Although gaming is a creative industry where, perhaps more than any other, it’s disingenuous to pin the success of any one product on a single individual, it’s extraordinarily hard to uncouple Peter Molyneux from the Fable series.
Before his frankly unsustainably tainted reputation necessitated his departure from Lionhead Studios, in order to go off and mess around with cubes or NFTs or whatever he’s peddling now, Molyneux was a games exec with considerable power. Absolute power over his own major studio, to the point where entire game features would manifest from him inventing them in the middle of press interviews in order to “stop the journalist from going to sleep”. And, organisational power within the multi-studio hierarchy of Microsoft, which some believe was key to preserving Lionhead’s independence. Following his departure, the studio would slowly but surely break down, becoming mired in a Microsoft-mandated live service Fable game that never saw the light of day.
It’s a tragic end to one of Britain’s best, and best loved, game studios, as wonderfully reported by Wes over on Eurogamer back in 2019. And, I would argue just as tragically, it would be the end of Molyneux as a major player. Though he fell from grace from peddling one too many wheelbarrows of nonsense, culminating in some frankly shoddy treatment of an unsuspecting competition winner, part of me wishes he was still a big shot: making his deranged RPGs, doing his absurd interviews. The industry felt so much more exciting back then.
Still, he blew it, and that’s the end of that. But Lionhead’s legacy lives on in the enduring hunger for a new Fable game, a wish currently being fulfilled by the good people over at Playground Games, the beloved Forza Horizon factory that is one of Xbox Game Studios’ best assets. We know from various job postings that Playground has assembled a great team to put this new Fable chapter together, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they can pull off a decent open-world action RPG in the Fable style.
But I do wonder if it could really, truly, be a Fable game.
The quintessential Fable game for me is the second one, Fable 2. It represents the point where Lionhead was running on all cylinders, and delivering on much of the promise that the original game – beloved as it is – fell short on delivering. Fable 2’s Albion wasn’t a seamless open-world like you would find in an Elder Scrolls game, but its various regions felt vast, each with its own unique character. The NPC simulation stuff felt genuinely revolutionary at the time, as you could have actual meaningful interactions with non-story characters in an unscripted context. And, of course, it gave you a dog: powered by one entire core of the Xbox 360’s tri-core CPU, Fable 2’s dog behaved like a true companion that learned from your behaviour as a player, engendering a genuine bond. So much so that (spoilers) when the dog gets shot at the end, many players – myself included – wept as though they’d lost a real pet.
It was the culmination of all of Lionhead’s, and Molyneux’s, expertise. The sophisticated AI companion and Pythonesque humour of Black & White, the emergent NPC behaviour of The Movies, the unapologetic Britishness of the first Fable. It was, arguably, the very game that the studio had been building towards for its entire existence. It’s certainly, in my view, Molyneux’s best ever game as creative director.
Playground’s journey to being the series’ new custodian doesn’t really have many parallels with Lionhead’s story. Sure, it’s a British outfit, which surely helps, and they’ve arguably made some of the best open-world, uh, playgrounds we’ve ever seen in the Forza Horizon series – which are some of the most gleefully creative driving games ever conceived. And I love them, despite the fact that they made me drive a car in Edinburgh, which is a thing I used to have to do in real life and sucks. Ahem.
But one wonders if Fable would be Fable without the drama behind the scenes: the unhinged director inventing half the game on the fly during press conferences. The mad simulation aspects that don’t push the narrative forward but exist merely to ground the player in the world. That sense of boardroom push and pull that you can almost taste in Albion’s air as you jog around the wilderness, interacting with the world via one-button combat, endless binary choices, and farts.
The Fable games were the product of a particular group of talented people, operating at a particular time and place within the industry that seems insurmountably different now. Lifetimes ago, when Xbox was king, and Molyneux was a favoured courtier. We know what happened after the executive talent at Lionhead fled, and Microsoft started dictating what Fable should be: total collapse. Death. A shining moment in time faded away.
So, I’m conflicted. I have nothing but respect for the people at Playground, who have made five of my favourite ever driving games. Despite the inclusion of Edinburgh. And, as I’ve said, I don’t doubt their ability to produce a good fantasy RPG. They’ve certainly been busy bringing in the right talent. Like every other Xbox fan, I desperately want Fable to return. The honestly brilliant third game built to a world state that cries out for a follow-up, and considering how crucial it was for Xbox’s first party mix back during its zenith, it feels as though Fable is absolutely essential to the platform’s fightback. In a sense, Fable 4’s job is to take us back to 2008, as much as it is to modernise the series for a new generation of players.
But without Molyneux, without the old team, without the push & pull, the conflict, and the drop of unhinged madness that the old games were infused with, it’s hard not listen to that nagging, gnawing sense that, no matter how good the new Fable is, it might be Fable in name only.
Having said that, as long as you can still kick chickens, it’ll probably be Fable enough for most.