How Albion’s sophomore form represented Lionhead’s finest hour
A look back at Fable II, and how Albion’s sophomore form represented Lionhead’s finest hour
Late afternoon on a balmy day in Oakfield, we fell in love. No, not with another person – though we had grown rather attached to our virtual wife and child – but with Albion itself. Something about that lowhanging sun, casting the village’s quaint cottages in a sumptuous autumnal glow, together with Russell Shaw’s wistful, emotive score, convinced us that this rustic idyll was a place we could really call home. Most videogame environments are places to delve into, pick clean and leave behind. Occasionally we’re invited to rest, to set up a base of operations. But most games view houses as Le Corbusier famously did: as machines for living in, and nothing more. This, however, felt like a place to settle down; somewhere to put your feet up at the end of a hard day’s adventuring.
Albion – more specifically, Fable II’s Albion – is almost certainly Lionhead Studios’ greatest achievement. The original
Fable established a pleasantly leafy, pastoral setting, but it was comparatively flat and benign. Fable III’s vision of an industrialised Albion, meanwhile, gave us the grime but not the greenery; a world reluctantly caught up in the middle of a revolution without being quite ready for it. The in-game history books suggest a world in almost constant tumult, but in Fable II we find it enjoying a rare spell of peace, the calm before a gathering storm. Not everything there is entirely green and pleasant, of course. There are plenty of Hobbes, Hollow Men and Balverines, and also moments of genuine tragedy – the haunting, mistshrouded Wraithmarsh induces shivers rooted in sadness – but in the main there’s an undeniably appealingly upbeat, convivial atmosphere. Unless you’re behaving very badly, there’s usually someone happy to see you. And if not, well, at least they’re visibly and audibly aware of your presence.
Much has been written about the absence of most orthodox methods of punishment in Fable II, in particular the removal of death for player characters. Yet as convenient as it is not to return to distant checkpoints, nor to witness a boss you’d almost vanquished re-emerge with a dishearteningly full health bar, this is perhaps the least interesting way Lionhead chooses to empower you. Albion is a reactive world, one that yields to your presence in ways small and large – environments change according to the choices you make, and people change, too. In most games, you’ll recognise the impact of significant decisions, but in Fable II this happens on a moment-to-moment basis, with the slightest shifts in your physique and stature affecting how the populace responds to you. Fate’s designs may have cast you as the Chosen One, but it’s a chastening moment when your behaviour on the road causes townsfolk to greet you with a cheery “Hello, Knobhead!”
Without its NPCs, Albion would still be an unusually rich and attractive world to save. With them, it’s one to savour. As with so many other RPGs, they’re quest-givers and allies, employers and store owners. They sell and craft weapons and armour, give you haircuts and tattoos. They can be wives and husbands, which is less common, if hardly unique. Many are there to simply add colour; again, that’s nothing new. What’s different is that each and every one is there for your entertainment, and you for theirs. Your interactions with them are rudimentary yet meaningful, even at their silliest. You can dance and flirt with them, threaten them, point and laugh at them, or invite them to kiss your arse. Earn sufficient renown and they might fawn over you, offering you gifts or proposing marriage – or scuttle off in fear as you approach. The point being, there’s a tangible response to everything you do, no matter how minor. And, as such, their role in your story feels that bit more significant, your affection for them grows, and Albion becomes more loveable as a result.
Then again, Albion had to be loveable to support Lionhead’s riskier choices. Many of these were attributed exclusively to founder and lead designer Peter Molyneux, which seems rather unfair – not only to the studio’s other creatives, but the poor coders who would find themselves suddenly tasked with trying to implement Molyneux’s more fanciful conceits, often revealed on a whim during interviews and at industry events. His habit of making outlandish promises, of course, had most infamously manifested in the idea of an acorn flourishing into a