What makes you attached to an NPC – their function or their form? The death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII was a narrative gut punch, but it was Square’s audacious decision to rob you of a mid-level healer that truly made her passing a literal loss, one measured in lost experience points and wasted time. On the other hand, in Fable II Lionhead attempted to make us care about an NPC more than we ever had. But did you care about the dog because of its behaviour, animation and canine convincingness? Or because it was a useful four-legged tool?
Fable II’s dog is the Hero’s closest friend, their stalwart companion and adorable ally. It’s a mirror of the Hero themselves, turning dark and shaggy should the player guide their champion down the path of wickedness, but sporting the glossiest coat, brightest eyes and wettest nose in all of Albion should they remain good-hearted and pure. But for all that Peter Molyneux insisted on selling the dog as a revolution in videogame storytelling, it’s a direct and natural descendant of another NPC: Navi, Link’s often irksome fairy companion from Ocarina Of Time.
When the Deku Tree bestowed Navi upon Link it wasn’t really marking the young foundling’s acceptance amongst the Kokiri, it was handing over a tool for navigating a 3D world. Navi’s habit of flying over to key points of interest within Hyrule was a trait thoroughly bred into Fable’s four-legged friend, which would bark, snuffle and scratch at otherwise unmarked buried treasure across Albion’s newly opened-out lands and growl when enemies came near.
In a way, Fable II’s dog provides the perfect compromise between the overtly functional nature of Navi and the major scripting and AI headache that would have been introduced had Lionhead attempted to work a human sidekick into the game. The dog’s more alive, more animated, independent and adorable than Navi ever was, but it’s still a dog, and as such much more immune to the uncanny valley effect than Albion’s humanoid inhabitants. You’re more likely to forgive repeated barks when they’re coming from a dog, and it’s easier to dismiss the occasional inscrutable, perhaps even misfiring, AI routine as illogical yet natural animal behaviour.
Even now, the dog’s animation and behaviour is beautifully convincing. It’s a scurrying, boundless ball of energy, this mutt, of indeterminate breed (unless you download some DLC) but border collie intelligence, with an astonishing array of tricks, from the believable rollover all the way to suspension-of-disbelief-pushing backflips.
Compare Fable’s dog to Fallout 3’s Dogmeat and you’ll instantly know which puppy you want to take home. The Fallout engine’s insistence on forcing you to interact with Dogmeat via the usual NPC conversation menu instantly makes your interactions seem stilted and formal – jokey even. The game’s clunking animations, meanwhile, are never more seriously exposed than when Dogmeat robotically attempts to pathfind his way around a cluttered room. Fable’s dog moves naturalistically and has been brought to life with a panting, tongue-lolling attention to detail.
Crucially, you never control the dog directly, a decision which may end up making Call Of Duty: Ghosts’ much-heralded Riley feel less like an autonomous yet loyal ally and more of a tool at your disposal. The illusion that the dog remains separate to you is strong in Fable: it bounds far and wide when given the room to explore, picks grounded enemies to finish off at its own leisure, and can even go missing for minutes at a time before its barks draw your attention to a seemingly innocuous patch of earth you need to dig up. It’s separate yet influenced by you – and its increasingly good or bad behaviour (in conjunction with your own) reminds players that their decisions have an impact on others.
And then, after building a friendship that lasts the length of the game, the dog dies. The moment when your companion takes a bullet for you is choreographed with Hollywood-style melodrama, but it sets up the toughest moral decision in the series to date. Fable has always concerned itself with choices, but really only between good and evil. Fable II lets people choose to be weak.
Save the day in Fable II and the following, cartoonishly stark dilemma is presented to you: bring a bunch of the villains’ victims back to life, or receive one million gold. Easy, right? Except there’s a third choice, a rarity in Fable’s binary world: you can forgo the gold, and the thousands of lost souls, to bring your dog back to life.
It’s a heartbreaking snare, forcing you to choose between the ‘right’ thing and your emotional connection to that furry bundle of unconditional love. It wouldn’t work if Fable II hadn’t succeeded in forging an emotional bond between the player and their canine friend. Yet the emotional impact of the decision is undermined by the dog’s material purpose: forgo its return and you’ll never find every piece of buried treasure in Albion, meaning practical concerns get muddled with what should be a strictly emotional decision.
The dog was so useful that Lionhead let players revive it in the game’s first major DLC expansion, brutally undermining the ending and cheapening the player’s sacrifice. It’s a case study in narrative bumping up against design. With the dog, Lionhead finally made us care. But it also gave us a friend too useful to lose.