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Once Upon a Time in the Age of Fable
I wanted to talk a bit about a singular and peculiar pre-Twine, choice-based game that came out in 2006 called Age of Fable. Even now there’s not anything (that I’ve found!) particularly like it.
The FAQ for the game also points to this indeterminate, fluid history. The text describes the game as an “RPG” but then a “gamebook”—not entirely the same thing! And this is borne out in the gameplay. The character creation involves 12 different attributes, and with a randomly generated character, you are often at the mercy of attribute checks, which happen nearly every page. There isn’t really any opportunity to alter a roll or add bonuses to things that are really important for you to accomplish, like you can in some RPGs. But at the same time, this is far more robust than even most online gamebooks. And if this had been released as a Choice of Games story, it would be considered irrevocably broken.
But there is something beautiful and haunting in the half-brokenness of this game. Though there are winning endings, according to the FAQ, in about twenty plays, I don’t feel like I’ve ever gotten close to one. But that rarely seems to be the point. It’s truly a game of exploration and using the huge lapses of plot, time, and space to create the feeling and texture of living inside of a fable. The writing is evocative and full of small moments of levity, and the choices presented to you have, at times, a staggering amount of breadth. This is where the craft of Age of Fable really shines—horizontally, not vertically.
Of course this occasionally does have the feel of classic gamebooks like Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series—both in their original gamebook form and in the later, exquisitely fleshed out mobile games published by inkle. But there are some key differences. In Sorcery!, the pacing is indeed jagged, but the narrative arc always seems to keep the larger story from going off the rails. In Age of Fable, there are no rails. Not really. There are recurring locations, but upon entering the main city of Karrakara, each time it feels as if the city is starting anew, with all the props and scenes hastily put back in their place.
Although I haven’t dug into the code of the game, the recurrence of locations feels capricious, which gives the whole game an uncanny, rather eerie feel between that of a “cave of time” style CYOA and a more artistic game that allows you to follow whims or make a series of illogical choices and not (necessarily) die. The art direction also lends to this feeling of unreality. Almost every page is illustrated, as are character avatars, but these are taken invariably from public domain(ish) images of works of art, or at least as a free game in 2006 would understand this. These can range from Renaissance art to watercolors to Internet-era fantasy art, but there is rarely consistency from one choice to another.
But the fact that this was, in all likelihood, a necessary-feeling design choice when the state of browser gaming was much, much different than it is today is beside the point. The jarring visuals manage to blend together once in a while, and the constraints of a rather touchy RPG make the whole endeavor even more absurd. Wherever you are, turn around and head toward the hills, or the ocean, or the desert, or Karrakara. Are you on a quest? You might be. But then again, maybe not.
But keep clicking anyway.