Love it or hate it, the original Fable was a game sold on massive promises that didn’t quite get fulfilled. An over-enthusiastic Peter Molyneux promised the moon at E3 2003, and delivered just slivers of it. An unprecedented level of immersion was teased, a trend that Molyneux keeps promising and failing on to this day. and IGN even declared after E3 that the game “may end up as the greatest RPG of all time.”
To say the original Fable was a disappointment upon release is an understatement. While fun in its own right, the game was not much more than a standard RPG with some interesting details and changes. Combat was overly-simple, progess was extremely linear, and the story was generic. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the game, though, was what didn’t actually exist.
It didn’t take Xbox owners long to realize that the game they received was nowhere near the one teased by Monlyneux and Lionhead Studios in the years leading up to its release. To remedy this, many of them took to scour the game’s code for hints at what could have been. One of the most famous, and widely searched for, were hints of a dragon and its lair, the Northern Wastes.
Various Fable and gaming communities scrambled to piece together the scattered code and eventually came to a few conclusions. For one, the movements, attack patterns, and even the sounds that could easily be applied to a dragon were found within the game’s first mini-boss – a queen bee. This queen bee flew around as a dragon might, dove like a dragon would attack, and helped push forward the speculation that a dragon was indeed planned for the game, if it wasn’t already in there.
Code for the Northern Wastes, and even a way to get to the island lair, were also discovered. By performing a maneuver called “back shoveling” players were able to clip through walls in the game’s northern-most city, Hook Coast, across the open ocean and eventually wind up in Northern Wastes. For adventurous gamers dying for any hint of a dragon to be in the game they so desperately wanted to love, the location was an eerie, exciting tomb. The entire thing was almost completely finished right down to textures and working fires as if the dragon had burned the place and left. Considering it required a glitch and there was seemingly nothing in the actual game hinting to any kind of dragon, it was safe to assume it just a scrapped location that the developers never removed – but that didn’t stop anyone from trying.
Sadly, no matter how much prying and looking and digging and glitching were done, no dragon was ever found.
One thing to note about what made the search for the dragon, as well as the secrets you are about to read, so fascinating were the communities built around Fable and gaming itself. It wasn’t quite like today, where every game just has a sub-reddit, social media presence, or other centralized community based around it. Instead there were entire sites dedicated to games complete with forums hunting for these secrets. Sure, sites like this still exist today obviously, but it was much more fractured just a decade ago.
FableSector (now defunct), HDTVArcade, Neoseeker, the official Fable forums, and dozens more were all searching for the hidden secrets that everyone wanted buried in the game. All spread out across the internet and eventually passing information between them as common forum members would post to their other internet homes what they had found. Following the rabbit hole of links of forum members talking about the hoax that exist today almost always leads to a dead end: usually to a non-functioning link on the official Xbox forums.
Undeniably the most popular and interesting event was known as “The Better Bard Hoax.” Between the Fable forum on Xbox.com and the official forums on Lionhead’s own website, a user going by the name The Better Bard was continually posting stanzas of a poem that promised something big was yet to be discovered in Fable.
Whoever was the one behind the hoax did a great job feeding into the desire that fans had for Fable to be more than it was: with threads titled “One week later, a treat for faithful players,” loaded with teasers of great hidden weapons and locations including the dragon. Right off the bat, The Better Bard’s first post tugged at players’ yearning for something hidden beneath the run-of-the-mill RPG that we were given.
‘Neath a shady tree nearby the Glade,
Lies a secret that you know we’ve made.
‘Tis the key to more adventures great,
For those of you who simply cannot wait.
A statue ticks away the time of day,
The mighty arm outstretched doth point the way.
When clouds are none and sun shines bright and true,
That’s the time to try to find the clue.
In a Northern land so far from home,
You may wish to go and freely roam
For if one looks in just the right place,
Thou shalt see that which possesses grace.
The mighty beast of old is not just lore,
And if you’re interested in hearing more,
This challenge I do give both here and now:
Tell me what you found beneath the bough.
Posted on September 21st, this one little poem set off a firestorm of communities coming together to try and find this supposed treat. Being that this random new member on the official forums popped up and posted this with absolutely no confirmation from Lionhead or Microsoft, the first several pages of his thread were nothing but bickering about whether or not this Better Bard was real, or just someone messing with them.
The Better Bard smartly kept up with responses to his riddle, always dropping clues or other tidbits within them. Unfortunately, no matter how much digging and drudging I did in my attempt to find the original threads, they are nowhere to be found. The official Xbox forums have killed them off in favor of new games, and even archive.org didn’t manage to capture the thread in time. But from The Better Bard’s responses alone (which were copy and pasted to other sites such that were following his clues, such as IGN) we can see the curiosity that this sparked within the (at the time) massive Fable fanbase.
The empty panel is most curious,
Its lack of art doth make you furious.
For this we heartily apologize;
It soon shall bear a nice treat for your eyes.
It’s clear whoever was behind The Better Bard hoax quickly learned the game and what mysteries would generate the most attention. At the time, Fable had not even been out a month but the virtual poet was already hitting on things that a typical player might completely skim over. That’s honestly what made the whole phenomenon kick off and be so interesting to follow – he managed to take seemingly innocuous things and make you really wonder if there could be more. In the above stanza, for instance, he mentions an empty panel in the wall of motifs in Fable’s Chamber of Fate. These paintings would essentially follow the main hero as he went about his journey and appear to mark his triumphs. Defeat a major boss? It would be a painting. Get married? It would be a painting? But what could that blank painting be?
As it turns out – nothing. As far as the original Fable is concerned, that picture would never be filled in and it was never intended to be. But take one fanbase desperate for some cool secrets and a rhyming forum poster who is convincingly acting like he knows about a few, and you have a recipe for a furious and passionate investigation. He did this same thing again with another stanza that mentioned “a lady in Bowerstone,” which many assumed to be Lady Grey. Her dialogue in the game was always obtuse and often left out large chunks of information, and The Better Bard took full advantage of that.
Even his name – The Better Bard – was a brilliant way to legitimize the hoax, as it heavily referenced an unresolved loose end in the game. Bards were scattered throughout the fictional land of Albion who, if you paid them a pretty penny, would sing tales of your adventures (and misadventures). When your achievements became just too much for any simple bard to portray, one singing poet in particular will tell you “You need to find a better bard.”
Again, just like the empty painting slot, it’s a detail that completely worked without explanation. The quote is simply a bard telling you that a better skilled bard is required, and it could easily be taken as a joke to note that the writers ran out of things to make them sing or you are near the end of the game. But you once again take a rhyming forum poster with the name “The Better Bard” and it all starts to connect despite the fact that there is really nothing there.
Unfortunately, it was revealed just two days after The Better Bard posted his initial poem that the entire thing was a hoax. He quickly broke from his poetic writing and explained that he was nothing but a huge Fable fan who was also wanting more from the game and decided to add it in his own way. While this exact intersection between reality and gaming was nothing but a hoax, the idea of it all is not anything particularly new. Boiling the entire thing down to its most basic parts, The Better Bard Hoax was essentially an Alternate Reality Game. These have been used in video games dating back to 1993 with a game called Ong’s Hat, which spread a series of fake conspiracy theories related to itself over the internet.
Where The Better Bard Hoax differs of course, is that it was entirely the work of one bored fan with a penchant for writing above-average poetry. His ruse only lasted two days tops – save for communities that either didn’t hear that it was a hoax, or refused to believe it and kept searching to no avail – but it left quite an imprint on me and a lot of other Fable fans at the time.
Whoever this Better Bard was, he completely changed the way I looked at Fable and video games in general. No longer are minute details just something that gets looked over. Surface level secrets are never enough anymore, there must always be something deeper. Sure, it leads to a lot of disappointment when that shifty looking plant is indeed just a plant that got textured incorrectly, but especially in Fable and its sequels, it adds an eerie layer of mystery on everything. Just the idea that what you are seeing is not actually all there is, is endlessly fascinating to me.
For me personally, this fascination eventually transferred into reading video game creepy copy pastas such as Herobrine, Pokemon Black, Ben Drowned, and many others.
Another unfortunate side effect of the entire hoax is that it was so convincing that it created a large amount of animosity when the big reveal happened. As I stated before, there were literally dozens of separate communities passionately searching and hanging on every word of The Better Bard. They would often get defensive and argue with the nay-sayers (who eventually turned out to be right, of course). So when it was actually revealed to be a big lie, those who didn’t believe it all along were quick to point fingers and laugh at those who did. I can’t prove it of course, but I would suspect that’s one of the biggest reasons why this alternate reality game hoax mostly disappeared off the face of the internet.
It may have only been a decade ago, but even then it was not a time when everything on the internet was constantly archived, copy and pasted, and saved forever – at least not to the point that it is today. There was no super-popular reddit to shoot the story up to the front page, and no major social media networks around to share it. Its reach, while massive within the Fable community, never managed to get to anyone else, really. That lack of solid archiving combined with the fact that anyone who believed the hoax was instantly shamed lead a lot of people to stop talking about it after it happened. It wasn’t shared or saved, it only lasted two days, and no one talked about it almost instantly after it ended. Every now and then something will pop up on a forum or on Steam asking “hey anyone remember that Fable hoax?” but it ends there.
All of that is what makes this hoax so interesting to me, even more so than legitimate AR campaigns. It was two days that took a small sect of the internet by storm then it was gone and over in a flash. In the end, fans mostly got the Fable game they wanted when Fable: The Lost Chapters came out years later. It included the dragon, among other missing features that fans were promised or wanted. Just like anything else you want for such a long time though, the end result was mostly a disappointment (especially how the dragon was implemented into the story), but it was still interesting to see the dragon we had all been searching for for so long finally make an appearance.
If anyone else is able to track down more information on the hoax or, most importantly, the original threads, I’d be more than happy to take a look and even do a follow-up article on this fascinating yet quickly forgotten little piece of gaming lore. The link to his original confession (all the way on page 185 of the thread) is supposedly this, but of course it links to a 404 page on the new Xbox forums.
So I ask the question that pops up on random gaming forums every couple of months: Do you remember The Better Bard?