Sequelitus is a terrible illness and one which has affected many great video game franchises throughout the ages. The good news is that it’s easily curable and some do go on to make a full recovery from the affliction; for example, Tomb Raider and Resident Evil seem to be back to good health. But sadly there are others which don’t listen to the doctors’ advice and take the time to fully recuperate, turning into mere shadows of their once awesome selves.
The worst case of the disease for me is that which infected Fable, the action-adventure series developed by Lionhead Studios until its closure in 2016. The original title received positive reviews from both audiences and critics back in 2004, going on to win more than 50 awards and becoming the Xbox’s fastest-selling game up until that point. Aspects which were praised were its tongue-in-cheek characters, ‘very British’ sense of humour, concept of free will and consequences for the protagonist.
As I’ve written before, this was the part of the game which fascinated me the most. Good deeds such as saving villagers would cause your character to become a light-featured champion with a halo above his head and butterflies fluttering around; while evil acts made their eyes glow and a malevolent haze appear around their legs. Drinking excessive amounts of beer would make them ill (a fact we all know only too well) and their clothing changed how the townspeople around them reacted to their presence.
I loved the title so much that when Fable II was released in 2008, I booked some time off of work so I could buy it as soon as possible and spend the entire day playing it. It turned out to be everything the first game was and way more: here was a sequel which surpassed the original and remains on my list of favourites even today. Gamers cited its adherence to the previous title while praising changes that redefined the game system, and it became a best-seller for the Xbox 360.
The dog is an integral part of Fable II and the aspect that broke my heart. After some twists and turns he remains with your character for the duration of the game, assisting you in combat and finding dig spots for buried treasure, and it’s a great way of strengthening the player’s emotional bond with the world. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t played so I won’t say too much here but that choice and the ending… damn. It was my faithful friend going through all that which hurt the most.
You can imagine my excitement when Fable III was released two years later and I couldn’t wait to jump straight back into the land of Albion all over again. But what was this: a plot to overview the King by forming alliances and building support for a revolution? And a Road to Rule to replace the previous levelling-up system, a path in an alternative realm blocked by a number of gates? New features that didn’t feel like previous Fable content but I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and continue.
I’m afraid to say however that it went downhill from there. After leading a successful revolt and becoming monarch, the player is then tasked with defending Albion from ‘a great evil’. This sounds amazing and you may picture yourself bravely riding out into battle with your army behind you, but it consists of finding ways to raise 6,500,000 gold in order to fund the defence of the kingdom and prevent as many civilian casualties as possible. And you know what? It was kind of boring.
You obviously have the choice of not doing this and cruelly letting all your subjects die in the war, but I always go into games intending to be a ‘good’ character and there was no way I was going to let anyone suffer on my watch. So instead I spent too many late nights working as a blacksmith and making pies – essentially an ongoing series of progressively-harder quick-time events (QTEs) – so I could earn enough money to transfer the millions from my personal funds into the kingdom’s treasury.
Despite the repetitiveness, there was a huge sense of achievement in reaching such a high target before the Crawler invasion hit Albion and knowing I’d done everything I could to save my people. When the time came for the final fight and I was called out into battle I expected drama, explosions, and a test of strength and skill that would see me mashing the buttons as hard as I possibly could… But it was all over in a matter of minutes, and it was disappointing.
Although many gamers blame Peter Molyneux’s broken promises as the reasons for Fable’s failure, I don’t find myself siding with this. They won’t agree with me but he’s someone I admire: he’s certainly over-ambitious, but I respect him for reaching for the stars and challenging the status-quo. He may make grand promises that don’t always come to fruition, but I’m far more intrigued by a developer who takes risks instead of churning out carbon-copy titles with little vision.
No, the reason for Fable’s downfall was the fact that the third instalment just wasn’t a very good game. Instead of taking what fans loved about the series and improving on it, making it better – as had happened with Fable II – they’d changed the winning formula and turned the title into something which wasn’t quite befitting. The franchise will always be one of my favourites (and writing about it now is making me want to replay the whole thing again) but even I can admit it ended on a low point.
With the news that Playground Games are working on a new Fable title, my feelings are slightly mixed. While on one hand it’s exciting to hear that the franchise isn’t dead and we may get the opportunity to see it return to its former glory, on the other I’m sad that Lionhead didn’t get the chance to make the Fable IV fans have been waiting for. Will this new developer be able to take what made the series so special for us and recapture the magic of Albion?
Only time will tell. But let’s hope it doesn’t involve blacksmithing or making pies for several hundred hours.
This post was written in response to the Asking Big Questions series hosted by The Well-Red Mage: what video game series got infected with sequelitus? Take a look at this post to see everybody’s answers.