The morphing food dynamics of the Fable series

As both a visual art and a narrative form, video games can utilize many of the same food themes that appear in film, literature, and art: food in games can invoke nostalgia or whimsy, provide detail as to a character’s personal tastes and philosophy, act as shorthand for cultural or family bonds, and so on. But there are a few ways that video games can play with food that are unique to interactive media. A little over a year ago, I outlined a few broad categories of food interactivity in games:  food items can add to or subtract from a character’s health or statistics, or simulated hunger can impose a meter or a timer on gameplay, or food can be interacted with in ways that primarily set the scene and enrich a detailed gameworld.

The Fable series deploys food items in a way that certainly works as worldbuilding, contributing to the lush environment of its vaguely English, vaguely medieval pastoral villages. One of your first quests in the original Fable game (2004) is to collect cooking apples (which you can’t eat) so that a Cockney-voiced cook can bake a pie (which you can eat). Chickens wander across picturesque dirt roads; you can kick them if you’re playing that kind of character. Numerous dry goods, like chocolate and sacks of grain, can be bought and sold to earn gold or win favor from NPCs. A few food items can also work as power-ups that affect your health or stats, but in a way that contribute to the whimsical, irreverent tone of the game: carrots give you experience points in Skill, which affects your use of bows and arrows; fish boosts your Will experience; red meat gives you Strength. In the same way that Fable’s world is built out of a hodgepodge of fantasy genre tropes, these power-ups allude to a hodgepodge of nutrition myths: carrots are good for your eyes, fish is brain food, etc.

But Fable also features a food/stats relationship that is rarely seen in games: some foods not only affect your abilities but also the appearance of your Hero. Eating lots of red meat will not only boost your Strength but will also cause the Hero to grow a little paunch. To trim back up, the character can eat celery. More obliquely, the Hero can shift his alignment on a scale of Good to Evil by eating tofu or live baby chicks; alignment points eventually translate to changes in the Hero’s physical appearance from an angelic glow to a demonic glare.  Character morphing affects more than how the Hero appears onscreen; NPCs will react to the Hero with fear, laughter, or admiration depending on what clothes the Hero wears and how he looks.

Neutral Hero having a beer in Bowerstone

Neutral Hero having a beer in Bowerstone

When Fable 2 was released in 2008, the foodscape in the United States had changed: a nationwide critique of factory-processed food and industrial agriculture was gaining traction, as evidenced by the release of media such as Food, Inc. and In Defense of Food. At the same time, the panic over what was called an “obesity epidemic” in the U.S. was at its peak, and mainstream media was flooded with images and reports of the fat bodies that were supposedly both increasingly common yet uncommonly threatening to the nation’s health. I can’t speak to how these trends affected food discourse in the UK, where Fable was developed, but it is probably not coincidental that the character morphing system became a great deal more complex in Fable 2.

Fable‘s fantasy world, Albion, changed in several ways. Set several hundred years after the events of the first game, Fable 2 takes place in a vaguely steampunk Dickensian city with slums and ruins as well as its pastoral villages. Gender options and guns became available to the Hero, and the character morphing system gained several new sliders. In addition to the Good/Evil alignment, which still altered the Hero to look more angelic or demonic, the Hero may grow taller or stronger depending on whether he or she favors guns or swords. There are sliders that measure whether NPCs perceive your Hero is Scary or Funny, Attractive or Ugly, and Wealthy or Poor, although a Hero can influence these sliders with clothes, tattoos, and social interactions. There is also a slider for Purity versus Corruption, which essentially measures how your character treats his or her body: what and how much the Hero eats, whether the Hero indulges in vice, and so forth. Corruption essentially manifests as plague: pock marks, haggard appearance, and buzzing flies.

At the same time, Fable 2 introduced dozens more food options: the sparse menu of the first Fable was joined by additional snacks, beverages, and heavy meals, and each new food has five levels of quality that determined how it affects your stats. For example: tofu returns as a power-up for Good points, but cheap Fermented Tofu only provides a handful of health and purity points, while expensive Holy Tofu offers a substantial wallop of both. Drinking cheap beer would barely improve your health while greatly increasing your Corruption; expensive beer offers not only health but Strength, and the Purity loss is marginal. Eating animals (fish, mutton, jerky, meat pies) will always decrease your Purity, except for a few of the most expensive cuts. But almost every food in the game–with the exceptions of certain vegetables, fish, and water–increases your Fatness.

The result is that food in Fable 2 can deeply affect the Hero’s gameplay, and the player can’t help engaging with the politics of food and body representation. One might get through the first Fable without giving much thought to eating beyond the jokey power-ups; I don’t think I even realized weight was modifiable when I first played, since I skipped over the Demon Door quest that required a paunchy Hero. I even missed the body morphing for most of Fable 2, until I fought in the Arena and gobbled up every snack thrown down by cheering fans in order to stretch my health potion supply to the finish. By the final round, my tall and lanky sharp-shooter was corpulent, with puffy cheeks and a heavy belly.

Perhaps there is an argument to be made that it’s unique and worthwhile to have a fat playable character, since most playable characters tend to be formed into idealized models of strength, agility, and charisma. But having a fat Hero in Fable 2 is far from an enjoyable experience. NPC villagers, who are always eager to comment on your looks as well as your deeds, will call out helpful comments such as “you want to watch your waistline!” and “you’ll be needing new clothes soon!” Most devastatingly, eating and gaining weight in front of NPCs will cause them to consider your character less attractive, resulting in a handful of pig-shaped icons floating up from their heads as they make disgusted noises.

IMG_4933

Fortunately, posh clothes and celebrity status can override the effects of both your unattractive girth and your terrifying horns.

As a result, for the rest of the game I avoided interacting with Bowerstone’s many food vendors; I’m sure I’m not the only player who subsisted on an all-potion diet (with a side of celery).

In fact, I am very certain I am not the only player who was uncomfortable with the food system generally, because in Fable 3 (2010) Albion’s foodscape changed again. Food became far less integrated into gameplay: the vendors and variety of foods were still there, but the quality system disappeared and there are fewer stat effects (no purity/corruption or experience points).  The Hero can only carry one kind of food at a time, which is less of an incentive to rely on food for health or alignment points: if you’re a barrel-cleaner like I am, you may accidentally pick up some rancid jerky and lose your carefully hoarded tofu. Further, food can only be eaten immediately after purchase or during combat, which makes it difficult to morph quickly–and if you do try to gain weight, for example to gain admittance to another greedy Demon Door, your Hero appears more stout than fat.

In other words, food in Fable 3 became a little less about the body. But it became even more about worldbuilding, starting from the opening cinematic which featured the series’ ubiquitous chicken in a starring role.

For those who can’t watched embedded videos, imagine the scene from The Little Mermaid when Sebastian is chased by a French chef, but less slapstick and more a disturbing tour of Industrial Age economy under a tyrant king. The chicken narrowly escapes underfed and exhausted laborers, survives an execution, is processed (but not killed) in a dangerous factory, and tastes the freedom of flight only to fall again. It’s brutal. And while the sequence is obviously setting the scene for the main quest of Fable 3–like the chicken, the Hero will rebel against tyranny and oppression–it also draws on contemporary images and food-related concepts. The chicken–cruelly caged or comparatively free–is a central character in contemporary stories about ethical and sustainable eating; a player may think of the notorious industrial chicken farm from Food, Inc. when a Millfields NPC offers the Hero a chance to liberate chickens from a pie factory.

The economy system introduced in Fable 2 returns in Fable 3, allowing the Hero to influence the prosperity of different regions by buying and selling goods or committing crimes. There is a slight nod to regional cuisines: the Hero can buy inedible but tradeable boxes of crabs from traders on a chain of islands, and eat lizards and malanga roots in the desert marketplace. Once crowned king or queen, the Hero can more directly influence economy via decisions with environmental consequences, such as sewage management or mining. Together, these little details suggest that the focus of morphing shifted from altering the player’s appearance to altering the player’s world.

Fable‘s food politics interest me because the games seem to reflect some of the ways food discourse has shifted in recent decades, but also because they are fairly unique. I’ve only played one other series in which the player can alter a playable character’s body size and shape through gameplay (rather than through character creation): The Sims 2 and 3, in which diet and exercise is naturally part of a simulation that includes aging and bathroom breaks. Perhaps there are other games that employ this mechanic–I’d be curious to hear about them! But I think we can agree that food-imposed body-morphing is an uncommon game interaction, and it raises some interesting questions. Many players objected to the body-morphing in Fable 2; would it have been easier to swallow, perhaps, if fatness wasn’t received so negatively within the game’s universe? Also, while I’d personally like to see more body diversity in games, I can’t quite imagine an in-game food/body dynamic that would add to my enjoyment or immersion in a game. Both Fable and The Sims depict fatness as something that simply happens when you eat food, when in reality food is necessary and fat is complicated; on the other hand, that is not more unrealistic than Skyrim‘s svelte warriors famously downing multiple bowls of soup mid-battle. Any game that includes food interactions has to make decisions regarding which elements of the experience are critical to gameplay; the Fable series manages to address both bodily and worldly repercussions of eating, but primarily by cartoonifying them with its trademark irreverence. What would that kind of food interactivity look like in a game that took itself more seriously?


This post was written for the April 2016 Blogs of the Round Table at Critical Distance. If you want to read more about food in games, please check out the rest of the roundup!

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