fable2.jpg[Our own Chris Remo has been looking closely at one of the key holiday releases, Lionhead's Fable II for Xbox 360, and in this in-depth analysis piece, he looks at why real estate and sex are the perhaps slightly bizarre cornerstones of the fascinating title.]

When I think about Fable II, I think about real estate and sex.

That's not to say the game's mechanics surrounding those elements define the game, but I'll focus on them here because they are areas not commonly explored in the actual gameplay mechanics of most fantasy-set action RPG.

At least, they aren't often included with this kind of impressively egalitarian scope. With remarkably few exceptions, all property that seems like it should be ownable in the game can be purchased, be it a private home or a place of business. This includes a castle.

And matching that breadth, so too can you marry or engage in (strictly off-screen) intercourse with nearly any non-quest-related NPC with whom your sexual orientation and gender are compatible; each citizen is classified as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and nobody in Albion has passed a defense of marriage amendment.

All About The Humping?

Developer Lionhead Studios (and, one suspects, designer Peter Molyneux in particular) very much wants you to be aware of its sex-related feature set: the first item I encountered for sale by a merchant was a condom. Not long afterwards, my dog excitedly guided me to some buried treasure, and then panted and wagged his tail happily as I dug up another prophylactic.

Propositioning partners basically involves performing a bunch of wordless, amusing social gestures in front of them until their social meters indicate they're willing, and then inviting them to your bed. Marriage proposals are similar, with a wedding ring icon on the "love" meter indicating when they will acquiesce to your proposal.

Those condoms come into play when you do the deed. There's a binary choice of protected sex or unprotected sex each time; heterosexual couples can bear children.

Essentially, every non-quest-related interpersonal interaction you will ever have with other human beings in Fable II is predicated on acting like an idiot in close proximity to them for a few minutes.

The expressions are well-animated and amusingly voice-acted, and it's fun to learn more of them over the course of the game, but the mechanics behind them are so transparent that they become nothing more than a means to an end, which doesn't feel like what the game intended.

That's the downside of giving you so many options when it comes to personal things like marriage: the overall impact is dulled, because they have to be replicated systematically for everyone in the world.

Wives Vs. Dogs - A Contrast

Even after I was gone for ten full years undertaking a grueling quest of world-changing importance, having returned physically bulkier and extremely scarred with all my hair gone, my (lesbian) wife simply greeted me with one of her usual exclamations of, "So nice to have you home!" and another token gift of a health potion.

(Quite some time later, she abruptly divorced me for no discernable reason.)

My dog, on the other hand, seemed genuinely thrilled to see me again, and I was informed he had been loyally visiting the location of my departure with the firm conviction I would return. It resonated with me much more strongly, and as big a proponent of procedural and systems-driven mechanics as I am, it did say something for the storytelling usefulness of individually-crafted content.

It helps that the dog actually is a genuinely enjoyable component of the game -- Molyneux's pre-release hype of canine companionship panned out. The dog helps you find useful things, joins into your fights, sticks by your side, endears himself adorably to townsfolk, and generally acts like a dog.

That's one big advantage the dog has over human interaction: while the game's human interaction is perhaps necessarily abstracted, the dog's role is a lot closer to depicting reality.

One of my favorite moments is Fable II is when I start running and my dog follows suit, overtaking me and anticipating where I might be going, as if we're having an impromptu race. It feels real in a way the game's systems-driven human interaction doesn't.

The Real Estate Boom

So as it turns out, it was the real estate mechanic that became a major drive for me to acquire wealth and fame in the world of Albion, possibly superceding the critical quest path in that regard.

"BUY THE CASTLE AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS," (caps original) a giddy Molyneux screamed at game journalists in a note included with the review code. Intrigued by his exhortation, I made it an unofficial goal to do so. One of the first things I did after reaching the game's first major town was to spend more time than I want to admit working as a blacksmith (a golf swing-like mini-game) until I had enough money to buy the blacksmith's shop.

Businesses will generate income, while homes can be inhabited or rented out, so the more property you own, the more money you can make to acquire more property.

You earn even when you're not playing Fable II, but as far as I can tell you make 12 times as much when the game is on (paid out every five minutes, as opposed to every hour when it's off, based on my calculations -- yes, I calculated it), so I admit to pulling the NES-era shenanigans of leaving my console running overnight.

It became almost an obsession of mine to buy every building possible. I think I must have done so, or at least gotten pretty close, because at one point, totally separate from any quest-based objectives, I received an Xbox 360 achievement that declared me Queen of Albion, apparently by default because I owned so much of the kingdom.

Like many other parts of Fable II, the property mechanic works into the morality system. In addition to the customary good versus evil duality, there are also things like karma, and attractiveness, and how much you are feared.

When you buy a building, its asking price will be affected by how the current owner feels about you, and you can affect regional property values by committing crimes or going so far as killing homeowners. When you own property, you can raise or lower rents or prices, which then affects your karma.

Conclusion: On Fable & Fallout

Though I've only played through Fable II once so far, I plan on playing through it again with the intention of creating a considerably different kind of character, with a different public perception -- the game gives me the impression that is quite possible.

I'm curious to see the comments on Fable II in contrast with those on Bethesda's upcoming Fallout 3. Both are Western-style RPGs (that is, they put an emphasis on player-driven, rather than tightly-directed, character definition and development) that purport to be heavily about moral choice and living worlds.

Both seem to want to coax similar feelings out of their players, but they are wildly different in their execution. Fallout 3 is darkly tongue-in-cheek, has a vast sprawling nonlinear world, uses a pretty in-depth shooting system, and (as far as I know) doesn't do much with sex and real estate.

Fable II is often joyfully goofy (though it has its darker moments), consists of locations connected only by a fast-travel system, features streamlined and button-mashy combat.

In my gaming fantasy land, I'd actually like to see a convergence of the two: a more Bethesda-influenced Fable game, retaining Fable's bright, inviting color palette and unique/social economic mechanics, but set in a truly open world rather than a disconnected one.

Oh, and please put the next one on the PC, so I can just point at the guy I want to select rather than make vague suggestions to the game's slightly-too-context sensitive targeting system.

But for now, despite some elements that lay its video gameness a little too bare Fable II is an extremely playable, and impressively unique, expedition in an inviting fantasy world.