Morality Test
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 1: (Jan-Feb 2011)

Morality Test

If fear introduces a man to himself, then so, too, does power. That’s the theme at the heart of Lionhead’s Fable III, the latest installment in the legendary RPG series and, quite possibly, the culmination of the vision Peter Molyneux’s Lionhead Studios had for the series back in 2005: A narrative guided by choice and consequence—unbroken by an overload of meters and menus—in which the world transforms in every way imaginable according to the player’s actions, ultimately revealing his or her true moral character. For what is character but action, and action, choice? Unlike its predecessors, however, Fable III takes the ramifications of the player’s choices beyond the individual and extends them to all of society.

Lionhead Studios’ Fable III takes players into the realm of monarchs during the 1700s, wherein they must lead a royal revolt against the tyrannical king. But in the usual Fable fashion, the choices made in the game have a global effect on the kingdom’s subjects.

While the first Fable was inspired by folklore, and the second by King Arthur and Robin Hood, the third is modeled on the monarchs and the rebels, particularly of the Georgian and Victorian eras. Like the previous titles in this series, it follows the typical hero’s journey of a powerless, young character who accepts a call to a greater destiny and progresses through conflict to attain power. That’s where most generic games end. Not Fable III.

“Why end at potentially the most exciting bit?” asks Lionhead lead designer Peter Molyneux. Taking that to heart, Fable III’s second half explores the flipside of the hero’s journey: following the player after the person wins kingship over the mythical land of Albion. It’s then, and only then, that the choices of the player—now charged with absolute political power—affect the entire kingdom, rich and poor alike.

Discussing the importance of including this “flipside,” Molyneux points immediately to Henry VIII. “Not only did he kill off his wives, but to do that he got rid of [the realm’s] religion and replaced it with a new one,” he says. “He also took five percent of the entire tax income—the equivalent of billions of British pounds—and spent it on his personal wine cellar while many people were suffering from starvation and the plague. That’s fascinating inspiration, and we want to give you the power to be that colorful when you’re ruler.” Indeed, once crowned, the player is free to make the laws and execute them in any fashion he or she sees fit—however moral or immoral.

“Fable III is all about power and making you feel powerful,” notes Molyneux. “But how do you do that? Do I create 200 weapons you can buy from shops?” he asks. “No,” he answers, because invariably everyone ends up choosing the same big weapon. “That’s not choice, or power,” he adds. Alternatively, the gameplay experience is often derailed when situations call for players to scour their GUI-based inventory for the right weapon. To solve those problems, players design and wield one weapon throughout Fable III. Like a blank canvas, players can tailor the curvature or sharpness of a blade, which will drip blood if used against innocents, glow ethereally if turned against evil, or broaden if used for defensive parries.

Touch-based Gameplay

Molyneux searched beyond the obvious and found a much more subtle way of instilling a sense of empowerment—a complex touch-based system of gameplay. “Feeling powerful is all about your relationship to the world and your ability to touch it,” he explains. “If I suddenly said to you, ‘You can’t touch anything,’ you’d feel diminished.” Therefore, depending on your relationship to someone, you can use ‘expression touches’ to shake hands, embrace, kiss, or comfort someone, before employing ‘dynamic touches’ to perform more complex physical interactions, like carrying a child to safety or grabbing a disloyal subject by the scruff of the neck and tossing the person into a dungeon. “That makes you feel powerful, man!” Molyneux enthuses.

“Sure, we could have used the ‘A’ button to put them in jail, but that doesn’t make you feel emotional, which is all about that connection to the world reinforced by this emphasis on touch,” Molyneux continues. The variations on touching and holding gradually become more involved and complex in proportion to the acquisition of power—an interesting psychological statement, to be sure.

Speaking of that psychology, design director Josh Atkins says, “The origin of the touch idea is built around an attempt to emotionally root the player in the game. When we think of features for Fable, we often discuss what we want the player to ‘feel’ and how that feature will matter emotionally to the audience. Overall, we felt that actually being able to touch another character or another player created an immediate emotional bond with them. Therefore, the touch mechanic can mean holding a child’s hand as you rescue the person from a cave full of wolves; it can mean hugging a co-op player, kissing your spouse, or shaking hands as you promise to make someone’s life better if they follow you.”

Lionhead also extended this mandate for tactile interaction to leveling up and customization. Typically, these would be the domain of endless HUDs, GUIs, meters, and menu bars, constantly cluttering the screen and breaking the immersive experience. In terms of Fable II, Molyneux laments, “More than half the people who played it used less than half the features of the game. That’s just bad workmanship.” That’s because those features, he says, were housed in 2D GUIs, which players consistently tune out to maintain an uninterrupted immersion in the role-playing experience.

In Fable III, those GUIs are gone. Your inventory, wardrobe, and so forth are now housed in the Sanctuary, attended by a butler played by John Cleese. “Because the Sanctuary was a replacement for a standard interface or GUI, it had to be accessed quickly. Therefore, from the outline of the game design, there was always a portion of memory dedicated to it so the loading would be as fast as possible,” says lead animator Si Jacques. In addition, the player’s support by the people of Albion is not measured by the usual faction meters, but by the size of actual crowds of people cheering for you along the roadside.

Each location in Fable III has its own look, which is reflected in the texture colors. Above, Brightwall Village, with its yellows and oranges, is warm and inviting.

“We look at this as a failure if a majority of our users don’t actually see the set of features we create for a Fable game,” says Atkins. “Therefore, we knew we wanted to do a better job of both explaining and advertising our features in the game. In addition, we wanted to make the entire process of interacting with the hero more fun and intuitive. So, we started the project with the idea of a full-3D GUI world and the idea of the Road to Rule, whereby the player felt like the process of leveling up and customization was seamlessly and intuitively integrated into the physical reality of the game world and the narrative.”

The theme of power and choice also extends to the environment. Rule with respect for the environment, and the lakes will scintillate with fresh water, the fields blossom with flowers. Rule with disrespect, and see the rivers muddied with industrial sludge, and black clouds of filth loom across the skies. From the weaponry, to the environment, and to the simplest of touches—a handshake or a caress, for instance—the game strictly follows Molyneux’s mantra throughout production: “For every choice, a consequence.”

The Road to Rule

The game story is set 60 years after Fable II, when the continent of Albion is under the control of the corrupt and tyrannical King Logan. Under his reign, Albion has undergone an industrial revolution; the skyline in the Victorian-era inspired Bowerstone is choked with a profusion of smoke stacks, the air gauzed with pollution. Crime, injustice, and poverty run rampant.

The player assumes the role of the king’s sibling, either a prince or princess, who suspects that their father was murdered at the king’s hands. Branded a traitor by Logan, you flee the castle and, aided by Jasper (your butler and advisor), Sir Walter (a combat trainer and friend of your father), and your trusted Border collie, you’re forced on a quest to become a revolutionary leader, winning the support of the people en route to overthrowing the king.

The player fights off the king’s army, which was animated using Softimage.

You begin in the Sanctuary, which includes a walk-in wardrobe and your armory, along with a tabletop map that enables fast travel around Albion. From there, you embark on the Road to Rule, a long, misty path blocked by gateways that serve as both a progress indicator and a talent tree. The gateways, like new levels, are opened by gaining allies along the Road to Rule. In the beginning, after you cross the remote, snowy village of Mistpeak and reach the quaint village of Brightwall, these allies are won by literally glad-handing every passerby. As you progress further, however, new and more complex touches are revealed, such as dancing, hugging, and physical forms of teasing.

 As you befriend the villagers, accepting their various side missions, you amass followers willing to serve beneath your hand against your wicked brother, all of whom cheer you on along the roadside as you pass through the next gateway, like a narrative threshold, on the Road to Rule. During the game’s second half, you, as king, will have to choose between fulfilling the promises made to the people befriended along the so-called Road, or risk losing Albion’s approval, all the while contending with the possibility of war with the neighboring continent of Aurora.

World Building

Fable III’s massive, sprawling maps encompass almost every type of environment imaginable, from mystical and industrial, to frozen barrens and pastoral idylls, all realized with an ethereal, painterly, and heightened sense of reality. In this respect, Lionhead resisted the current trend toward hyper-realism, represented by games like Heavy Rain, in favor of refining its own more colorful, animated sensibility—an aesthetic that’s on glorious display in the Pixar-like opening cinematic involving a chicken’s harrowing flight through Bowerstone.

“There was extensive refinement of our existing modeling, texturing, and rigging technology,” says art director John McCormack. “As much as I look at Heavy Rain as a technical marvel and a real step toward bridging the Uncanny Valley, it isn’t something that guided our development; if anything, I’d want us to take our unique stylistic approach even further in the future.”

Borrowing architectural cues from the Victorian era, Lionhead had to accurately re-­create structures from rustic, period villages, to medieval castles and Dickensian hellholes. “We were lucky in that our studio is a stone’s throw away from London, where there are areas of untouched history and architecture,” says McCormack. In addition, the team conducted extensive research from online sources and books. The artists drew upon all that information for crafting its “Fabled” look—an amalgamation and exaggeration of various threads of British and European visual history combined with the aesthetic rules the studio has built up over previous titles.

The player’s look changes throughout the game based on the moral impact of his or her decisions.

In contrast to the environmental and architectural diversity of Albion, Aurora is a desert wilderness that occasionally reveals the last vestiges of an ancient civilization. According to lead level designer Mike Green, Albion and Aurora combined span 48 regions; one of the level designers calculated that the playable area of Fable III is 4,463,872 square meters, or 1.72 square miles. That number excludes all the environmental morphing that results from the player’s choices—“that pushes the number up even more,” he says.

The two continents are a tour-de-force showcase for the power of Autodesk’s Soft­image. “Our [Softimage] XSI pipeline allows us to have a locked-down asset that we can open to edit, view, or just retrieve to view the mesh. The source-control aspect of this system is extremely useful,” says senior art manager Mark Smart. For example, the system prevents multiple saves of an item with different names, which in the past had caused confusion.

Cloth simulation was achieved with modeling in Softimage and then animated dynamically using code.

In addition to Softimage, Lionhead used Pixologic’s ZBrush and Adobe’s Photoshop for detailing and texturing the imagery. “The biggest challenge we faced with the environment was managing texture memory. The environments are very big, and texture space at a premium,” says Smart. The vast majority of the sets use texture pages that seamlessly tile. The one drawback with tiling textures, however, is the repetition of familiar themes in the texture itself. To solve this problem, the group created and mapped variants to specific polygons.

Adding to the texturing challenges, every setting had to adhere to its own visual theme and palette. “For example, we wanted the village of Brightwall to have a cozy, friendly feel,” says Smart. “The textures reflected that, sporting warm, tonal colors, with prominent yellows and oranges. For the underground tombs, the gray stone is laced with blues and green that hint at underground moss or lichen.”

Environmental Morphing

After coronation, if the player rules for the sake of wealth and industry, the forests will disappear, the verdant valleys turn to muddy strip mines, the rivers run like an open sore, and the air lie woolen with factory smoke. Called environmental morphs, these transformations serve as an external manifestation of the player’s spiritual decay or growth—which is not always as clear-cut as it seems. Yes, there’s gold in them hills, as the saying goes, but that gold can also be used to feed the starving.

“One of our biggest goals during development was to ensure that players notice when their world changes,” says Green. “There were many global changes in Fable II that some players didn’t pay any attention to or just weren’t aware of. So, we made a rule that any region morphs in Fable III should be as impactful as possible.” One of the game’s crucial plot points pivots on an environmental morphing of a picturesque town called Millfields, formerly known as Bower Lake in Fable II. Skirted by mountains, and rich with lush trees and green fields, Millfields is home to Albion’s nobility. As king, the player must decide whether to drain and mine the beautiful Bower Lake nestled at its heart.

“We had an idea fairly early on what changes we could make, specifically draining the region’s iconic lake and strip-mining the minerals beneath it. Bower Lake is probably one of the top fan-favorite regions, so this change alone had to have some shock value when players get to see it in-game,” says Green. “Hopefully, the financial reward for mining the region is worth the devastating loss of such natural beauty.” For other region changes, the artists often need concept artwork to get some idea of the overall theme, but for Millfields, it was easier to take screen shots of the town and despoil it in Photoshop. From that point, they used the in-house level editor, called FableEd, to inflict aesthetic damage.

“Each level designer will tend to focus first on changes to the height fields, or height maps (which generate terrain elevations texturally rather than polygonally), when modifying a region because they’re the easiest and cheapest changes to make,” explains Green. “For Millfields, we immediately removed the water plane from the lake and started sculpting it out according to the demands of the story. We kept the existing palette of textures from the vanilla (unspoiled) region until we were happy with the layout. Then, we duplicated the existing palette of textures—or themes, as we call them—and applied them onto the alternative scenario. We could then start swapping textures in our themes very quickly; that is, change the textures underneath grass meshes, increase the density of foliage, and so forth.”

Lionhead’s FableEd contains several tools that make region morphs fairly easy to create and edit. Because the majority of the regions in Fable III are built using height maps, duplicating a level would normally mean that any bug fixes in the unspoiled regions wouldn’t be seen in the morphed terrains. FableEd, however, allows height fields to inherit from one another, so the artists can flood or drain a region and still make changes in the vanilla region that will also propagate across all the other possible environmental transformations—even if significant changes were made to the alternative scenario. “Without this one feature,” says Green, “we’d have all gone mad long ago trying to duplicate any fixes across all the variants.”

After changing the height maps, artists began modifying the polygonal meshes. “Because we duplicated the region, it will still retain all the [geometry] from the vanilla scenario, so it’s here that we would make changes to any buildings or structures, such as permanently damaging or gutting houses, breaking bridges, and so forth. For Millfields, we reused existing assets from one of our other regions because draining the lake alone wasn’t enough to shock the player,” says Green. “We imported crane assets, mine-cart tracks, and various other industrial structures, and laid those around the region. If we did need new assets, we used [Google’s] SketchUp or another 3D package to create a ‘white box’ of the new mesh.” If the white-box object worked within the scene, the art department would import it into Softimage and ZBrush to model and paint the final asset.

Once Bower Lake and the surrounding areas had been remodeled, artists used FableEd’s environment theme editor to change the ambience of the region across the day-night cycle. The editor controls such attributes as sun position, sky color, tone mapping, fogging, depth of field, saturation, cloud textures, water simulation, and such. “This is probably our most useful tool for region morphs because a few adjustments here can quickly change the feel of a level,” says Green. The team also can add various atmospheric effects, like rain, snow, dust storms, and more, by merely adjusting a few simple sliders. Moreover, because the editor is always synced up to the playable build, any changes and adjustments can be seen instantly in-game, which allows the artists to iterate extremely quickly. For Millfields, they darkened the region significantly during the day, adding smog using fogging and a re-colored semi-transparent dust-storm effect. They also introduced man-made lighting around the newer mining area; finally, the particle effects team added billowing smoke coming from various vents and chimneys.

Modularity and recycling were the keys to streamlining the building of Fable III’s sets, particularly the tombs and caves that lie in an underground cavern at the border between the high-altitude tundra of Mist Peak and the village of Brightwall. “The tombs were literally snapped together,” says Smart. Built in Soft­image, each section would have points that snapped it to another section. They were initially created as a white-box asset in SketchUp so the artists could quickly see how they fit together. Once finalized, the artists would add in the geometry. As long as the artists kept within the boundaries of the white box, the subsequent detailed textured pieces would all fit together.

“Reducing assets was essential, too,” Smart adds. “For example, artists built doors for two doorway apertures; that way, we could be sure assets weren’t created that didn’t fit. The same was true for windows. Trees, grass, and plants all had a central resource so they could be used in multiple regions.”

Cinematics Fable III

features two types of cinematics: real-time and pre-rendered. Because of the constantly evolving appearance of the hero and the environments, both were a nightmare to create in light of the need to anticipate almost every change that could transpire before a cut-scene played.

The in-engine cut-scenes use all the functionality of the Fable engine, including the in-game character models, lighting, procedural lip-syncing, textures, and so forth. “Apart from the fact that the hero constantly changes, morphs, and is often dressed in random outfits, the in-game cut-scenes cannot be pre-rendered, so the sheer number of scenes that had to be done in-engine almost doubled from initial estimates,” says lead animator Si Jacques. To shoulder the burden, Lionhead brought in director Jay Alan, and used an outsource company, Original Fource in China, to make them.

Standing supreme among the pre-rendered cinematics is the opening cut-scene involving a hapless chicken making a harrowing flight from certain death in a factory, through the boot-battered streets and under the carriage wheels of the Stygian nightmare of Bowerstone, only to land in a cooking pot in a kitchen. It is a tour de force of art design, character animation, state-of-the-art effects animation, subsurface scattering, and global illumination, done by Blur Studios, a Lionhead collaborator since Fable II. “They were happy to be making a bird-based movie because they had just developed a new feather plug-in,” says Jacques. –Martin McEachern

Casting an Epic

Albion not only encompasses a diverse array of environments, but also characters and animals from almost every walk of life. While Lionhead’s character modeling, texturing, and animation pipeline is Softimage-based, artists began with a mass of polygons in Softimage, Nevercenter’s Silo, or Autodesk’s 3ds Max. Once a character took shape, artists imported the mesh into Photoshop and Andrew Shpagin’s 3D-Coat for texturing, sculpting the finish details in ZBrush.

Lionhead also tapped the power of a few other packages during character creation, including Headus’ UVLayout for unwrapping, and xNormal freeware for baking out normal maps and ambient occlusion maps, for instance. Because of the inordinately high number of characters on screen at any given time, and the highly stylized character design, the in-game meshes are quite light, often relying mostly on intricate normal, diffuse, and other maps to provide subtle, individualizing touches.

“During the course of Fable III, our game engine improved, so the normal maps began to pop and give us a lot more fidelity. This meant the high-res ZBrush sculpts became even more important,” says character and creature art manager Ian Faichnie. The average polygon count varies significantly among characters, with some requiring details that couldn’t be faked with normal maps so the team had to model them polygonally. On average, Faichnie estimates characters comprise approximately 10,000 polys, perhaps a little less. “A number of the characters, particularly later in development, were ‘re-topologised’ to get the edge looping and poly count we needed,” he adds.

The player also undergoes a physical metamorphosis during the game that tracks his or her spiritual arc. There are changes to the skin, makeup, tattoos, hairstyles, scarring to the body, staining of the clothes, and so forth. The hero’s face responds to the moral impact of his or her actions, growing gaunt and skeletal if the person’s rule lays waste to the people or the land, or more beautiful if they deliver positive change. During moments of intense physical combat, the true quality of the hero’s soul, a product of the totality of the person’s actions, will manifest itself physically in extreme morphs, which result in angel or demon wings sprouting from the back.

To create these transformations, artists worked with a standard character shader that embodied a variety of channels for diffuse, specular, normal, reflection, and Fresnel maps. “The first three are pretty standard, with a texture map used for each, and the specular term incorporating color, power, and intensity settings,” says technical artist Adonis Stevenson. “The reflection map was a cubic cross-format image comprising blurry and sharp variants for various materials, such as metal and glass. The Fresnel term was the final piece in the jigsaw. The main upgrade from Fable II (the Fresnel map) really helped bring the characters to life by taking all the lights in a level into account.” He provides the following example: If a character stands in front of a torch, the model will gain a light rim and glimmer accordingly as the torch flickers, which really helps ground the character in the environment.

To handle the ever-changing countenance of the hero, Lionhead used a facial map for the male and female hero that comprises six diffuse maps, one normal map, and one specular map. For each, there are two evil textures, two good, and two neutral. “I began by creating the neutral face for both the male and female, on which the good and evil textures are based,” says lead creature artist Jon Eckersely. “Then, a handy script generates blends of all these at varying scales of morality. These blends are then fed into the game editor.”

The shades of gray between the polar moralities was always the hardest to paint effectively, Eckersely says. “We want the hero to look great all the time, no matter how the player chose to play the game. Finding the right look was a process of blending the textures in layers in Photoshop using the opacity slider.” For basic model morphs, which alter the hero’s natural body—changing it from robust to thin, for example—the artists used a set of bone morphs on the rig that reflect the hero’s strength, weight, and other attributes. The extreme morphs involved triggering alternate geometry, rigging, and textures during gameplay, and attaching wings, horns, and other supernatural parts on the body during combat.

From doublets to the dresses of scullery maids and the long, flowing gowns of nobles, clothing and cloth simulation for the period costumes was a pivotal challenge during the character-creation process, complicated by frequent wardrobe changes to the hero’s ever-changing body. Modeled in Softimage, the cloth deformed properly; this was done by distributing the polygons as evenly as possible over the surface. “The cloth in Fable III is animated dynamically in code, so we have to be clever with how many vertices we’re throwing at the simulation,” says Eckersely. “Cloth power is painted via a weight map in Softimage. Using a grayscale map, artists paint [the surface] fully white for total cloth simulation, or shades of gray to blend between cloth simulation and the animation played underneath. This allowed us to come up with not only cloth materials, but springy materials, too, like the chicken-suit tail, which has a really nice wobble to it.”

Painting with Light

Albion is a world of painterly, almost picturesque, beauty. In Brightwall, for example, a footbridge arcs over a stream as the moon hangs large overhead, its silvery light softening the edges of clouds and trees, sparkling off the water, and coruscating off the limestone as a mill turns placidly off to the side. Artists lit the levels with both real-time dynamic lighting and off-line baked lighting stored in light maps.

In turn, these lighting methods can be enhanced by mist patches, atmospheric scattering, post-process effects (such as dust storms and crepuscular rays), and a tone-mapping pipeline. “The main light is a shadow-casting parallel light source that corresponds with the time of day and is controlled from [FableEd’s] Theme Editor,” says lead engine programmer Don Williamson. “This connects live to the running game and allows artists and level designers to design the look of any region in real time and at any time of day.”

For flickering light and shadows—from the torchlit, snow- and ice-bound villages of Mist Peak to the wall sconces adorning the castle—artists used standard dynamic lighting and shadowing from spotlights, all of which are composited in screen space to allow as many shadow-casting spotlights as the frame allows. Furthermore, the water system received an upgrade for Fable III, and it now supports real-time reflection and masked, screen-space refraction with a more appealing and realistic Fresnel model applied to its lighting.

Compared to Fable II, which Williamson calls a fairly flat affair with not too many lights, Fable III is aglow in lights as far as the eye can see. Lights vary in type and will bounce around to fill out dark corners of the world. Bridges received soft, blue glows from the water underneath, while caves catch natural bounces of light through openings; all of these effects and more are modulated by an artistically driven ambient occlusion model. This model was made possible by Lionhead’s off-line global illumination lighting baker, which runs entirely on the GPU and accelerates the baking process from days to an hour on a single machine, according to Williamson. –Martin McEachern

Alas, long dresses are always the hardest to simulate. “They can be a complete nightmare to get working correctly,” says Eckersely. “On the IK rig for both our hero and villager, we have cloth colliders set up on most of the main bones; these bounding volumes can play havoc with longer garments, especially when they fully encircle the legs almost to the floor.”

Hand-Keyed Animation

Albion is teeming with scores of villagers that share one skeletal rig bound to a mesh and composed of three body parts: the body, head, and hair or hat. “All these are interchangeable, so any body can fit with any head, and any head with any hat or hair,” says Faichnie. “We also have different texture sets for ethnic variations, allowing us to get a large variety of different-looking villagers representing all parts of the world.” Specific non-player characters (NPCs), such as the bartenders or prostitutes, have their own unique main bodies, but may use standard heads. While the artists tried getting more detail with sets of noses, ears, and so on, they found that keeping things simpler seemed to work best.

To maintain all the charm and nuance of Fable’s colorful, heightened sense of reality, animators avoided motion capture, opting to keyframe all the animations for both the hero and the NPCs in Softimage, including all the facial expressions and the dynamic touch actions. “The touch feature was absolutely one of the design pillars for the development,” says Jacques. “We knew a complete solution for every circumstance would not be possible, but we wanted the player to feel as embedded in the world and as emotionally invested as possible.” To do this, the player has to execute every action—however mundane—rather than surrendering that control to a triggered, pre-programmed event.

“There were two areas of the touch feature that received the most amount of work: hand holding and the one-to-one interactive expressions between hero and villager,” says Jacques. Indeed, for every form of touch—from kissing, hugging, hand shaking, dancing, dragging—there had to be a reciprocal action from the receiver. “We looked at other games that used hand holding—notably, Sony’s Ico by Fumito Ueda—and knew we wanted our feature to surpass that.” This required an intense collaboration among animation, design, and code. The animation department provided a number of partial body poses for the hand “holder” and the second character, or “holdee.” The artists then blended these poses on top of run, walk, and general movement cycles. The poses, themselves, were blended and adjusted depending on the positioning of the two characters relative to each other. The team wrote code to provide IK support, tweaks to slightly stretch the bones to complete the connection between hands, and make other fine-tuning adjustments.

Using the same principles, Lionhead developed the dragging feature, through which the king can drag insubordinates to the dungeon or a child to safety. “We initially limited the hero’s speed, creating unique full-body drag animations for both the hero and the NPCs,” says Jacques. “During the development of a game, sometimes a solution works better than you ever thought it would, and this was a case in point. The dragging action not only came together quickly and looked exactly as we wanted it, but felt really good while using it. So, for example, if you want to be evil, you can drag unwilling people to slave away in factories, and it will really feel like they’re resisting.”

In Fable II, the one-to-one interactions between hero and villager utilized specific looping animations for the hero. To play against the hero’s expressions, the villagers then drew from a bank of varied reaction animations, depending on their emotional state. During these exchanges, physical contact and interaction with the hero were either avoided or kept to a minimum. If good acting is reacting, this was a serious problem, which Lionhead sought hard to rectify in Fable III. “In keeping with the touch-design pillar for Fable III, we expanded our expression system to accommodate highly bespoke reactions directly linked to the hero’s actions,” says Jacques.

Having a second character reacting to the hero in perfect synchronization was a large hit on the animation schedule; whether they were shaking hands, dancing, or so forth, it was a slow process that required smart design and all departments working closely together, adds Jacques. This “huge hit” resulted in more than 2000 animations for the hero, not including cut-scene specific animations. “In total, our Fable III branch of Alienbrain [Avid’s asset management software] holds 1,304,548 frames of animation, which equates to over 12 hours of nonstop animation,” says Jacques.

To blend the hero’s cycles, Lionhead’s animators designed a blending system controlled via Lua scripts, which can be edited by the animator and then reloaded for testing on the development kit. Unlike the hero’s animations, programmers control the blending of almost all the other animation in the game.

Artists hand-keyed all the facial animation for the in-game performances and the highly expressive turns in the cut-scenes, which feature the vocal acting of Jon Cleese, Simon Pegg, and Ben Kingsley. Built in Softimage, Lionhead’s custom facial rigging system is bone-based, which, says Jacques, is more efficient for the engine than storing blendshapes. With more than 470,000 words of dialog in the game, however, Lionhead required a procedural solution for lip sync. To that end, animators turned to Annosoft as their middleware solution for the in-game and cut-scene animations, working tightly with programmers during the syncing process. “By reducing the number of face shapes we fed into Annosoft down to 12, and applying some simple rules on top so the mouth wouldn’t be trying to hit every syllable of every word, we were able to achieve a good result,” notes Jacques.

Moral Mettle

Indeed, the moral choices in Fable III are never easy, each one fraught with potential loss to oneself or the people of Albion. “Choices and consequences have always been an important part of the foundation of Fable, but this time we really wanted to move beyond the simplistic, binary choices we’ve had in the past,” says lead writer Mark Llabres. “When you present an obviously good option and an obviously evil one, you’re really not giving the player a choice at all, as they will typically have decided at the outset which path they’re going to follow and will stick to it.

“However, we’ve moved away from simple good and evil,” Llabres continues, “so the morphs are less extreme in the hero than they have been in the past. Fable III isn’t about becoming a devil or a saint. It’s about being a human being. Just one who happens to wield enormous power.”

One weapon. One immersive environment uninterrupted by the overwhelming minutiae of GUIs. One action governed by choice and consequence in sometimes morally-nebulous conflict. These are the new ideals embraced and realized to perfection in Fable III, ideals that may not represent a new era for the RPG, but certainly a bold new direction that has raised the bar and could spur a sea change for the genre, one that may lure a whole new demographic normally disenchanted with such games.

Still, design director Josh Atkins believes there is a place for the old school. “Classic RPGs—with their numbers, bars, meters, and interesting upgrade systems—have existed for decades, and, personally, I hope they continue to exist,” he says. “However, since Fable I, we’ve never felt that really intricate and complicated RPG system was right for Fable. In Fable III, we still have the fun stuff relating to hero customization and upgrading, but I think we’ve developed a system that suits our game and what we want players to feel.”

Right now, that system is the sole domain of the Fable world, but like all good ideas, it could spread rapidly throughout the RPG universe in the near future.

Martin McEachern is an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. He can be reached at