marriage are perceived no differently than heterosexual or "traditional" marriage in Fable 2. Prostitution, casual sex, and other so-called taboo subjects are all just another day in Albion. The result, in my view, is a world that stands a much better chance of serving - however stylized - as a mirror on our own.