Crispy Gamer

Fable II

Peter Molyneux is smiling.

The audience in front of the famed game designer is perhaps less cheery. Some 15 or so game writers slump in rather comfortable faux-leather chairs. They seem to be suffering from the rigors of a week in which every game company on Earth, and quite possibly a few from the distant planet Zebnar V, has chosen to hold a "gamer's day" preview event.

Molyneux holds the grin for a while. "You've heard me blathering on about Fable II for a couple of years," he says.

"Finally, I can show you the game."

It has been an interesting thrill ride for Molyneux. He is perhaps the best quote in the game industry, a man who simply loves to discuss his passion. For the original Fable, Molyneux talked up a blue storm, telling game fans all about the ideas he had for the action role-playing game. Molyneux spoke of a world that was as dynamic as its protagonist; if the hero planted a seed at the game's start, it would grow to be a huge tree by the game's end.

Fans ate it up, and were disappointed when some of Molyneux's more fanciful ideas simply didn't make it into the game. There was a backlash; Molyneux had said too much too often. He needed a firmer hand. He needed the guiding hands of many, many public relations flacks to tell him what he could and could not say about Fable's sequel.

So it came to pass that news of Fable II was doled out in bite-sized portions, one feature at a time. First, Molyneux announced he was going to make the game's players feel love, introducing them to a canine companion. Every hero will get one in Fable II and Molyneux suggested only the blackest soul would be able to disregard the idea of a badly wounded mutt hobbling (perhaps even traveling great distances) to stand at its master's side. Later, he announced a one-button combat scheme whereby all sword-based attacks in Fable II will be mapped to the Xbox 360 controller's X button, magic to the B button, and guns/bows to the Y button. After that came the idea of gambling mini-games playable on Xbox 360 Live, the winnings for which would transfer over to Fable II itself.

Now, however, the gloves have come off. With the game nearing completion, Molyneux has been given free rein to talk about Fable II's story and to show its gameplay.

It all begins with poop.

"I like poking fun at game conventions," Molyneux says as the opening cut scene for Fable II freezes on a close-up shot of bird feces plummeting from the heavens. Previously, the scene had been set with a little sparrow flying majestically toward and through the fictional world of Albion.

The bird poop lands on the young protagonist's head. This is Molyneux's way of introducing the player to helplessness. The first mission, a simple quest to purchase a magic box, will have to be accomplished without the use of special powers or abilities.

This time around, Molyneux has made sure he fit in his acorn and the mighty oak -- after a fashion, that is. Events that happen early in the game will have far-reaching consequences in the world of Fable II. Albion can be shaped by the simplest of things; one introductory quest has players fetching arrest warrants. What the player does with these warrants reflects not only on the protagonist, but also the world, Molyneux says. Hand them to the sheriff, and Albion's slums will, in the fullness of time, be transformed into a bustling trade district free from felonious behavior. Hand those same warrants to less virtuous individuals and the sheriff loses his job. With no bite whatsoever taken from crime, the slums will deteriorate even further.

"It's all about freedom," Molyneux says. A new set of open environments replaces the original Fable's tightly constrained pathways; Players are able to wander as they please, returning the game's story-driven quests and locations by a trail of virtual breadcrumbs. This freedom also stretches to include, say, economic choices. Every piece of Albion, every farm stall and castle is up for sale ? for the right price, of course.

Even the protagonist's very nature is malleable. By choosing what skills to emphasize, players can make their hero into a powerful magic user, a burly swordsman, a nimble gunslinger or any combination thereof. Within each skill set, players can add features to flesh out the one-button combat: Warriors can add exaggerated flourish attacks, blocks and parries, and rhythm-based strikes.

More interestingly, simple -- and not so simple -- moral choices will shape a character and the way the game's inhabitants perceive him. Heroes will be worshipped; villains shunned and feared.

Good and evil are complicated notions. William Shakespeare noted that sometimes cruelty is kindness, and Fable II is making a genuine stab at exploring what it truly means to be a hero. It's a theme with which Molyneux is very familiar. "We've been doing this moral stuff for 10 years," he says, referring to his body of work.

Being a hero involves sacrifice, Molyneux suggests, and being virtuous in Fable II will mean players may have to forego gold, experience and power -- all role-playing game staples. Conversely, being evil is about greed and making people suffer.

Being good will not be easy. At one point in the game, the protagonist is faced with a choice: He must either suffer a tremendous bout of torture or choose to have a young woman suffer such. The torture will leave the victim horribly scarred, and these scars will not be removable. If the player's character endures this fate, the decision will live on his face for the rest of the game. "Your children," Molyneux says, for Fable II allows characters to marry and procreate, "will run away screaming."

It really is the player's story, then. And a whopper of a tale it may well be.

This preview is based on a publisher-driven demo of the game at Microsoft Gamer's Day. Fable II is scheduled for release in October 2008.