The Games That Time Forgot: Fable (1996)

I’m starting this look at The Games Time Forgot with Fable, a game that’s perhaps better known for its lovely, book-style box than for its content. Developed in France by Simbiosis and published by Telstar in Europe and Sir-Tech in the USA, this 1996 graphical point and click adventure game has since been thoroughly overshadowed by Peter Moulyneux’s series of the same name.

Point and click adventure games were a waning genre at the time of Fable’s release, and it was to be  Simbiosis’s first and last game. (Although there are tantalising traces of a game called Cities of Sin, produced for Virgin Interactive, I’ve found nothing concrete.) With a stunning box, full voice-acting and mediocre reviews, Fable seems to have missed its mark and it might be safe to speculate that it missed its budget, too. 

To reveal ***SPOILER*** text, highlight it.


This lovely box contains the CD and a slim manual which, along with the interface instructions, includes the game’s back-story in several languages. Regardless of which language you speak, I strongly recommend not reading the plot section of the manual, not because it’s badly written (although the English version is a bit ropey), but because it reads like a giant spoiler for the game. 

It gives you more information than you want or need, and far more than Quickthorpe, the game’s protagonist, would be likely to know. Much of the same information appears in the game in a manner that would have been an entertaining revelation if we hadn’t already been aware of it. Sadly, this only the first of many unsatisfying encounters we’re going to have with the game’s improbably convoluted plot.

The essence of the backstory, at least, is simple. The world was once controlled by a race of astral beings called the Mecubarz. When they were betrayed by their own high priest and four of his followers, they tore the world asunder in their anger, breaking it into four parts and destroying the order of nature and the seasons. Many years later, in the village of Belkhane, set among the ice and snow of the Frozen Land, a young man named Quickthorpe has been chosen by his people to follow the traces of an old fable. The fable tells of four magic gems, scattered to the corners of the earth and placed under the guardianship of four fearsome beasts. Furthermore, the story goes, he who reunites the four magic gems may, in so doing, weave back together the tattered fragments of the world.

That is seriously all you need to know. The above paragraph is 100% more useful than the two pages of manual it replaces, and you get a great deal more pleasure from the game by skipping the written prologue and going with my version up there. The letter that’s built into the box (reproduced below) also provides a nice bit of flavour.

There’s a (terrible) CGI intro made with state-of-the-early-90s technology. It shows a fragment of the fate of the conspirators against the Mecubarz, but doesn’t really impact your understanding of the plot one way or another. It’s not entirely clear why all the conspirators are bald, but that’s mystical cults for you.

  • Quickthorpe dies often and easily. Death is, in fact, the only clue to some puzzles. There are also no Sierra-style “you have died” screens or pop-ups. You just die. You usually have to manually reload, but in a couple of instances, you’ll be sent back to a few moments before your death. These situations are usually significant to the plot, and in at least one case, you HAVE to die and be resurrected by the game in order to get an extra conversation option with an important NPC.  
  • Press Enter to access the Save/Load/Settings menu.
  • The game uses a look mechanic that pops up an extra window showing what you’re looking at in more detail at the top left of the screen. You can interact with items in this window and will frequently have to Examine an item you’ve already Looked once its close-up window opens. You can also Use items on other items, Take items, and Give items to characters using this window view. The window can contain multiple items you can interact with, and some items visible in it may only become active once you’ve interacted with or Taken another items.
  • Note that the right mouse button cycles through various action options. If you’re holding an item, the options you can cycle through include both Use and Give. Using an item on an NPC is not the same as Giving it to them. Text describing the currently selected action appears at the bottom of the screen. 
  • Parts of the interface were clearly designed by a sadist. For example, to put an item you’ve been trying to use back in your inventory, you have to open your inventory (by clicking on Quickthorpe with the Look eyeball) and then right-click to cycle through until you get the Drop item action. This "drops" it back into your inventory. Yep.
  • Save before talking to NPCs. You often don’t get to choose all the available conversation options when you first talk to them, which can result in you missing both important clues and interesting background flavour. Some options end a conversation prematurely. Quickthorpe will often refuse to talk to an NPC again, saying he doesn’t “want to talk to anyone or anything”, even if the conversation was ended with unanswered questions. You typically have to reload two or three times to get all the options and clues. Usually, conversation only supplies clues. Sometimes, it sets flags. It’s not clear whether it’s possible to miss the opportunity to set a flag by taking the wrong option in conversation
  • You get overland maps of each area, but you can't actually use them to fast-travel in any meaningful way, as you have to stop at every location screen along the way between two points. Important locations are shown on the map, but hidden locations are also present in two areas, and are not shown even after you find them.

I’m lucky enough to have an original copy of the European version of the game, so I ripped the CD to an ISO file and mounted it in DOSbox. If you’re running DOSbox from the command line rather than creating a specific conf file for this game, you’ll need commands that look something like this:

mount c c:\Games
imgmount e c:\Games\Fable_1996.iso –t iso

I keep my DOS games in a directory called Games, and copied the ISO I made from my game disc in there, too. You’ll need to keep the ISO mounted when playing, as that’s where the voice files are stored.

Installation via DOSbox works well. Just cd to the mounted iso and run the installer file. DOSbox’s the emulated SB16 audio worked using standard settings.  The installer is also your first opportunity to meet Quickthorpe.

I’m going to get tired of this kid really fast, I can tell.

I left DOSbox running at 3000 cycles, as the game is at its most stable at that setting. This means a few repeating animations happen a bit too quickly, but doesn’t generally get in the way of gameplay. There’s one exception to this in late game, where you will have to manually reduce cycles (using ctrl-F11) to stop an NPC from spamming your screen with random conversation boxes so quickly that you can’t interact with her or anything else.

I originally planned to include a lot of my live play notes.  However, they’re a) full of spoilers and b) incredibly sweary. Fable managed to make me quite angry in the course of playing it, and it’s almost entirely down to the large number of puzzles that don’t appear to have any kind of discernible internal logic.

I liked the game enough to persevere to the end, although I don’t think I’d have done so without the help of its Universal Hint System entry. After the whole process, I feel some affection for the game, but that’s in spite of its overwhelmingly frustrating gameplay and perverse interface choices than because of them. Maybe I just ended up with the gaming equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. I don’t think the phrase “fuck this game” has ever appeared so frequently in my notes.

As the game opens, the improbably-named Quickthorpe is standing outside his stockaded village, in the middle of a conversation with an old gent with a wise-looking beard. You’re literally thrown in at mid-conversation. 

Their chat follows on from the game’s introductory letter, which implies that either Quickthorpe has been daft enough to volunteer for this particularly onerous bit of McGuffin-fetching, or that he’s had it thrust upon him by “The People”. Possibly for being annoying. Further conversation reveals that “all the other village people are either busy or just not interested”, making this exercise seem all the more like his village’s attempt to rid itself of its resident idiot.

Balkhane is the only human settlement in the Frozen Land, but if you think that means you won’t be doing much interaction during the early part of the game, you’d be wrong. There are plenty of humans and, it soon transpires, non-humans wandering around this particular bit of icy tundra, without much by way of heavy-duty winter clothing.

Does no one believe in climate-appropriate clothing around here?

You soon notice a few things about Fable. First, it’s graphically beautiful. The backgrounds are stunning, and while the character animation and close-up art don’t quite match up, the overall effect is remarkably pretty. Second: death is a random force of nature that may strike you down at any moment.

This phenomenon really is at its worst in early game, which is where you’d normally expect a bit of hand-holding. Fable doesn’t do hand-holding. Unless you count holding someone’s hand while dragging them to their inevitable demise at the hands of random rivers, cats, witches, jewellery, bandits and ogres.

The third thing you’ll notice is that the interface takes quite a bit of getting used to. The close-up boxes can and must be interacted with. Look at everything. Use everything on everything. Pick up everything even though about 50% of the stuff you’ll find is entirely unnecessary. This sounds pretty much like business as usual for an adventure game, but the quirky interface makes it a lot easier to miss things than you might in a Sierra, Revolution, or Lucasarts title. In one instance, for example, I was stuck for ages because it didn’t occur to me to make a closer Examination of a seat on a boat that I had already Looked at to open its close-up window.

Quickthorpe's pathological hatred of cats does not stand him in good stead with his local withcrafting community

The Frozen Land is pretty much your standard-issue fairytale kingdom, with witches, ogres, thieves and huntsmen. You’ll also come across some haunting but unexplained touches, such as a field full of statues that look like terrified soldiers petrified in the midst of battle. There’s a lot death in this game and it soon becomes disconcertingly apparent that everyone else seems to take life a lot more seriously than the wise-cracking Quickthorpe. This isn't a Guybrush Threepwood style pairing of a ludicrous hero with a ludicrous world; here, our hero is the only one who’s laughing.

The game also exhibits broken internal logic rather more regularly than you’d want from a genre that is, in theory, supposed to be based on logical puzzle-solving. 

For example, a character lets you steal all the stuff from her house, except for one specific item. Touch that, and she’ll kill you. 

Later, you’ll end up trading a necklace you find to a person who mentioned in passing that they’d lost a necklace. However, Quickthorpe stubbornly insists that he doesn't want to talk to “anyone or anything right now” when you try to talk to the NPC in question. This doesn't mean you can’t Give the character an item, however. Annoyingly, the much-needed item you get from them is a pair of gloves. You will need gloves, but there’s no way of knowing that the NPC in question had gloves in the first place. You never see him wearing any. 

In many cases, the solution to a puzzle is fairly obvious, but only once you have all the correct items in your inventory. There are hidden paths and concealed locations that lead you to vital items, making the Frozen Land the longest and most involved part of the game.

This is probably my favourite part of the game in terms of setting. More of the puzzles make sense here, although there are still a number of items that have been made deliberately hard-to-find just to drag out the game. A couple of combinations of voiced accent and character design made me wonder if some character depictions were a bit racist or if I was being over-sensitive, but I'm not sufficiently curious to play back through and check.

The Land of Mists is divided into two areas: a murky swamp and high-altitude walkway and city. The swamp section primarily involves getting past a reptilian guard to access the higher reaches of the land. It’s surprisingly straightforward after the to-ing and fro-ing of the Frozen Lands. By way of an interesting but unspoken subtext, the items you discover allow you to safely surmise that the friend the guard mentions met a grizzly end, although apparently no one has missed him, and now that you've nicked the only evidence of his identity, no one will ever know what became of him. 

Although they'll probably be able to make an educated guess

Working out how to get into the guard tower allows you to free Iris the fairy, who's surprisingly well-endowed with information about you, your quest, and the history of the world in general.

Surprisingly well-endowed fairy

Head up the mountain, and you'll find a secret lift to a cave that Quickthorpe is too terrified to explore, something that for some reason hasn't crossed his mind when dealing with any of ogres, giant spiders, ominous caves, or lethal swamps we've come across so far. After vanquishing a guardian titan in one of the game's most counter-intuitive object puzzles, you'll gain access to the beautiful ancient city. It's a rather lovely setting, even if it can't decide whether "gargoyles" are pterodactyl-like creatures or reptilian humanoids that enjoy eating random bits of local beggars.

Have you noticed how pink everywhere in this world seems to be?

The Land of Mists involves a few stupid object-based puzzles, and the fact that your inventory is starting to get rather cluttered doesn't help here. Apparently giant spiders dislike horn music, and explosives blow up on contact with water. You’ll also run across a lock that’s opened by musical flagstones for no readily apparent reason. The sequence isn't hard to work out, but there’s no bastard reason for it to even be there. 

Oh, and to add insult to injury, while Angor, the serpentine guardian of this realm, is stupidly easy to kill using conventional weapons, even by an untrained idiot like Quickthorpe, proving your identity at the local library is a surprisingly challenging task that requires you to steal a book that's hidden behind a curtain in the guard tower back in the swamp. Last time I went to a library, they just wanted to see an item of post in my name.

Eventually you'll manage to hire yourself a ride out on a flying ship, crewed by a captain and his cabin boy. There's nothing going on there, but you do get the option of giving a flower to the librarian who hands out this section's dose of plot exposition, by way of a romantic gesture.

The gay age of consent WAS higher back in 1996, but I'm buggered if I 
can work out how old Quickthorpe is actually suppose to be

Having killed a shark and learned to breathe underwater by the usual method of using random objects together until you get lucky and maliciously stealing perfectly nice people’s stuff, you come to the submerged land of the Engulfed Fortress.

You'll want to remember what the outside of this place looks like to 
contextualise some ranting I'll be doing further down the page

The sequence of puzzles here is pretty straightforward, although you've got another situation in which you have to give an NPC some objects that you don’t even know he wants. There are, as ever, paths and objects hidden in the scenery, as well as a critical object that you’ll only get by being polite to a certain NPC when they happen by. There’s nothing too gratuitously irrational, for which I was grateful, unless you count the sudden, jarring introduction of talking sea creatures as irrational. There's even a turtle called Mr Kouppa. It's a wonder Nintendo didn't sue.

A lusty siren attempts to lure you to your doom, but doesn’t do anything else useful. It’s at this point that I noticed that there are basically no female characters in this game that aren’t hypersexualised, with the possible exception of the reptilian Swamp Queen, and even SHE has giant tits. Weird.

Nope... I've got nothing here

Once you make it inside the Engulfed Fortress, things get a lot weirder. I’ve generally refrained from copying my play notes in here, but I think their unrestrained incredulity probably expresses the situation best in this instance:

We just took a passage that appeared to be rear entrance to sunken castle. And now we are back at the elevator platform from the aerial walkway up in the mountains in the Land of Mists. AND WE ARE NO LONGER UNDERWATER SUDDENLY.

Why the fuck did we even bother with the expensive boat journey and breathing spell and everything?!? THE ONLY REASON WE DIDN'T GO DOWN THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE WAS BECAUSE THE PLACE “gave Quickthorpe the creeps” and he insisted on going straight back up. And the best reason we get for all this shit? A comment that “this planet is really connected and screwed up”. No fucking shit.



There’s a network of underground passages which bear NO resemblance to the front entrance of the Engulfed Fortress, which we saw earlier,  from the sea bed. They’re also not exactly engulfed, being conspicuously NOT UNDERWATER.

Things you do not get underwater: fire

There’s a bit of a maze here, but – in an unusually good design decision – its screens behave rationally, don’t contain any insta-death, are easy to map, and simple enough to navigate without bothering with a map. 

This is the point at which we make a sudden leap from medieval/steampunk tech to full-on futurism

You meet the oddly sympathetic Gorgon, Vivern (who, of course, loved the Big Bad, because why else would you have a girl on Team Bad Guys, right?), and the plot gets a lot more sci-fi, including more information about the alien Mecubarz and a computerised control room with an intergalactic view. The Gorgon tells you she doesn’t know where the Big Bad is and finally asks you to end her life.

Quickthorpe wouldn't know a major plot point if it came and bit him on the arse

Hidden elsewhere in the tunnels, you will find the Big Bad. Who you can wake and talk to. And who demands the gems from you. And who then lets you leave without anything bad happening to you at all. He is literally about six screens away from the Gorgon. Tops. The Gorgon who doesn't know where he is. She clearly doesn't get out much.

As Venom would say, welcome to hell. We've got rivers of lava, plastic crockery, and skeletal guards who look like extras from Eye of the Beholder. An even briefer section than the last, The Land of Shadows mostly involves getting out of a prison cell and into the chamber of Chax, the level’s resident monster-in-charge. It’s all pretty simple until you have to work out how to actually kill this fire-breathing praying mantis.

Yes, really.

Once again, game time is extended by working contrary to your assumptions. Note that 1) the fire-breathing beast is not fireproof and 2) drinking vessels in hell are lava-proof – this at least kind of makes sense. I know that games were expensive in the '90s and that we wanted the experience to last: seven hours of gameplay certainly would not cut it. However, there’s a difference between providing value and using deliberately frustrating design to make things harder than they should be.

Having vanquished the lord of the underworld and eventually found his red jewel, conveniently placed in front of a red background, we get to bail back out to the tunnels of the Engulfed-but-not-even-actually-underwater Fortress. 

Inside its cave network, you can – but don’t have to – encounter the Big Bad, Ismael the traitor priest we've heard so much about. That's right: the main plot-exposing finale is an OPTIONAL sequence. If you visit his chamber, you’ll get a lot of backstory, which is well worth the trip. You don’t actually have to battle him or anything, although the wrong conversational choice will result in an unsatisfying death. With that done, you’ll want to return to Vivern’s room, where you may have previously noticed a slot designed to take the Mercubarz key that is completed by the four jewels you've collected.

Now, I’ve been playing the original European release, which is notorious for having an incomprehensible slap in the face of an ending. I’ll grant you that it’s pretty bloody weird, but I nonetheless prefer it to the ending of the US release, which was obviously thrown together at the last minute. If you’re not planning on playing the game yourself, or have already finished one or the other version, you can view both here:

YouTube Video

When we meet Ismael during two optional encounters in the game, he tells us many of the same things the manual’s unnecessary bastard prologue does. Something that very much stands out is his observation that the Mercubarz, who we had presumed to have left the world in anger after virtually destroying it, take the form of glowing orbs.  (This also appears in the manual but doesn't seem particularly important when you first read it.)

We've met two characters who can take the form of orbs: Simbeline the lake goddess in the Frozen Land and Iris the sexy fairy in the Land of Mists. Simbeline is first person who clues us into the idea that our village elder/priest/general-purpose wise man may have been in league with Ismael; a theory that Ismael himself confirms. She also tells us that “only when you have killed the last beast in the Land of Shadows, then will you know the truth of what really happened to your people so long ago”. Meanwhile, Iris arranges for us to have the Mecubarz key that Quickthorpe uses to get into the final, fateful room of the game.

Exhibit A: Symbeline presenting you with her orb-form

So the Mecubarz may not be as long gone as we think they are, but their agenda is far from clear. Simbeline and Iris both flirt outrageously with Quickthorpe in an attempt to get him to feel well-disposed to them, and they’re both keen on him getting the gems.

Quickthorpe is… what, 14? 16? in the game. When we see him in the final sequence, Quickthorpe has just turned 21. We can hear the background fire sounds we heard everywhere in the Land of Shadows, Fable’s ersatz hell-realm. The backgrounds of the dungeon cell also look like the cells in the Land of Shadows, and we can see firelight flickering across Quickthorpe’s face from outside when he peers through the bars of his cell door. 

A popular alternative interpretation is that he’s in prison or an asylum, and that could work, too, but we've already established that The Land of Shadows is this world’s default place where awful things go on. On top of that, even the grimmest institutions are unlikely to deliberately serve their inmates chocolate maggot cake.

The previously friendly narrator’s voice takes on an ominous tone as we pan away from a bad CGI version of Quickthorpe reading the Fable book. Oh, and don’t read any pop culture references into things when the narrator asks how his “favourite master of the matrix” is doing today. The Matrix wouldn't be released for another three years, in 1999, so fuck knows what the matrix in question is supposed to be. The narrator tells us that Quickthorpe murdered his “entire family with a frozen mackerel at the age of three”. We've not heard anything much about Quickthorpe’s family through the game, but this whole imprisonment setup does sound particularly improbable, and here’s WHY I think it’s so improbable.

Note that the last thing Quickthorpe did before this end sequence kicked in was use a headset to access a “particle streamer” backup tape where “all unrecorded nonhistorical events that could ever happen are stored”. It’s only after this that we see Quickthorpe vanish, presumably into this hellish existence. Which didn't exist until he accessed the particle streamer.

This sounds like EXACTLY the kind of thing we should be copying into Quickthorpe's tiny mind

After retrieving the gems, destroying their guardians, and not giving the stones and Mecubarz key to Ismael, Quickthorpe goes meddling with alien technology, in the process writing a non-historical timeline over his own. This, of course, also neatly gets him out of the hair of the Mecubarz who, based on the evidence above, are still on the planet. He’s clearly been nothing more than a pawn to either side in this conflict.

There is some evidence for a plot implying that the entire story was merely a fantasy all along. Most notable here is the Drimm in the forest in the Frozen Land, who comes right out and says: “Did ye know that yer not’ing other than the seeker of a dream? And that a Drimm be not’ing more than a figment of yer imagination.” However, even this could simply be a reference to Quickthorpe's eventual future fate.

Regardless of your preferred interpretation, by clumsily re-writing the ending to re-unite Quickthorpe with his previously indifferent girlfriend (without even so much as some extra voice acting), the Sir-Tech US version renders the game’s finale less disturbing, but also less interesting. It also means that the business with the headset and the particle streamer makes even less sense than it did in the first place.

This is Quickthorpe's girlfriend, by the way. She has very jiggly breasts and sounds like she's from the East End

Admittedly, the pathos (and outright perversity) of the original ending WAS a bit heavy-duty for a game that’s clearly trying, albeit unevenly, to be humorous. I can’t shake the feeling that, in plot terms, Fable would have done better as a dark game with dark humour, than as what we ended up with: a game with light humour built onto a surprisingly dark world.

I know this play-through kind of reads like a litany of disappointment, but Fable isn't without its merits. The mixture of fantasy and SF elements give the game a feel that’s somewhat reminiscent of the massively underrated Inherit The Earth (science fantasy is an oddly under-represented genre in computer games in general, the first three Ultima titles notwithstanding).

The voice acting is surprisingly good. Hell, the voice of Kenton Archer is in the cast, assuming that’s the same Richard Attlee. Video game voice acting was coming into its own in the mid-90s and Fable’s cast makes the best of an occasionally dodgy script. They don’t get credited in the manual, or anywhere else except the , so I'm tipping the hat here. The cast:

Jasper Brittan (I’m wondering if that should have read Jasper Britton)
Gilbert Wynne
Jenifer Konko (I suspect that this might be Jennifer Konko)
Richard Attlee
Alan Cox
Janet Rawson
James Hicks
Ellis Pike 
Jason Reed

The graphics, and particularly the backgrounds, are lovely, and although the different lands aren't hugely original, they’re all presented in a distinct and interesting manner. Fable appears to have been the first major title produced by creators Alexander Jacobs, Laurent Cluzel and Jens Hultgren. While it's flawed and in places difficult for the worst reasons, it’s still good enough to make me wish they’d had the opportunity to go on to make more adventure games.