Legible Bodies in Fable II

So I’m running through Bowerstone market having just rescued some slaves from captivity, and I’m feeling pretty awesome and heroic.  A villager yells at me as I pass him: “Hey! Where are you going fatty?”  I stop running and I turn around, shocked.  Did the game just call me fat? Later I’m alone in my house and I unequip all of my clothes.  I examine my character’s body, positioning the camera so that I can get a good look at myself.  Wow, I really have put on some weight, I think.  Must have been all of those pies.

In the smash-hit action RPG Fable II, eating pies or drinking beer will make you gain weight at an alarming rate.  A quick Google search yields a glut of articles that are startlingly reminiscent of those ubiquitous acai berry ads: “Lose Weight Fast in Fable 2 with these three easy steps!”

In almost all video games, the body that you begin with is the body that you end with.  This is not so in Fable II.  Since your digital body is constantly in flux, you are often reminded of the presence of your real, physical body.  While I was playing Fable II I came to identify with my avatar’s body to a greater degree than I would with most games, and this was because I was continually aware of my onscreen and offscreen bodies.  I had a moment where I felt like the “hey fatty” comment was directed at me the player.  It was jarring and uncomfortable.

Even more problematic than the way weight is handled, however, is the character morphing system.

Evil Neutral; skin color is actually related to corruption/purity more than good/evil

For those who aren’t familiar with the game, character morphing is Lionhead’s alternative to a character creation mechanic.  When the game begins, you are only given one choice: male or female.  You are given a generic body.  As the game progresses, though, your character‘s appearance changes based on his or her alignment.  Alignment is based on your actions and rated on two scales: good versus evil and corrupt versus pure.  An evil, corrupt character will have brown skin, bright red scars, prominent horns and green eyes.  A good, pure character will have a light complexion, glowing teeth, blue eyes, blonde hair and a halo.  These are the two extremes.  Combining different levels of corruption and morality can produce many interesting results.  Additionally, as you choose a path for skill development, other physical changes occur.  If you decide to focus on melee attacks and improve your strength, your character becomes more burly and mannish.  Improving your shooting accuracy increases your height, and learning magic causes your character to become covered with glowing blue tattoos.

Good Pure.

What I find most disturbing in all of this is that morality in Fable II is legibly written in the shape and color of the digital body.  Actions and appearance are made synonymous. An evil character looks evil and a good character looks good.    If you appear sinister, it’s because you’ve done terrible things like sacrifice people at the Temple of Shadows.  If you appear pure it’s because you’ve been rescuing slaves and charging your tenants fair prices.  In this game, therefore, judging someone based on their looks is no different from judging them on their actions.

If you are good and pure, you will develop handsome Aryan features.  Brown skin is associated with corruption and demonism.  Light skin is associated with purity. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this racism?

Evil Corrupt.

In my mind, not only is this game racist, it provides a tacit justification for racism.  I don’t think that the designers of this game intended to make it racist.  This is another iteration of a much older and deeper cultural prejudice—a Western tradition in which angels are white and evil has black skin.   In The Lion King, the evil lion Scar has much darker fur than all of the good lions.  It’s the same sort of thing.

There is no divide between body and self in the Fable II hero; what you look like is who you are.  By equating body and self, Fable II brings the player’s conception of her body to the front of her mind.  It invites you to wonder: what does your body say about your actions and morality?  What character traits are readable in the human form?

Next post: my life as a transsexual lesbian in Albion

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26 Comments

  1. From Joystiq:

    “Molyneux also explained earlier in the panel that weapons directly affect a character’s appearance as well. He noted that many players, particularly women, didn’t like the way that character morphing was handled in Fable 2. Specifically, he stated that women didn’t like that leveling up their strength resulted in characters that looked like “1970s Russian shot-putters.” In Fable 3, character morphing is based entirely on a player’s actions. Use heavy weapons like hammers and you’ll get big and beefy. Use more guns and you’ll become taller and lither. Eat food and you’ll gain weight.”

    How is that any different from Fable 2?

    http://www.joystiq.com/2010/03/11/peter-molyneux-explains-fable-3-menu-morphing-systems/

    Reply
  2. tokyojesusfist

     /  May 21, 2010

    In Western culture, white is associated with good and black is associated with evil. The skin color is simply a reflection of that. It has nothing to do with race or racism, and the game does not provide any justification for racism. You are simply manufacturing controversy out of whole cloth. You are no better than Jack Thompson.

    Reply
    • Except people in real life are black, and have no greater disposition to evil or good than white people. If turning black when you do evil things and white when you do good things isn’t racism, I don’t know what is.

      Reply
      • In real life we’re taught not to judge a person based on their appearence. Games are all about visual feedback – how something looks is a game indicator, tells you what to expect or how to play.

        Now it’s not intentionally racist, I’m sure, but ’tis a very murky area when you are using a character’s appearence as a direct feedback indicator in a game.

  3. This blog software doesn’t let me reply deeper than 3 levels, which is annoying.

    Just because it’s not intentionally racist (I’m positive it was not intentional, or the idea of racism ever came up in the first place) doesn’t mean it isn’t racist.

    Reply
    • Hi Morgan! That was a reply @tokyojesusfist rather than you. Never quite sure which level of Reply button to hit… don’t want to hit the one which launches the nukes.

      Reply
  4. I think that Morgan and HM are saying the same thing here, and I agree with both of them. As you’ll notice in my article, Tokyojesusfist, after saying that the game is racist I go on to say “this is another iteration of a much older and deeper cultural prejudice—a Western tradition in which angels are white and evil has black skin.” I don’t think that Peter Molyneux is any more racist than I am, and I don’t think that people are going to become racist because they play Fable II, or anything silly like that. Unlike Jack Thompson, I believe that people can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Also unlike Jack Thompson, I am totally pro adult content in games, especially when it’s used in interesting ways. But that has nothing to do with this.

    The main point that I wanted to make when I wrote this a few months ago was that Fable 2 is weird because it equates body with action. It presents a world in which every aspect of what you look like is due to things that you have done. This is *unlike* the real world, because out here, people might get fat if they overeat, but they won’t get black skin if they murder people. Fable backs away from all of this because the player character is the only one who morphs based on her actions. Let’s imagine if everyone did. “My,” I could say, “that guy is black. He must kill innocent people and steal shit!”

    It’s all more complicated than I indicated in my article, though. For instance: freeing slaves makes you less evil, and therefore more white. Helping out slavers makes you more evil, and therefore more black. How’s that for irony?

    And oddly enough, despite writing two somewhat negative pieces about it, I really enjoyed Fable 2. I think that it’s fun to grapple with issues like this, because it teaches us things about ourselves.

    Reply
    • Durandana

       /  September 18, 2010

      First, I need to point out that the article above really mislabels the dark skin from being corrupt/evil. Your character doesn’t turn “brown” in the least, they turn black. As in true black. It’s mentioned you get red cracks in your skin – you look like you’re made of lava and your skin is the layer of cooled rock on top of it. Your character’s supposed to look English no matter what you do.

      Also, pure/evil characters have porcelain white skin. Helping slavers would be evil, not corrupt, so it actually makes you skin whiter. If anything, corruption turning you dark implies black people are rich and greedy, which isn’t a stereotype I’m familiar with.

      And finally, the game world isn’t like that in general. The big bad and your one evil ally are both normal-looking upper class white guys. The one black main character is a good guy. It’s only the player character whose appearance reflects his morality. Claiming this is a whole world where people can truly be judged on their appearance makes me think you didn’t even bother to play the game and are making assumptions based on screenshots you found online.

      Reply
      • Hi Durandana. Thanks for stopping by.

        You know, I’m not particularly pleased with this article anymore, because I think that it makes sweeping claims without doing enough to justify and qualify them.

        I did play the game through to the end, but I only played it once. (In another article on this site I have video footage from the end of the game to prove it!) I have a crippling inability to play evil players in games for some reason, so my man (who later became a woman) was pure/good–blue-eyed and blonde-haired for most of the game. So you’re right in a way; many of my assumptions about skin-color were based on screenshots that I found online.

        But hey, in the comment that you replied to, I said: “Fable backs away from all of this because the player character is the only one who morphs based on her actions.”

        You’re right about the evil/good corrupt/pure dichotomies and what they do to your skin color. I was aware of this as well, as the caption on the first indicates: “skin color is actually related to corruption/purity more than good/evil.” I wish that I hadn’t included that penultimate paragraph, since the skin color system is much more complex than I implied.

        I still think that what I said in my closing paragraph holds, regardless of whether or not the game is racist: “There is no divide between body and self in the Fable II hero [for the player character]; what you look like is who you are. By equating body and self, Fable II brings the player’s conception of her body to the front of her mind. It invites you to wonder: what does your body say about your actions and morality? What character traits are readable in the human form?”

  5. Anonymous

     /  July 19, 2011

    all i can do is wonder at how you can bring racism into a game like fable…yes if you are good you look really light skinned and have a halo over your head…ask yourself. you ever see a picture of an angel with cracked brown skin and an evil look on his face? cuz i have not. then ask yourself pertaining to the evil character…you ever seen a devil with bright skin and a smile? no. he always has horns, evil complexion, and a child molester smile…deal with it its just a damn game

    Reply
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