Every video game requires an imaginative leap. No matter how or where they send us - ominous dark descents, or chimerical flights of fancy - games insist that we surrender ourselves to their seductions. And, for at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, we've known something very important about this willing suspension of disbelief. It works wonders on the human psyche.
It encourages us to stretch our imaginations, examine our beliefs, and find empathy or recognition in another person's story. If Aristotle is to be believed, active engagement with the very best of these stories can even make us better human beings and more responsible citizens.
I begin with this reflection on the meaningfulness of storytelling because I've been thinking a lot about my experience playing Fable II. It strikes me that most of the essays and reviews of the game I've read have largely ignored a defining strand of its DNA. Above all else, Fable II is...a fable; and its designer Peter Molyneux is a fabulist, a word that would seem to have been coined especially for him.
Fables are folk literature, handed down stories, improbable accounts of men and women and their foibles and follies. These tales are often delivered orally, recounting the adventures of characters who make unwise or selfish choices. Fables almost always impart lessons, but contrary to popular assumption, these lessons are not always unambiguous. Nearly all of Aesop's Fables can easily be turned around and re-examined from another point of view. Sure, the plodding tortoise wins the race, but the hare knows how to kick back and enjoy life, doesn't he?
Considered in this light and taken precisely for what it clams to be, Fable II is an extraordinarily successful game. Molyneux and company have created a fabulous world populated by an eccentric gallery of fabulous characters, all in service of immersing the player inside an explorable fable within which he or she can do exactly what fable heroes do: embark on adventures requiring actions and self-revealing choices.
The icing on the fabulous cake is that these actions and choices have affecting consequences and promote the very kind of reflection fables are meant to provoke. No, Albion is not an open-world sandbox; nor is it an environment for self-directed emergent narrative (although I would argue it contains useful aspects of these). Fable II is a remarkably ambitious but accessible RPG that exudes the charm of a lovingly crafted, single-author storybook. It isn't GTA. It isn't Fallout. It is a fable.
I suppose I should also point out that Fable II isn't Fable the original either. Molyneux's first attempt failed to hold my interest, and I bailed out after an hour or two of boredom and frustration. Perhaps part of my enchantment with Fable II is due to the rather low expectations I had going into it.
I promised in my previous post to focus on the writing and characters of Fable II, but I got momentarily sidetracked thinking about genre. I decided it might be useful to establish a bit of context before moving onto those other subjects. Having done that (I hope), I'll return next time with some thoughts on the game's writing and characters.