The human memory can be a funny thing. When I first loaded up the upcoming Fable Anniversary, it looked more or less like I remembered it looking. Albion was sunny, my sister was still heartbreakingly sincere, and my own character was a young boy eager to do favors for the locals. Sure, the widescreen aspect ratio was nice, but did we really need this new edition, when the original, backwards compatible Fable is available for purchase and download via Xbox Live?
Nostalgia is a powerful filter, however, and what I remembered was not the reality of the Albion we first visited. I pulled up the original role-playing adventure and plunged in for comparison’s sake, only to face my own faulty memory. The Anniversary edition’s detailed facial animations were gone, replaced by lips that flapped up and down as if the characters’ jaws were on hinges. The low-polygon models looked like refugees from developer Lionhead’s own Black & White 2, sliding about as if they weren’t actually making contact with the ground. And so I quickly returned to the newly remastered game, thankful that the main character’s gangly beanpole body had been re-proportioned so that he looked more like a hero in training than the chicken chaser the villagers claimed him to be. And that rather than lighting the world with a flat glow, the sun’s rays glimmered and sparkled, bringing to mind the Albion of Fable II.
This was the Albion I wanted to be in. It was the charming world where I had first farted my way to victory, the populace cheering me on all the while--except when they were booing me, of course. And to me, it’s this world that represents Fable’s lasting legacy, and as it turns out, Fable Anniversary lead designer Ted Timmins agrees with me.
“There’s no other world like Albion,” Timmins told me in a recent interview. “I’ve been at Lionhead 10 years, and the thing that’s kept me passionate about the franchise, and what I love so much about the game, is that Albion feels like such a lovely place to be. I genuinely enjoy spending time there.” Timmins got even more excited when bringing up the game’s musical score. “The music… it’s Russell Shaw… and it’s just… the music is such an incredible part of the experience.” He catches his breath, then acknowledges that there are other wonderful aspects of the game that make Albion such a singular realm. “Then of course, a lot of people absolutely love the story, or they might love the combat, but the one thing that is unanimous is that people really attach to the humor. Not just of the characters, but of the writing, and the things the player can do. The fact that just as you can kill a hobbe, perhaps the hobbe will try to run off and will run into a wall and fall over. You can just fart in front of your wife and she’ll just divorce you because you’ve appalled her so much.”
Lord knows Fable Anniversary painted a grin on my face that remained there as I played. Those first few tasks I performed not only transported me back to 2004, but also charmed me on their own merits. There’s that girl who’s so thankful that you’ve returned Rosie, her teddy bear, to her. There’s the troublemaker that goads you into breaking open the shopkeeper’s barrels when you should just be standing there, guarding supplies. And don’t forget the cheating husband who inspires giggles from his lady friend--and irritated cries from his wife. The charm is evident even during events you wouldn’t necessarily characterize as particularly enchanting. Friendly nemesis Whisper is a real thorn in your side, but her enthusiasm makes it hard not to root for her. Bedding a prostitute may not sound like the act of an upstanding citizen, but the delightful welcome the brothel’s madame offers you make the whole business seem rather genteel. Heck, I even giggled when I saw that one of the game’s achievements is named “Not On Rails,” an apparent jab at Fable: The Journey, Lionhead’s Kinect game that was received with rather mixed responses.
You can just fart in front of your wife and she’ll just divorce you because you’ve appalled her so much.Fable Anniversary lead designer Ted Timmins
In any case, it was good to be back. Then again, it had been a while since I’d visited Albion--since 2010’s disappointing Fable III, actually, which I gave up on just three or fours hours in. Yet as pleasant as this return visit was for me, I couldn’t help but wonder if returning to a game you’ve already devoted years of your life to is all that fulfilling of an endeavor for either a player or a creator. Wouldn’t Timmins have been happier working on a brand new game rather than revisiting a project from years past?
As it turns out, the opposite was true: Fable Anniversary evoked satisfying and moving memories from a bygone era, as well as provided its own unique set of creative challenges to overcome. “Fable 1 gave me every opportunity I’ve had in life since I started in the game industry,” said Timmins. “It was the first game I ever worked on. I had some of the best times in the industry working on that game. I was given the option to work on a couple of different things before Fable Anniversary kicked off. But I almost felt like I owed it to the project. I felt quite a personal attachment to it. And I felt like I would be the obvious person to have the tough task of having creative control over it and speak from the fan perspective: ‘As a Fable player, I want this in Anniversary. I want the targeting system to be improved, I want the game to have a better interface.’ Yeah, sure, to some extent I’ve put some creative freedom on the back burner, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.”
Timmins wasn’t the only creative mind with a personal investment in revisiting Fable. Said Timmins, “Russell Shaw was the composer of Fable 1, and he’s still very much a part of Lionhead. And I know that for him, when he went to go back, for him it was an emotional period, because it brings back all these memories of working on the game in 2004. When we were making Fable, I don’t think anyone in their wildest dreams would ever imagine that 10 years later, we would still be working on it. When I first spoke to Russell, he said that Fable Anniversary sounds the way he wished it could have sounded 10 years ago, now that he has uncompressed, high-definition sound--now that he has full surround sound in 5.1. We didn’t really have that as a luxury of technology back then.”
I was given the option to work on a couple of different things before Fable Anniversary kicked off. But I almost felt like I owed it to the project.Ted Timmins
If Timmins’ creative sacrifice allowed for various enhancements to be implemented, then I certainly am grateful. Fable Anniversary’s menus aren’t genre-best, but they’re more pleasing to navigate than the original’s convoluted options. The controls, too, have been updated to reflect the schemes used in Fables II and III, so that slinging arrows, swinging an axe, and firing off fireballs feel somewhat more natural than the original’s method of having you swap between weapons. And the targeting is noticeably snappier, so you needn’t work so hard to get that arrow to land where you want it to. An unexpected shift, however, also occurs in the game’s difficulty. Fable Anniversary is still an easy game, but beating up balverines in the original is even easier. Given the choice between the Xbox original and Fable Anniversary, the decision to go with the remastered release would seem easy enough, even if they are mostly the same in terms of content, though the Anniversary edition includes the quests and additions introduced in the extended edition known as Fable: The Lost Chapters.
Shaw’s work, too, is easily noticeable when comparing the original with Anniversary. Not only does the music take on newfound clarity, but the voice-overs have a sparkle they were missing before. The recorded lines are obviously the same, but vocal ebbs and flows are more apparent, and the narrator is no longer overcome by the musical score when he trails off at the end of sentences. All in all, a clear amount of artistic and engineering effort has gone into Fable Anniversary. Does Timmins think it was worth the trouble, when all is said and done?
“This game is not just close to the fans, but it’s close to the development team," he told me, "many of whom I’m still in contact with today. And they all want to be proud of this. They all want to look at it as something of…’I worked on that 10 years ago, and therefore I’m just as proud today of Anniversary as I was 10 years ago.’ That’s a really nice thought, and I hope I’ve done them proud as well.”