I am skulking in the shadows, lurking in a back alley of a particularly unsavory city. I am a bold and brave adventurer, well-armed and heavily scarred. I fear nothing. Adoring citizens shout my name as I make my way through town, regarding me with a mix of awe and reverence. But I am not being heroic at this moment. I am not on a quest, fighting an evil foe or even upgrading my gear for the next encounter. In this moment, as the sun slowly arcs across the brightening sky, I am waiting impatiently for the vegetable vendor to open up his stall so that I can buy some celery. Because in addition to being godlike and unstoppable, I am also very, very fat.
There are many ways to heal yourself in Fable 2, such as sleeping in a bed or quaffing a potion, but the easiest way is to simply eat something. All sorts of comestibles are at your disposal – everything from pie to fish to tofu to beer – and all of it will refill your health bar to some extent. As a general rule of thumb, the tastier the meal, the better you feel after gobbling it down. A crisp carrot will net you a mere handful of hit points, while munching on a pie will have you back to fighting shape in no time. My fighter, being the type to run headlong into danger, has inhaled more than her fair share of pies and as a result is looking rather doughy around her midsection. Which is why I’m waiting in this alley like a junkie trying to score her next fix: The nearby produce stall is one of the few in all of Albion that sells celery, which will help slim my character down to a more acceptable size.
Not acceptable by the game’s standards, mind you. This extra heft doesn’t prevent her from swinging her sword with wild abandon, or even from breaking countless hearts as she strolls through town. She’s a wonder, a force of nature, a heroine of truly epic proportions (both figuratively and literally). The game couldn’t care less that she’s plus-sized. But I do.
From a gamer’s perspective, I appreciate the mechanic that wolfing down healing items in Fable 2 has consequences. You need look no further than Pac-Man to know that bellying up to the digital buffet has long been a staple of videogames. Cherries, ice cream, chicken, apples, sushi, chocolate, curry, cake – you name it, we’ve stuffed it in our virtual maws with nary a thought for nutritional value or calorie count. And why not? Videogame food is magical – how else can you explain that eating it can cure bullet holes and broken bones? In the world of gaming, you can cheat death, carry an entire armory’s worth of guns and ammo on your person and eat until your sides burst without ever gaining an ounce.
Except in Fable 2, that is, where indulging in pie might save your life, but at a cost to your waistline. Cause and effect is actually a key part of the game’s design. Choices have consequences: If you’re the kind of person who rescues villagers, you’ll earn a halo and a saintly glow, but if you sacrifice them to a dark god instead, you’ll grow horns and draw flies. Wear too much makeup and your spouse will find you less attractive; fall too many times in battle, and you’ll wind up covered in hideous scars. Not that the game is going for realism, exactly. I’m pretty sure that if even all my sword-swinging and Balverine-slaying didn’t keep me slim and trim, being forced to schlep back and forth across Albion on foot would. Still, I respect that the game is trying to make me consider the consequences of my actions, even if in a lighthearted manner.
Logically, analytically, I get it – but I’m still stuck with my tubbo of a hero waiting for a vegetable stall to open. Because while I’ll deal with the scars my adventures have thrust upon me, I’m not going to stay fat if I can help it. Perhaps it’s vain to place so much importance on how good my fighter looks in her corset and thigh-high boots, but I am unapologetic. If I’m going to be heroic, I want to look the part, and a muffin top definitely does not fit into that picture.
I can see the merchant finally making his way up the hill toward his stall, slowly dragging one foot after the other, sighing at the thought of another long day shilling his limp, watery wares. I might feel sympathy for him if I didn’t have problems of my own. My conscience chooses this moment to remind me that I didn’t have to eat all those damn pies to heal myself. I could’ve eaten healthier food, taken potions, gotten a good night’s sleep at any one of my many houses or even just been more careful in battle. But potions are expensive, apples don’t provide nearly enough hit points and a good night’s sleep is hard to come by in the middle of a fight. Eating pie is just so easy and convenient – and besides, what mighty warrior eats tofu?
My wiser self smiles at how cheekily Fable 2 handles food, but my other self, the one that’s slightly foolish and maybe just a bit sullen, feels victimized. I’ve been indiscriminately eating my way through games for decades, and now I’m expected to pay attention to calorie content? When I’m a whisker’s breadth away from pushing up daisies, I’m supposed to pause and reflect on the nutritional value of my healing options? Am I really being asked to pay attention to the food pyramid while I’m out saving the world? Seriously?
Only if you want your character to stay slim and trim comes the swift and knowing reply from my know-it-all conscience. Stop giving in to pangs of digital vanity, and you can eat whatever you want without pause or regret. And therein lies the rub: I’m not being forced to do anything. I can still be an all-powerful hero, rich beyond measure, with a spouse in every town; I can, in fact, be a champion in every single way the game measures success. I’ll just be fat. If I can’t live with that, well, it’s not the game’s fault, now is it?
Maybe not Fable 2‘s fault, no, but perhaps just about every other game that’s featured a hero with abs of steel and lungs of iron. Part of the fantasy – that one where you’re strong enough, clever enough and brave enough to save the day – is that you’re also perfect, and fair or not, we’ve been taught that “perfect” means having a hyper-idealized body. Perhaps I should applaud Fable 2 for doing its part to remind me that champions can come in any size or shape and that heroism knows no weight limit. I certainly don’t hold people in real life to the same standards I do my avatars.
But that’s the whole point: Videogames aren’t supposed to be real life. They exist to let us escape the bonds of normal existence and be something more, something better than what we really are. And yet here I am taking a break from adventuring to uphold the strict requirements of my bloody diet. Something, somewhere, has gone awry.
Games are escapism, certainly, but some aspects of real life are easier to escape than others. Not that I have time to ponder the deeper implications of that conundrum just now. The vendor has finally shown up, the vegetable stall is open, and I have celery to eat.
Susan Arendt has been known to bake some seriously delicious lemon macadamia cookies in between bouts of videogame adventuring.