Picture it: the land of Albion in the age of steam. Through the cobbled streets of its towns, crooked houses with slated roofs compete for the afternoon sun with angry eruptions of unlikely machinery, valves match steeples for control of the skyline, and oily goop drips into babbling brooks that run beside fields of already queasy sunflowers.
"You'll see new marvels of the industrial age, devices that the people of Albion are amazed by," enthuses art lead John McCormack. "Half of Bowerstone will be turned into this mass of pistons and steam and clockwork - everything's moving." You'll have to picture it for yourself at the moment, because these are early days for Fable III (a game which, even if it's a disaster, will probably go down in history as the best title ever accidentally announced on Twitter, by Jonathan Ross). Prototypes are up and running deep inside Lionhead's offices, but none of it's ready for the likes of us just yet, unless you're willing to move to Guildford, fake a CV and wing a job as an advanced AI programmer.
A recent chance to sit down with the designers and learn about the early stages of the game's development revealed no hints of Natal, no suggestions if the Milo experiments are bleeding in, no news on what's become of your dog or your trail of breadcrumbs, and no crazy schemes for online modes. The team is willing to give us a tantalising taste of what it is they want to do, but nobody's ready to reveal exactly how it's going to be done.
Instead, there are stories. Stories like this: Several months ago, no matter how many exactly, as Fable II was chugging nicely towards release, a small group gathered in a meeting room at Lionhead. They had come to decide what Fable III would be - and what it wouldn't be. It's a special moment for any game, but particularly poignant for this one: a series that hangs upon choices was having its own mechanics enacted in real life. Perhaps Peter Molyneux even kicked a chicken a good distance at some point during the discussion.
"We started to think about Fable III halfway through Fable II," says McCormack. "You're always thinking about the future, and because of the speed of the industry, you're trying to pre-empt any lag. You get to the end of a game, and hopefully you know what you're doing next already. It's really unfocused at this stage, though, because you don't want to tie yourself down too early. So what we do is we present Peter and the designers with a range of art, a range of things that Fable III could be - all the settings and eras and styles it could be. Anything that tickles your fancy. You put together what you think is a logical progression, but also what you think is a crazy progression, and let the designers and artists work together to choose the best one."
And what they chose, once again, is something of a mish-mash. "The entire Fable idea is a fairytale twist on European history and myth," says McCormack. "What we've settled on is to go about 50 years on from Fable II. So we've loosely chosen the Napoleonic period, and we've started to pull in a bit of Regency, a tiny bit of Victorian, and we're plugging in an early industrial age to Albion. It's a Napoleonic fairytale."
Ships and cannons and troops, metal and rivets and chattering pipework: Fable II was already a game built from details - anyone who ever stopped to watch the hot blast of animation thrown out whenever one of Albion's humble clockwork doors got ready to open will know that - and this tentatively mechanised environment is a proposition that sounds entirely fitting, even if it promises to significantly alter the familiar environments. "There's still a consistency," offers McCormack. "We never want to be photorealistic. The art style is: never put in straight lines, never use a right-angle, always break shades into opposing colours. There's rules within the art that hopefully turn it into a fairytale no matter where we go. I think we solidified the style with Fable II; with Fable III, we've nailed it.
"We've moved it forward. Think of the monsters: industrialisation has pushed the fairytale creatures underground, and to the edges of the forests. You'll go there, and they're still around, but they're not happy about it this time. Albion's still full of mystery and wonder, but it's more aggressive: the ancient creatures don't like to be shoved away."
The shift in period is not just an aesthetic choice, then: the landscape is telling a story, and the story itself is typically rooted in the series' fascinations with choices and morality. "There's some mad stuff coming in," laughs McCormack, unwittingly sketching designs in the air with his hand. "One of the main themes here is how the advancement of the new world is having an adverse effect on the beautiful lush environments of Albion. Industrialisation is changing Albion, and do you want to put a stop to that?"
Don't expect an easy decision, though: Lionhead isn't pretending that the wonders and horrors of the modern era aren't knotted tightly together. "We're interested in how industry can destroy nature, but also how it can create ships and balloons and cable-cars that take you farther afield and to other lands. It's about colonisation and travel as well. You're expanding the world by introducing industrialisation, but there's always that darker side, and that's war. You're producing war machines and militarising the population."
War? Sounds nasty. "I'm terrified," says Peter Molyneux, looking tanned, rested, and distinctly unterrified. "The third time out is tricky. This is where it could all go wrong." He leans back in his chair and spreads his arms wide, as if to show us there's nothing up his sleeves. "This is where it could all... go... wrong."
An auspicious start, but he's right, despite the familiar soft-spoken pantomime. The third time out is tricky, and Molyneux's not talking about another charity parachute jump, or a difficult internet follow-up date, but the next instalment in a vast, expensive, and rather divisive series. What he's getting at is that it's not just the art and the concerns inherent in the historical period that's changing this time around. "When you come to the third iteration what do you do?" he asks. "We've always wanted to surprise people with Fable. Hopefully you can see going from Fable I to II, we're getting slightly better at doing these things. Now we need to get better still. We need to raise the temperature, and inevitably entirely new mechanics play a part in that."
See the Future, the enigmatic puddle of DLC that reflected a fractured image of things to come earlier this year, hinted as much. Booting you forward to a period in Albion's history when you sat upon a throne and decided the fate of millions, many interpreted it as a major shift in genre. And while Lionhead isn't necessarily agreeing with that outright, it's prepared to offer some interesting hints at this unusually early stage of development.
So if this is Albion as you've never seen it before - caught between mechanised, inhuman progress and the bloomy rural dreaminess of the past - it's also Albion in a way you've never seen it before. And this is where the information starts to grow sparse. "When you think about a view of Albion you haven't had yet, looking down on it is a view you haven't had yet," suggests Josh Atkins, Fable III's lead designer - an American at the helm of perhaps the most English of games, but an American who helped out on parts I and II, and has also, y'know, worked for Miyamoto. "We're talking about being able to see more and influence more."
Atkins is quick to refine his vision slightly. "Fable is inherently the story of one person, remember. We have to have that narrative. It's not something we can get away from. All I can reveal at the moment is that we are working on a way to see the world with a wider view, so that you can directly influence large sections of the kingdom at any one time. But at its heart it's still a third-person action game." He laughs. "That experience of being able to directly change the world is something that would actually blend quite nicely with Fable, pulling the camera back a little and allowing you to see how you're changing things and what's going on."
To clarify further, if Fable II spent a lot of energy making you feel significant, Fable III aims to show you the challenges that come with power and influence. "We've played off of the end of the last game," says Atkins. "After you've saved the world, how would the world treat you? What would they think about you as a hero? We've always been thinking about morality with this series, but we started thinking about responsibility too. And what that turned into was this idea that, if we want your moral choices to have a much wider impact, what would happen if your Fable II hero had become king or queen? We played around with that and got quite excited. But we really wanted the game to have some kind of journey. Fable is always about the path from anonymity to greatness.
"So maybe you're not the Fable II hero, but maybe you're attached to them. Maybe something happened to your Fable II hero, and you have to right the wrong. Maybe you're their child. That gives us the best of everything: you never play your hero from the last game, but we will be looking at the decisions you made on that adventure, and referencing that - those decisions will carry through."
Perhaps it's a more natural evolution than it seems. "In Fable I there was a lot of heroes around - a whole college," says Molyneux, ticking off games on his fingers. "In Fable II, we used that 500-year gap to say that heroes had died out, and you were the only hero left. Part of your job was to rekindle the heroes and bring them together. How can we play with that again? Then there's the choices and consequences thing: we're getting better, but some people still say, 'It's nice to have choices, but what did it really mean to the world?' So what we've come up with is a game where a good portion of the adventure is you going on this journey towards being the ruler of the land. You're earning that right. And what's interesting about that journey is you can take the notion of choices and consequences as almost being promises.
"What promises are you going to make to become ruler, and then how many of those promises are you going to keep? You can see with Tony Blair and Obama that it's very easy to make promises and be a rebel. If Che Guevara had lived to deliver on his promises, if he had ruled, would he have been that wonderful amazing person? There's many examples in history of rebels who once they get power, they go bad a bit. This time in Fable, you're not a hero whose only power is in his sword. There's a certain point in the game where you have the power to rule, so how are you going to use that?"
That certainly explains why Che suddenly popped up on Lionhead's website the other week - drat, no Cuban Dungeon Keeper sequel just yet - but it's a direction that raises as many questions as it answers. Is Fable III going to lurch suddenly from one style of game to another? "Bringing in ruling the land is one of the big changes," admits head of franchise Louise Murray, who's job is to make sure that every decision fits in with Lionhead's vision of where Fable is going. "How we present that, and the mechanics of how you interact with that is certainly one of the game's big challenges."
So is the life simulation aspect of Fable taking a step forward? "Absolutely," says Murray. "We're making the sim elements more accessible, and making them a part of the story properly. We are still having Fablesque stuff, however: if you want to drill down into the sim activities and that alone, it's still an option, but hopefully most players will be more exposed to the sim element of it in the first place - but not at the cost of distracting from the adventure. Getting that balance is something we iterate on. It's like combat - it's a fundamental piece of the game, but how do you bring that in, without making it just a combat game?"
It's when she mentions combat, calling to mind Fable II's easy pleasures of wading into a gaggle of bandits without a care in the world - certainly without pondering how the bandits impacted Albion's economy and whether a sword through the brain was a smart political idea - that it becomes apparent how much Fable is in flux. Maybe the forums were right, and the series is becoming an RTS - hardly a reach for Lionhead, after all.
The team is adamant that that's not the case, but with its mix of third-person action and that wider, loftier perspective it sounds like a variation on that theme - it sounds a little, in fact, like Don's View, the RTS metagame that briefly defibrillated Godfather II. At the mention of that, Atkins, polite as he is, can barely suppress a brutal wince and a sound that, after several attempts at transcribing, is probably best conveyed as "Nyaarrrggff."
"It's different than that," he adds quickly. "It's very different. Let's imagine you're the leader of a town in Fable, people come to you and say, 'We have this disagreement, what do you think we should do?' and you can say, 'I think this person's right.' But then imagine someone comes and says, 'Oh my God, there's a farmer outside of town and he's doing something horrible.' That's not a situation where you can just decide who's right or wrong. This is actually a guy who's killing people - what do you do? It's about making the tasks you're faced with evolve throughout the game and become more elaborate and demanding."
Murray agrees. "Things like the combat are still core ideals, and we're always going to try and make the game be what you want it to be. If you want to continue on that level, that's likely to be an option. What we're really passionate about is creating more drama, and relationships with other characters that are meaningful to you. So we don't want it to turn into an RTS. You won't see that. It's about keeping the journey very personal and emotional: you'll never lose that perspective. We're an adventure game with extras. We almost want to get away from the RPG tag, and we definitely don't want the RTS tag. It's about you doing things in the world, and that having meaning."
"When you're in power it's still very personal," adds Molyneux who, after all, should know a little about this. "Rulers don't stand on a big balcony and dictate what happens. Rulers are surrounded by people telling them they need to go here and do this and do that. Power's a very intimate thing in this game. The interesting thing is that one of the resources is you: what you're choosing to do is very important. What will you do, what will you deputise? You have to pick your battles and pick your time."
At the moment, with almost everything still under wraps, it's hard to know exactly how to interpret what Lionhead has in mind, although, rightly or wrongly - and let's face it, probably wrongly - the game that sticks in my head most of all throughout my afternoon with the team isn't Black & White or Command & Conquer so much as Little King's Story - an active spin on panoramic strategy with a lot of personality.
Personality: after all, that's the riddle of Fable. Despite - or possibly because - of the blank canvas of your hero, personality is the vital element that makes all the clever ideas come alive, the simple, yet elusive, key to this particular kingdom. For all its ambitions and epic scope, Fable has long been a close-up series, the defining moment coming when you click in the stick to take a nice long look at who you've become, trying to remember where you got so many scars, who gave you those Fat Elvis shades, and the choices that turned you such a malignant, rotting shade of blue.
As any real-world ruler would probably tell you - if you could fight your way through the ranks of security minders and babbling staffers - the grander your intentions, the bigger the risks. For a company named after a hamster, Lionhead doesn't have a history of thinking small; I'm glad to report that it doesn't appear to have picked up a taste for it in the last year or so either.